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Brittonic Language in the Old North

cömbröɣ (m pl)

Indo-European *morĝ- > Early Celtic *mrogī- > British *com- (<Indo-European *ko[m], see *cöμar) -brogī-, cf Gaulish  brogā-, > Old Welsh (Book of Llandaff) plural cymry > Middle-Modern Welsh Cymry; adopted in Middle Irish as combrecc, see below.

On the etymology of this and related Welsh words, see E Hamp in ÉtCelt19 (1982), pp143-9, and P Schriver Studies in British Celtic Phonology (1995), p133.

The root meant primarily ‘a boundary’, cf Latin margo ‘a margin, a boundary’, Germanic *markō- > OE(Ang) merc > ‘mark’, Old Norse mǫrk (and Germanic *markam Old Norse mark ‘a landmark’). This developed in the Celtic languages as Middle-Modern Welsh bro, Old Irish mruig > Middle Irish bruig, Early Gaelic bruigh, ‘a piece of land, a territory’, and in ethnic names, as -*brogoi ‘inhabitants’, see ACPN p56. The combination in Brittonic with the prefix *com- (which, as Hamp loc. cit. shows, must post-date –mr- > -br-) would have formed a noun, ‘people living in the same territory, fellow-countrymen’.

Cormac used the Middle Irish adopted form combrecc as a noun for ‘the Brittonic language’(Sanas Cormaic ed K Meyer (1913), entries 110 and 206). As this preserves –mb-, the word was probably being used in a general sense for Brittonic speakers by 900. However, there is no real evidence for its use in a specifically ethnic sense until the tenth century, when it occurs at least fourteen times in Armes Prydein (see R Bromwich’s translation of I Williams’s edition, pp20-1), referring primarily to the Welsh of Wales: on this and other uses in Old-Middle Welsh literature, see R G Gruffydd in R Bromwich and R B Jones eds Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd (1978), pp25-43, and J Rowland Early Welsh Saga Poetry (1990), p389.

In the later tenth century, the Latinised form Cumbri is used by Æthelweard (Chronicle IV.s sub anno 975, in the dative plural Cumbris), and he also used Cumbrenses (sub anno 875, where it significantly translates A-SC’s Stræcled Walas). William of Malmesbury and Symeon of Durham (or his source) use Cumbri, but Florence/John of Worcester, Richard and John of Hexham, Richard of Howden and Ailred of Rievaulx generally use Cumbrenses. The derived territorial name Cumbria is used by John of Hexham and William of Newburgh, and occurs in legal documents from the thirteenth century. The questions, who exactly were the Cumbrenses and what territory was known as Cumbria, are controversial and probably require differing answers in different textual and historical contexts.

Ælfric, in his life of St Swithun (Lives of the Saints ed Welsh Skeat (1881) XXI.450) uses the Anglicised form Cumera (as genitive plural) for all the ‘Britons’ whose kings paid homage to Eadgar in 973. However, the form occurring in English-formed place-names is normally *Cumbre, genitive plural *Cumbra (EPNE1 P119, see also Gelling, Signposts to the Past (1978), pp95-6). Outwith the Old North, it occurs in the Welsh border counties and through much of the Danelaw, suggesting that it is evidence of Cumbric- and Welsh-speaking migration during the period of Scandinavian rule rather than indigenous Brittonic survival: see James in O J Padel and D N Parsons eds A Commodity of Good Names, pp 187-203. However, the use of Cumbra as a personal name, presumably a nickname for someone perceived as a ‘Briton’ in some sense, should not be overlooked: see Gelling loc. cit. and cf Smith in PNYWR2, p216. Possible examples in the North include:

Camerton Cmb PNCmb pp281-2 cömbröɣ- [+ Old English -tūn], but see cömber.

Comberhalgh Lanc (Whittingham) PNLanc p149, JEPNS17 p86 cömbröɣ- [+ Old English –halh ‘land in a river-bend’ or ‘a detached portion of land].

Cumber Coulston ELo (Edinburgh) see P Morgan in SPN News 19 (2005), p8.

Cumberland PNCmb p1 cömbröɣ- [+ Old English –land].

Cumberworth YWR PNYWR2 p216 cömbröɣ- [+ Old English –worþ ‘an enclosure’].

Cummersdale Cmb PNCmb p130 cömbröɣ- [+ English genitive plural –s- + > ‘dale’ < Old Norse dálr].

Cummertrees Dmf (Annan) see Morgan loc. cit., but see also cömber.

An Old Norse genitive plural *Kum[b]ra is evidenced in the Cumbrae Islands, Kumreyiar in Háconssaga Háconssonar 1263x84, and see J Hines Old Norse Sources for Gaelic History (2001), pp13 and 27.

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