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Norheimsund – the settlement which has grown up along the narrow sound – lies on the opposite side of Norheim farm. The picture is from the beginning of the 20th century. (Knud Knudsen, owner: Billedsamlingen, Universitetsbiblioteket i Bergen (KK 8124)).


The farm by the narrow inlet

If you travel through Norheimsund, you will notice the narrow inlet when travelling over the bridge where the seawater flows in and out of Movatnet. On the eastern shore of the inlet lies the Norheim farm, presently surrounded by several newer buildings. The fact that the last segment of the name - sund – refers to this inlet or sound is easy to imagine. Norheimsund is thus a name which is seemingly easy to comprehend. However, you may not be aware of that Nor also means narrow inlet! This word is found in many place names e.g. Norefjell and Noresund in eastern Norway. The name thus has nothing to do with the direction of “north”. Norheimsund actually means inlet twice. There was originally a settlement here (Old Norse (h)eimr) which probably as early as 1500 years ago was called Norheim; “the farm by the narrow inlet”.

The name of the municipality, Kvam, is also an ancient name. The name means a short, wide valley, which ends in a “wall” – a “kvam”. It is not difficult to deduce that this must be Steinsdalen, the valley beyond Norheim and Movatnet, that has provided the whole municipality with its name.

Landscape and names 

When travelling through the western Norwegian landscape, it is usually the landscape with its mighty, diverse forms that first catches the eye. It is also easy to discover the many cultural clues which provide information on how the people here have lived and continue to live: fields and pastures, dwellings, buildings and plants. But there is another important side to cultural history that may not be gleaned directly from the physical surroundings, but which nevertheless tells us just as much about the man-made environment. The names of places. All landscapes that have been exploited by man have names, simultaneously visible and invisible. Visible because they are often related to characteristic formations and features, invisible because they are not inscribed on peaks and headlands. The names of places are a kind of cultural-historical mirror which reflects diverse interaction between man and nature through the ages. They speak of clearing and settlement, of animal husbandry and farming, of hunting, fishing trade and other social circumstances. In short, the names of places are a tale of man interacting with nature.

How did names originate?

While many new place names are the result of a conscious naming process, the major proportion of traditional place names have arisen by themselves, so to speak. A  linguistic expression that characterised the conditions at the place in some way became how the place was referred to and finally a name. An area with many hills may have been called Åsane (ås = hill). A hill covered by linden trees may have been called Lindås (although not all hills where linden grew were called “Lindås”!) A cove or a harbour where someone named Gjermund once lived may be called Gjermundshamn (hamn = harbour). When such a linguistic expression had been established as a name, the user didn’t have to give much thought to its meaning. The primary function of names was, and still is, a reference to an address or a certain place. Most people know that Øystese is a settlement in Kvam in Hordaland, but no one has been able to provide a definitive explanation of what it means. We only know that the last segment is an abbreviation of the extinct word vin “natural field”. Not even transparent names such as Odda (odde = headland) and Leirvik (leir + vik = clay + inlet) are automatically associated with “headland” or “clay-bottomed inlet”.

Linguistic diversity

It is difficult to estimate the number of place names in Hordaland. If we estimate 75 names for each registered farm, the total for the 3,500 farms in the county would be well above 250,000. That would include everything from cultivated to uncultivated land and all sorts of natural features such as mountains and beaches. In any case, most of these names have disappeared from usage. Changes in the way farms are operated and patterns of settlement have resulted in many place names being consigned to the memories of the elderly, if they are remembered at all. In the years between 1930 and 1940 schoolchildren gathered a number of place names around the country and thus saved many names from oblivion. In later years this work has been continued with the assistance of modern maps and interview methods. The place names in an area can display an amazing linguistic diversity. Most of the names contain a segment (basic word) which says something about the natural features of the place. Thus we may have names that say something of height such as fjell, haug, horg, nip, nipe, nut, ås e.g. Lønahorgi, Arnanipa, Dyranuten, cultural names such as bø (field), gard (farm), gjerd (fence), kvile (resting place), stig (path) e.g. Storebø, Damsgård, Segelgjerd and comparative names such as kiste (chest), nos (nose), okse (ox), stakk (stack, haystack)  e.g Raudnos, Oksen, Løvstakken. All in all there are several hundred different terrain names and comparative names that are used in place names in the county.

