York’s streets often confuse tourists who mispronounce the many unique-sounding locations where the difference between bars, gates and locals telling them to walk through the wall are the least of their worries.
It is often-quoted that York is the city where the pubs are bars, bars are gates and the gates are streets, but how many of us who walk these streets every have actually stopped and wondered why they have such strange-sounding and often inexplicable place names? Whilst on the subject, have we Yorkshire-folk ever stopped to analyse our dialect and understand why we speak like we do?
York’s Viking heritage is no secret, though the marauding Scandinavians left us more influence than we credit them for, not least with place names, dialect and slang.
First and foremost it’s known that streets in York, and other northern cities are often referred to as ‘gates’ which is due to an old Nordic word for street which is still present in every modern Scandinavian language; gade in Danish, gatan in Swedish or gata in Norwegian. A walk in any Scandinavian settlement today will present these words to you as often as ‘street’ will in this country.
Vikings used descriptive words and the professions of people nearby as landmarks to name their roads; Blossom Street is a place famous for its traffic and spectacular lack of any type of tree that blossoms. Vikings however named the place Ploxwangate, meaning the ‘street of the plough repair man’ which later evolved to its current form. Likewise Skeldergate was named after shield-makers who inhabited this area and Kopparigat, otherwise known as Coppergate, described a street containing Joiners. Interestingly, and worryingly so for those of you who live in the Ogleforth area, this is thought to be ancient descriptive Scandinavian meaning ‘a ford haunted by an owl’, and Feasegate derives bizarrely from Fe-Hus-Gate, or Cow House Street.
Coney Street you would assume is a relatively new name, reflective of the many newer buildings that have been constructed, but it has been traced back yet again to Viking times where the same route’s name was derived from the Viking konungra meaning king, and later changed with time to Cuninstrata, or King Street. Our very own River Foss is thought to have been named after the Old Norse word fors meaning waterfalls or rapids whilst Micklegate, now often associated with the ‘livelier’ side of York, derives its name quite boringly from the Old Norse mikkel, meaning large.
Language meanwhile continues to evolve currently with more and more Americanisms creeping into our lexicon. Rewind over one-thousand years and this was no different to the Vikings, where the ancient super power exerted equal influence on how we speak today.
If you’re from the Harrogate area you may have described your school lunch-box as bait, not knowing that beit is the Norse word for the act of feeding. You may have been a bairn larking about before your bait and be blissfully unaware that barn means child and leika to play. Children like you had a habit of getting spells (spjelke) in their hands from bits of wood, and would often gawp (gapa) at strange looking people and flit (flytja) from one activity to the next. Saying ‘arse’ may well have landed you in trouble at school, but with hindsight you may have responded by informing your teacher that ars actually is how Old Norse described the rear end of a cart.
York’s Viking history today attracts millions of visitors each year and is celebrated each year by the Jorvik Viking Festival in February, but we can often overlook the impact these settlers had on our place and street names and language. Even though they only ruled for three-hundred years their legacy has lived on and today you’re probably more Viking, or more influenced by them, than you think you are.
And that’s not to mention the Romans, Saxons or the Normans. As King George VI put it; ‘The history of York is the history of England’.