Attested: Ptolemy 2,3,3 Στουκκια river mouth
Where: Aberystwyth, around SN5881, in west central Wales.
Name origin: Over the last 2000 years at least six languages may have been heard at Aberystwyth (Greek, Latin, Welsh, Irish, Norse, and English) but Celticists like to believe that an early form of Welsh was the main one in Roman times and have tried to chart an evolutionary course from Στουκκια via Iuctius to Ystwyth. Ifor Williams suggested (in Richmond & Crawford) that Ptolemy's form should be emended to *Estuctius, so that Breton stouin ‘to bend’ plus Welsh ystwyth ‘flexible, supple’ would make the Ystwyth ‘bendy, winding’ (which it certainly is in its lower course around Llanfarian). Then Coates (2006) went to the opposite extreme by interpreting Ystwyth as ‘powerful’.
A closer parallel may be Greek στοιχεω ‘to be drawn up in a line’ describing a sailor's view of the row of three main river valleys entering the sea there: Ystwyth, Rheidol, and Clarach, plus minor streams such as the Leris, and alluvial fans at individual river mouths. A soldier's viewpoint matches better with Greek στειχω ‘to march’ and German Steig ‘hill climb’, since the river Rheidol soon becomes notably steep, including a dramatic waterfall. These words descend from PIE *steigh- ‘to stride, step, rise’, which is one of many PIE roots beginning with ST that have a sense of standing or sticking up.
Dictionaries of Scottish Gaelic translate stuaich or stuaichd as ‘little hill, round promontory’, deriving it from Irish (s)túag ‘arch,bow’, from PIE *(s)teu- ‘to push, to stick, with derivatives referring to projecting objects’. This is essentially the same as the English word stook (with cognates in other Germanic languages), which appears to have been loaned into Gaelic as stuc ‘small conical hill’. Related words include steep, stock, and stump, plus Norse stutr, but their contribution to English place names is confused by the unrelated stow. This analysis is a clear winner, on grounds of geography plus Ptolemy's interest in places where traders could do business with local people, but that does not say anything decisive about the language(s) involved.
Notes: Nowadays two rivers feed into Aberystwyth harbour, the Ystwyth and the Rheidol, which have similar catchment areas, but the Rheidol rises higher up and has more history of flooding. The Ystwyth originally had its own estuary, which was deliberately blocked off in the 18th century, to create Tanybwlch beach. When the Romans arrived there must have been two distinct river mouths separated by the prominent hill of Pen Dinas, with a native fort on top, south of modern Aberystwyth. There seems to be no evidence of Roman activity under the modern town but a villa has been found inland at SN66887418 near Abermagwr. The nearest Roman fort was at Pen Llwyn, up the river Rheidol, with Cae Gaer further inland. The Romans' main interest in this whole area probably lay in lead-and-silver mines, but it is rarely possible to prove that ancient mining took place because later mining destroyed the traces.
The idea that the Cosmography's Iuctius was nearby is plausible, but not conclusive. Also not conclusive is the argument that the name Ystwyth was originally Celtic, since its earliest recorded form dates from the 1100s. Norse traders who were in Ireland from 800 to 900 would almost certainly have established an ‘eastern outpost’ base on a river in the west of Wales, whose natural name would be *Østwith, where with is a form taken by Old English wic ‘outlier’ in Danish-influenced areas especially near York.
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Last edited 8 April 2020 To main Menu.