Most of the names are compounds, and we will see that the variation in the first segment is greater than that in the last segment. Almost all surroundings and imaginary things may be expressed in place names, both of a natural and man-made character. Landscape features, agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing, hunting, trade, industry and transport are reflected in the names, e.g. eid in Eidfjord, older (alder) in Ålvik, alm (elm) in Alsåker, kalv (calf) in Kalvøyna, falconeering in Falkafangernuten, far(a) (travel) in Fadnes (previously Farnes), skute (ship) in Skutevik.

The oldest place names

Our current place names are a result of a long process. It is often difficult to determine how old individual names are. But based on certain linguistic and factual circumstances, some of them may be dated approximately. Many of them may be traced back to the beginning of our chronology, and some may even have roots as far back as the Bronze Age, the millennium before the birth of Christ. Due to the dispersed settlements in those days, only the names of the most famous locations could be sustained for any period, and then it would be the names of larger islands, fjords, rivers and mountains. It is therefore reasonable that island names such as Bømlo, Stord, Sotra and Huglo belong to this oldest category. These islands have been centrally located in the shipping lanes and have provided a good basis for fishing and hunting for early settlements. In formal terms such derived names also indicate an early stage in language. Particularly rich in perspective is a name such as Arna, originally probably a river name with the basic meaning of “flowing”, in which case it may be linguistically related to the Italian river name Arno!

Making groups of place names speak

Name researchers are probably mostly preoccupied with interpreting place names individually, particularly those that are linguistically interesting, but the material provides greater cultural-historical insight if the names may be allowed to speak in groups, i.e. if one within an area arranges them in groups according to linguistic and functional characteristics. We shall take a look at a few such groups.

Settlement and clearing

The country was settled gradually. For the history of settlement we have certain clues in the major farm name classes ending with -vin, -(h)eim, -stad, -land, -bø, -åker, -set(e), -tveit.

The segment -vin “natural field”, occurs in approximately 100 names in the county. These names may have originated throughout the entire first millennium AD. Most of them probably originated between the years 300 to 600. The -vin group includes well known names such as Bergen, a lower German form of the older Bjørgvin, Old Norse bjorg “line of hills” and Øystese (see above). The segment -vin appears to have disappeared from use in Old Norse time. In place names it now often occurs in a strongly reduced form, e.g. Kinne from the older Kinn-vin (with regard to kinn see Kinsarvik. They most frequently end in -e (æ), but when the first segment is a one-syllable word ending in a vowel, the n is left in place, e.g. Bryn from the older Brú-vin. Many vin-names, such as Bryn, have a modified vowel. This is because both v and i in vin result in a modification of the original vowel in the first segment, e.g. Sondve from the older Sandvin (v mutation) and Væte from the older Vát-vin (i mutation). The last example is the oldest and goes back to before the times of Old Norse. On trunk road 13 from Steinabergbrui to Kinsarvik we come across five vin names: Sandvin, Espe from Osp-vin, Sekse from Sax-vin (named after a river which was compared to a pair of scissors), Børve (same source as Bergen), Røte from Rót-vin. Another well-known vin name is Granvin – here the older local pronunciation is Graven. Voss is the area with most vin names with approximately half of the vin names in the county.

There are approximately 100 old names with -(h)eim “mountain pasture, farm” distributed all over the county, e.g. in the parish names of Austrheim, Seim and Solheim in Northern Hordaland, Grindheim  and Onarheim in Southern Hordaland, Oppheim in Voss. Grind-  is probably related to “grande” (river bank, gravel bank). Onarheim may contain the disused word form ón “patch of land”. With regard to names containing –stad, Old Norse stadir “(bu)stad)” [place of dwelling], Årstad in Bergen and Mongstad  in Lindås may be mentioned. The former probably contains the old name of Ulriken (one of the mountains surrounding Bergen), Old Norse Alrekr “the mighty”. The first segment of Mongstad is the name Magnus from the Latin magnus meaning “large”. Of the 320 names of containing -land “piece of land, area”, we presume that a large proportion of them stem from the time of migration. We can mention Byrkjeland, from the older birki “place where birch grows”, and Eskeland, from the older –eski, “place where ash grows”. The first segment of Hordaland contains the name of the hordar people, which may be translated as “the warrior people”. One presumes that the same people have made their mark on Hardsyssel in Denmark. The -land names were particularly productive in the age of migration.

