“New City” (and quiz)

Jul 6, 2014 by

[Thanks to S. Goyette for inspiring this post and providing some useful information!]

The meanings of many toponyms are rather uncreative, describing features of the physical or social landscape. Perhaps one of the most common among those “dull” place names are those that mean “new city” or “new town”. In English the phrase is typically contracted to Newtown or Newton. In England alone, there are at least thirteen “Newtown”s (in Chester, Derbyshire, Exeter, Kent, Isle of Wight, and elsewhere) and over thirty place names based on Newton (including Newton-by-the-Sea in Northumberland and Newton-le-Willows in Merseyside). Additional “Newtown”s and “Newton”s are found in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In the United States, there is a Newtown in Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. There are five “Newtowns” in California, in El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Shasta, and Solano counties. Newton as a town name features in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin, while Newtown counties can be found in Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas.


The French too have plenty of “new cities” on their map, but there is an interesting catch: some of them are known as “Villeneuve” and others as “Neuville”. The difference reflects the two possible word orders preserved in modern French, often with a difference in meaning. For example, Napoleon Bonaparte can be called un grand homme ‘a great man’, but not un homme grand ‘a large man’. The second pattern – noun followed by an adjective – is typical for Romance languages and is more common in Spanish or Italian than in French. The adjective-followed-by-noun pattern is more commonly found in Germanic languages; for example, in English an adjective follows the noun it modifies only if encumbered by other elements (compare a proud man and a man proud of his children). This pattern diffused into older forms of French from neighboring Germanic speakers, chiefly the Franks. Because the Franks mostly settled in the north, so-called langue d’oil dialects spoken in the northern half of France used the adjective-noun pattern most extensively. Hence, all but two of the “Neuville”s are located in the north (the exceptions being one town in the Corrèze department and another in the Puy-de-Dôme department). In contrast, many of France’s “Villeneuve”s are found in southern France, where the so-called langue d’oc dialects, unaffected by Germanic influences, historically predominate.

The German for “new city” is Neustadt, and there are no less than 25 place names based on Neustadt in Germany, as well as Wiener Neustadt in Austria and Neustadt in Ontario, Canada. German Neustadt-based place names also exist for town in Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania. The two Neustadt-based place names in Czech Republic – Neustadt an der Mettau and Neustadt an der Tafelfichte – also have Czech counterparts that translate as “new city”: Nové Město nad Metují and Nové Město pod Smrkem. Similarly, the Slovak counterpart of the German Neustadt an der Waag is Nové Mesto nad Váhom. Cognate place name in other Slavic languages include the Slovenian Novo Mesto.

Given the proliferation of the English “Newtowns” and “Newtons”, the French “Villeneuves” and “Neuvilles”, and the German “Neustadts”, it is perhaps unsurprising that Russians have two major settlements called “new city”, or in Russian Novgorod: the root nov means – and is cognate with –‘new’, and gorod means ‘city’ and is cognate with the English yard, garden, and gird. One of them, known simply as Novgorod or by its more complete name Veliky Novgorod (‘Great Novgorod’), is one of the oldest and most historic Russian cities, founded in the ninth century. The Sofia First Chronicle first mentions it in 859 CE; the Novgorod First Chronicle gives the first mention in 862 CE when it was allegedly already a major station on the trade route from the Baltics to Byzantium. As a show of respect, this city is often referred to as Gospodin Veliky Novgorod (‘Lord Great Novgorod’) or Otets Gorodov Russkix (‘The Father of Russian Cities’, in opposition to Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, which is known as ‘The Mother of Russian Cities’). The water-logged soils around Veliky Novgorod allowed for the preservation of numerous birch bark documents, the first of which was discovered in July 1951. These documents shed new light on the political, economic, and social life, and even the colloquial language in Northern Russia between the late 11th and the early 15th centuries. The second Novgorod-based toponym is Nizhny Novgorod (‘Lower Novgorod’), an important economic and cultural center at the confluence of Volga and Oka rivers, an area that had initially been Finnic-speaking. It was founded in the thirteenth century, nearly 400 years after the other “new city”. Today Nizhny Novgorod is the fifth largest city in the Russian Federation, with the population of over 1.2 million. From 1932 to 1990, the city was known as Gorky, after the pseudonym of the writer Maxim Gorky, who was born there.

There is another ancient and historically important city whose name means ‘new city’ – do you know what it is? Answer tomorrow!





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