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From Beornsdale to Barnsdale

By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2017-06-01. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2018-11-25.

The important place-name 'Barnsdale' developed from OE 'Beornsdale' to ME 'Bern(e)sdale' to ModE 'Barnsdale'. 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 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 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.