Friday, October 30, 2009

More on Keighley or 'Cyhha's Clearing'

Dear Readers--my friend Caroline replied to my Travelogue: Haworth post with the following comment. I thought it was too interesting not to elevate to a regular blog post. Thanks, Caroline. Fascinating info. JaneGS
Hi there! I’ve been talking to Jane about Keighley spelling in another place, and with her permission, I’m putting some thoughts here which might help clarify why it’s so strange. In a nutshell, it’s because it’s from a different language, and very old.

'Cyhha's Clearing'- that's the accepted origin of the name. It's later Anglo-Saxon, and when originally written in what we now know as "Old English". Now the Saxons used runes to write, and if they wrote down the name of the place they would do it phonetically, according to their runic alphabet. To complicate matters further, they had different accents and dialects of their own, and it’s perfectly possible that two different Saxons, would write the word differently because they pronounced it slightly differently, and in modern times it’s hard to know exactly what was happening, sometimes. However, the accepted gist is that the C in “Cyhha” is a hard C, and the Y is actually a remanant of the rune which is pronounced "th". So Cyhha is pronounced something like Kuth-ha. The clearing is the "ley", which is pronounced "lee".

The Domesday Book of 1086, which was William the Conqueror's census and evaluation of his new English kingdom, is considered the definitive "first" for spelling and meaning of many places. The trouble with the Yorkshire survey was that it was done almost entirely by the only available literate men around- who happened to be French monks specially brought over to do the job. There are many instances where the French-and-Latin schooled monks had quite a bit of trouble finding a decent spelling for Anglo-Saxon words.(They had even more trouble with the Old Norse ones!) These men regularly had problems with "K" which exists not in Old French and exists only as a furrin import in modern French. And they didn't have that letter that represented "th" at all, again because it doesn't exist in French. So they either substituted something that they did understand or just left it out, when it came up. In the case of Keighley, they did their best to include it.

There’s a fair explanation of the transition from Runes to Latin letters , though not of place-names, at this site, scroll down about halfway.

Over the centuries, many place-names were written just as the writer saw fit, usually phonetically, sometimes abbreviated and sometimes with little added bits in them which were clear at the time, but not necessarily obvious now. So Keighly has been spelt sometimes with a C, and sometimes with K. That “th” sound is spelt sometimes with a “th” and sometimes with “ch”, which might be pronounced close to the “ch” in the scottish word “loch”. One thing is clear here- people were still pronouncing it with the “th”. Old spellings often say a lot about local accents! In Shakespeare’s time, and even in Jane Austen’s, you find handwritten documents where the place-name is still totally phonetic, and that can be a hoot to read!

It was only when the national postal service got underway at the beginning of Victoria’s reign, that it became important to have a standardized spelling of town names. Often the clerks involved with this had to go back to the original town charter of the middle ages in order to get things sorted, or failing that The Domesday book itself. Something about the old spellings of Keighley caused them to not put in the “th”. Who knows what that was? There wasn’t a lot of systematic understanding going on, that’s for sure.

Anyway, Keighley is “Keith” ley, to the confusion of everyone who was not born there.


  1. This is fascinating and certainly explains why so many of the names of British places are spelled so much differently from the way they sound.

  2. Interesting! I thought they were saying Keefley. I heard an F instead of the TH sound. Perhaps because I was thinking an F sound made sense like the gh being f in the word "laugh" or "draught".