Other name segments which tell of settlement are -bø “farm” (approx. 30), e.g Sæbø in northern Hordaland and Eidfjord, and åker (approx. 20), e.g Åkra in southern Hordaland, -set “place of dwelling, mountain farm”, e.g. Maurset. Both these and the more common -tveit “(flat) clearing, piece of land” (approx. 130), often used alone in the form Tveit(e) and similar, mainly arose in the Viking age and subsequent centuries.

Names containing -gjerde, -trod/-træ(d) “attractive place” -grind, -hage, -jord etc. are generally younger. Names of farms containing -støl or -sæter often indicate that a former summer mountain farm has been brought into use as a permanent dwelling. Farms with names from these last groups often lie at the outskirts of the old settlements, in contrast to the more central vin, (h)eim and bø names. Names containing -land and -stad also usually have a central location.

It is more difficult to place uncompounded farm names originating from natural features in free form, often in the dative case, such as Dale [valley], or in the plural form, such as Fitjar, from fit “moist, low-lying field” in a chronology of names, but they generally belong to an older set of names. That applies to many compounded names in free form too, such as Jondal (uncertain meaning) Vaksdal (the first segment is våg) and the more transparent Lindås. Uncompounded and compounded names in set form, particularly with respect to common words such as Klypet (regarding narrowed land) Almelia, Humlegarden (field where hops were grown), have mainly appeared in the last couple of centuries. A certain criterion for determining an age back in time is in names that are related to Christianity. Thus must the name Kirkhus near Gjermundshamn be from later than the year 1000 when the Christianity was introduced to the country. On the other hand one must assume that names containing the names of pre-Christian gods such as Ullensvang and Frøynes have originated prior to the year 1000. Many farm names appeared in diplomas and land registries from the Middle Ages. This provides a certain minimum age for the name. The ecclesiastical land registry Bergen’s calf leather from approximately 1360 is  a particularly important document for the farm names in the county. One may for example find Nesttun written as “i nedre Tuni” [in lower Tuni]. If one didn’t previously know what the name meant, this way of expressing it is enlightening.

Hundvåko - "The rich in fish"

Along the coast, in to the fjords and up through the rivers there are a number of place names that indicate fishing or the presence of fish, e.g. Notneset, Seigrunnen and the more well-known Laksevåg. The unusual name of Hundvåko in Austevoll is interpreted as the “rich in fish”. One believes that the second segment is related to vaka (fish feeding at the surface), while the first segment appears to contain a reinforcing word in hundmargir “very many”. The Island name of Sild has nothing to do with the species of fish (sild = herring), but is related to sel (seal). This animal’s name is more directly represented in Seløyna in Øygarden. It is nevertheless difficult to determine whether names containing Sel (seal), Bjørn (bear), Ulv (wolf), Oter (otter), Rein (reindeer), Hjort (deer), Hauk (hawk) or Ørn (eagle) are references to hunting or just to the presence of these animals. The latter is usually the case. The several hundred place names with references to bears in Hordaland thus bear witness to the many places where bears have made their presence felt. Some place names that contain animal names may have originated in a comparison with the animal or a part of it, e.g. Bjørnaskallen (the bear’s skull) or Bjørnatrynet (the bear’s face).

Animal husbandry and agriculture

Naturally, there will be a large proportion of place names that say something of agriculture and animal husbandry. The preconditions for these activities have been a versatile use of the surrounding landscape. Clearing and growing, harvesting feed, grazing, mountain farms, forestry, herb and berry picking etc. have been related to different locations that for practical reasons have been given their own names. Many place names bear direct witness to these activities, not least the large settlement name groups we have touched upon above. Also belonging to this group are Rødna “clearing”, Havrå, cf, Old Norse hafr “buck”, Lambadalen, Tømmerneset.

