"So the message is this: correct
a wrong pronunciation when you hear it, demolish a false etymology
when you can, and resist further attempts to anglicise these
peculiar but splendid old names"
There is nothing that betrays Orkney's Norse
heritage more than the islands' placenames.
In the eighth and ninth centuries AD, when the
Norwegian settlers began arriving in Orkney, their placenames supplanted
any original names. Because of this Orkney's placenames are now
practically all Norse in origin. According to scholars there are
over ten thousand of them, the majority of which are derivatives
or corruptions of original Old Norse names. These old Norwegian
words are found mingled with a few die-hard words of Celtic origin
and a handful of later Scottish imports.
Placenames, even if used only for
a short time, have a habit of sticking. This is certainly the case
Although the standardised spellings
of many places in Orkney have been known to change over time, more
often than not they retain their "correct" Orcadian pronunciation.
Because of this, and also because of the whims of cartographers
and historians throughout the centuries, to discern the root of
any particular Orcadian placename it is usually best to listen to
the way it is pronounced by an Orcadian, rather than go by its spelling
on a map.
Our placenames have suffered greatly
over the ages from the blundering of these map makers who knew nothing
of Norn, the variant of Norse spoken
in the islands.
Whenever they encountered a word
that bore any resemblance to an English or Scottish word, it was
common practice to immediately change it into what they assumed
had to be its correct "English" form.
A classic example of this is Kirkwall.
Originally pronounced "Kirkwaa", the name of the town
derived from "Kirkvoe", which in turn came from "Kirkjuvagr"
meaning "The Church Bay".
However, the early cartographers
assumed that because the sound of the Orcadian -waa element was
the same as the Scottish pronunciation of "wall" it had
to mean the same. They promptly anglicised it and in one stroke
"Kirkwaa" became "Kirkwall".
Unfortunately this distortion of
placenames did not end with the early mapmakers but it is a process
goes on today.
With many of the islands now housing
more incomers than Orcadians, slowly but surely the ancient placenames
of Orkney are being altered to suit these unfamiliar tongues.