From Beornsdale to Barnsdale

From International Robin Hood Bibliography

By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2017-06-01. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2022-05-17.

The important place-name 'Barnsdale' developed from OE 'Beornsdale' to ME 'Bern(e)sdale' to ModE 'Barnsdale'. According to the foremost authority on Yorkshire place-names, the etymology of "Barnsdale" is "Beorn's valley" (dale), Beorn being an Old English personal name, which occurs also in other place-names, for instance Barnsley (c. 18 km WSW of Barnsdale).[1] Here is in outline the process by which "Beorn" became "Barn":

  1. Through an isolative sound change – a change that a sound undergoes irrespectively of the phonetic environment in which it occurs – the Old English diphthong /eo/[2] developed into the Early Middle English semi-closed, front-rounded monophthong /ø/.[3]
  2. Except in the southwest of England, where it persisted for a couple of centuries and was represented in the written language by the letter "o", /ø/ soon underwent another isolative sound change and was unrounded to /e/.[3] This is the sound unit represented by the first "e" in Bernesdale.
  3. During the Late Middle English period, more particularly the 15th century, a combinative – phonetically context dependent – sound change took place: /e/ changed to /a/ when followed by /r/. In other words, the sequence /er/ became /ar/.[4] This is reflected in the change of spelling from Bern(e)sdale to Barn(e)sdale.[5]

See the following pages


  1. Smith, A.H. The Place-Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire (English Place-Name Society, vols. XXX-XXXVII) (Cambridge, 1961-63), pt. II, p. 37.
  2. See Wikipedia: Old English Phonology. For simplicity's sake I ignore the distinction between short and long Old English diphthongs which, I believe, is not relevant here. Since it does no harm here, I also do not uphold a terminological distinction between 'phoneme' and 'sound'. Phonemes are put between slashes, for instance /e/.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Wikipedia: Middle English phonology: Middle English stressed vowel changes. and Wikipedia: Phonological history of English.
  4. Wikipedia: Phonological history of English.
  5. For the loss of /r/ after vowels in Received Pronunciation and most dialects of English spoken in England, which happened much later and of course also affected the pronunciation of the place-name 'Barnsdale', see Wikipedia: Rhoticity in English.