To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, October 24, 2016

Alec Finlay: A Poem of Namings, from Gaelic and Norn

River Dee: photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2016 (from gathering)
Alec Finlay is a Scottish poet and artist based in Edinburgh. These texts come from a series of ongoing projects derived from research into place-names, in particular Gaelic (from his book gathering, forthcoming from Hauser & Wirth, 2018) and Norn – the dialect of Scots and Norse spoken in Orkney and Shetland Norn c.1800 (from MinnMouth, forthcoming 2017). This sequence derives from a performance given at the O-I/I-O poetry festival, Glasgow, 2016, as a closer to the whole event.


a name means nothing to a place 

place-names are necessary relations 

a name recovered returns the claims of human affection for a place 

place-names identify a field of biotic relationships 

place-names are allied to habitat restoration 

listen to a place-name, hear the dead speak 

some place-names follow speech but run counter to meaning 

names change when the guard of speech alters 

some place-names are all that remain of lost languages 

our place-names un-name older names 

most people lives in places, a few dwell in names 

the meaning of a name may go into oblivion long before the name itself


the oldest names
belong to rivers
the glen’s flowers  



numen swim
hidden within names 

Uisge Dé
River Dee
Water of the Goddess 

the river is the goddess” (WJ Watson)

oldest of all
from -er, -orto cause, to move

a place-name is an intensification of awareness 

Maighdean Mhonaidh
The Lassie on the Hill 

place your finger here
on the flower
of the mountain

place-names are social signs                  
for natural forms
Dark-eyed Springs Cairn


place-names exist in space 

they evolve in speech
over time 

speech steers names
into new forms 

ears become tongues 

the translation of a place-name
is a matter of sound and sense
exemplifying the tidal
nature of meaning

the wave the rock-reef makes: bōd
the rock-reef that makes the wave: ba
– we sink or swim by such distinctions

in place-names the mouth - minn -
     is bay
mouthful of sand and pebbles
mouth of the river
   and mother
minn, sought on the child’s

on Shetland
Banna Minn
Tether Mouth 

BANNA: band, fetter
MINN: mouth 

Burra teddirt
by a sandy rib )
puckerin da lip
skornin da bod 

soonds a mooth
n ammas th childers
needfu fir mynnye

Score Minni
Mother Sound
also on Shetland 

Skōr: hollow in the seabed, sound
MINN: mouth  

soonds ascar / markéd inda / sea-boddam 

 da brimtuds fløddin
   da mooth fuwi
      soonds  faain
   laumin      swinklin
beatin      onda chord
                 oda aert

south to Suffolk

MYNNI: firth
MERE: sea-pool 

shippin owt
   somethin deep
      in th bloo-O 

or havin more
   ova bowl ov
      sumthin tidal


With thanks to Harry Giles, Katrina Porteous, Ian Duhig, and Laura Watts for their guidance in terms of dialects 

Banna Minn (for Jen Hadfield) 

Burra, tethered by a sandy tombolo, puckering the lip, imitating the waves – sound is a mouth, and amma is the children’s discontented murmuring, needful for their mum, minn 

Tombolo connecting Kettla Ness to the rest of Burra, Shetland. Band, N. band or fetters; band, Sc, string together; tether, bond; means of restraint, confining force or influence. Minni, mynni, ON, mijin, Sh, mouth of a stream, inlet; munnr, the mouth, from PIE *ment-. Minn, mijn, Sc, minni, Sh, the mouth, a child's word. Mynnye, OSc, mother, said to be a child’s instinctive utterances; also a bay or inlet, arm of the sea, sound or strait. Teddirt, OrN, tethered. Skoarn, skoarnin, Sh, imitate someone, repeat what someone says. Bod, Sh, onward motion of the waves. Soond, Sc, sound. Mooth, Sc, mouth. Childer: Sc, children. Amma (Ind), mother. Murmurashen, Sh, murmur or discontented muttering. Needfu, OrN, needing, needy for.

Score Minni 

sounds is a scar marked in the sea bottom – the bay of tidal breakers is the mouth as it fills with sounds, falling, flowing, splashing, beating, on the chord of the earth 

Formerly Skora Minn, bay by Outer Score, between Bressay and Skōr Head, Shetland. Skōr, ON, sound, hollow in the seabed; skord, Sh, crack, fissure; mark or notch for keeping count. In North-east England scar, from sker, ON, reef can refer to rocks at the foot of sea-cliffs, a narrow beach, or shore-based reef. Bodd’am, Sh, sea-bottom. Minn Sc, mouth; Jakobsen gives mynni, minni, Sh, ‘opening into which a stream of firth disembogues’. Brimtud, Sh, sound of breakers on the shore. Flød, Sh, tide. Laum, neologism devised by the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov, defined as “broad, flowing over the broadest area, knowing no confining shores”, from the l sound of lit and lodka, flow and boat. Swinkle, Sh, splash gently. Baetin, Sh, beating. Opo da, Sh, upon the; oda, Sh, of the. Aert, Sh, earth.

Minsmere (for Guy Moreton) 

“lagu byp leodum   langsum gepuht / the sea by (lands)men is deemed everlasting”, The Old English Rune Poem, tr. Bill Griffiths 

(July) shipping out something deep in the blue O [the sweep of the sea’s horizon]. (March) or having more of a bowl of something tidal [the safety of harbour]. 

Suffolk village lost to the sea in the 16th c.; the name survives in Minsmere Levels and Minsmere Haven. The name is a Scandinavian-English hybrid; it means River-mouth Lake, from OScand, mynni, mouth of the river; mere, OE, pool, sea; ME, haven, OE, hoefen harbour, inlet with good anchorage. The River Minsmere is know as the Yox, River Yoke, in its upper stretch. Lida, AS, July, the mild month of calm weather for voyages; Hredmonath, AS, March, the fierce month, wise to stay in harbour. Sheeppin, sumffin, haffin, Suff, shipping, something, having. Mo+wa, Suff, more. Bowlow, Suff, bowl of. The blue O is the sea orisounde, ME, horizon, which John Clare thought could be reached in a day’s walk. Bill Griffiths suggests that The Old English Rune Poem was Anglian, sharing characteristics with the riddling of Old Norse kenning. East Anglia was among the earliest places where English was spoken, as the dialect spoken by of Frisian, Angle, Saxon, Jute, and Swabian language communities became ‘islanded’, and eroded or absorbed Brittonic.


James Stout Angus, A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect
Keith Briggs and Kelly Kilpatrick, A Dictionary of Suffolk
AOD Claxton, The Suffolk Dialect of the Twentieth Century
Dictionary of the Scots Language/ Dictionar o the Scots Leid,
John J. Graham, Shetland Dictionary
Bill Griffiths, Anglo-Saxon Magic
Bill Griffiths, Fishing and Folk
Jákup Jakobsen, The Place-names of Shetland
Velimir Khlebnikov, tr. Charlotte Douglas & Paul Schmidt: The
     King of Time      
Velimir Khlebnikov, tr. Charlotte Douglas & Paul Schmidt:
     Theoretical Writings
David Mills, Suffolk Place-names
Walter Skeat, The Place-names of Suffolk
John Stewart, Shetland Place-names
Peter Trudgill, The Norfolk Dialect

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