A resting place along the way

A precondition for economic growth in local communities has been trade and contact with the outside world. Routes have long existed between the various settlements, both on land and over the sea. Information about certain points along these routes may be gleaned from their names, e.g. Knarrvik,  cf. Old Norse knorr “large trade ship”, Steinestø, to (boat)harbour. With regard to resting place for travellers we have Salhus, Old Norse sálúhus “hostel” and the settlement name of Evanger, cf. Old Norse áivangr “resting place with horse grazing.” The fact that Evanger was close to an important route is also evident from the farm name of Kvilekvål. The western Norwegian form kvål “detached hill” is linguistically related to names such as Hol and Hole in Buskerud.

Names of ancient gods

Among the names of places that speak of beliefs, the pre-Christian cult names constitute a particularly important group, e.g Ullensvang and Frøynes  in Ullensvang,  Ulland, Frøland  and Totland in Samnanger. These are related to the names of the gods Ull(in), Frøya  and Tor. There are a number of such names around the county. Hovland, made up from hov “heathen sacrificial place” occurs seven times. Names referring to goblins and trolls, e.g. Gygrastolen, Tussafoten and Jøtulen have probably originated after the introduction of Christianity, in some cases in later centuries. Some names show that people in ancient times also were preoccupied with getting together for amusement, e.g. Lekven, Lekve (both compounds of leik and vin (play and wine)) and Leikvoll. One leisure activity that must have been popular was horse racing. These activities often took place in places they called skeid, and this word occurs in quite a few place names, e.g. Skeide, Hallingskeid.

These examples only demonstrate some of the faces of the cultural-historical mirror that place names constitute.  Gravity and celebration go hand in hand – this is evident from names such as Skredbakkene (avalanche hills), Gråten (weeping), Likhella (corpse slope), Brurastolen (brides chair), that all have a story to tell. However, one often has to dig deep to find the explanation. Bryllåm in Etne can easily lead you astray if you are not aware that the Old Norse form is Brennlangr meaning the “long burnt field”.


Åsane (the hills) – no one should be in any doubt what this name means. (Helge Sunde).

Drageid Canal

Drageid Canal on the neck of land between Henanger lake and Skogseid lake. The name is easy to understand when one is aware of the transport system in olden times Here they drew the boats over the narrow neck of land between the two lakes. The canal was built in 1897. (Svein Nord).


Melderskin, the majestic hill which rises high above Rosendal has taken its name from the snow and the sun: “the mountain that shines”. (Svein Nord).


Ulriken is probably a corruption of the older Alrekr or “the looming hill which reaches high”. This name is the basis for the first syllable of the suburb name: “Årstad” (Svein Nord).

Facsimile of Bjǫrgynjar Kalfskinn

Facsimile of Bjǫrgynjar Kalfskinn (Bergen’s Calf Skin; a book of register from the Middle Ages written on calf skin). In it we find for instance a farm situated  close to Birkeland Church referred to as “in the lower hamlets” (Nesttun) (owner: Riksarkivet (AM 329 fol. 30v.)).

Odin Tor and Frøy represented on a Swedish tapestry from the 1100s

Odin Tor and Frøy represented on a Swedish tapestry from the 1100s. Place names that refer to names of old gods is a joint culture in Scandinavia. On the left is the one-eyed Odin, in the middle Tor with his hammer, and to the right, Frøy, the fertility goddess, who holds on to her ear of corn. (Teppe frå Skog kyrkje, Hälsingland, Riksantikvarämbetet, Sverige).

Terrassane i Eidfjord

The terraces in Eidfjord between the lake and the background and the fjord in the foreground consist of an old seabed created by loose sediment from the glacial rivers. When the land rose it created an isthmus between the lake and the sea. The isthmus is divided into two by the river Eido, on the left Hæreid (the higher isthmus) and to the right  Lægreid (the lower isthmus). In the Middle Ages the name Eiðar still existed. (from: Kjerulf, T. (1878) Stenriget og fjeldlæren, s. 280).

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