She studies the history of place names

"It's easy to feel close to history when you’re in the country. It's easier here than in a town.” Place name researcher Josefin Devine believes that old names of places can teach us a lot about our history.

Each place name has its own history. A name that has existed for a thousand years can often say more about a place than stories that fade away over the centuries. Researcher Josefin Devine is an expert in interpreting what these names can convey.

Ylva Sundgren

Had it not been for the name Ältnäs, researchers would probably never have been able to figure out that once upon a time swans were hunted in the small village in Jämtland that bears the name. This is one of many examples in Josefin Devine’s doctoral thesis, where she explains that ”elt” comes from the old word ”alpt”, which means swan.

“The name tells us that swans were probably hunted here,” she says. “That’s not a story that people have passed down through the generations, but you can work it out if you study the place name.”

It was curiosity that led Devine to this field of research. “I’m very curious about why a certain place got its name. It often tells us something about the place, and then you want to know what that could be.”

From the conservatory at her home in Skulla, northwest of Uppsala, she looks out over green fields with blooming daisies and fluffy dandelion heads. Her parents and siblings live on the surrounding farms. Here too, where her family has lived since the 1860s, there are local names that piqued her curiosity.

Skarpan, Kilen and Farfarshagen are names that have been with her all her life, even if she did not reflect on them while growing up on the family farm. The names belong to different fields, and she often heard her father and his parents use the names in their work.

“I’m very curious about why a certain place got its name. It often tells us something about the place, and then you want to know what that could be.”

It was not until she was studying to become a Swedish teacher that she discovered her interest in names. One of the teachers at Uppsala University, Svante Strandberg, who was a professor of Nordic languages and a specialist in name research, unwittingly laid the foundation for Josefine Devine’s change of career. “He gave an introductory lecture that was so interesting that I then wrote a C-thesis about names,” she says.

In that thesis, she examined how the names of her family farm’s fields had come about. They are fairly common property names, she says. Skarpan probably comes from the word skarp, which in Uppland means dry and hard, and is often used to describe fields, but also, for example, bread. Naming a field after the quality of the soil is quite common, as is what shape it is, as in the name Kilen (wedge).

Field studies are an important part of Josefin Devine's research. A hypothesis that a place name refers to a hill or a dried-up watercourse needs to be checked by visiting the place.

In the case of Farfarshagen, (Grandpa’s pasture), she also had to do some genealogical research. “You want to know exactly who it is that is being referred to. There are many properties with grandmother, grandfather, grandmother and grandfather in the name. A lot of them are probably named after an old relative who was allowed to remain living on the farm even though it had been passed on to their son. Perhaps they got to keep a small piece of land.”

She points out that names of local properties rarely enjoy such long continuity. They are usually not written down and are only used by a few people. If a family moves, the name rarely lives on. Devine therefore believes that the person who gave his name to Farfarshagen was someone in her own family.

“I found out that the first old man in our family who lived here left the farm to his grandson, but continued to live here and had a piece of land. So it’s probably him that the name refers to, as there are no other obvious candidates.”

Devine continued her Swedish studies at master’s level, and one of the courses she chose was in name care and name standardisation. Then, while she was working for a brief period as an unqualified substitute teacher, she saw an advertisement for a doctoral candidate position at Umeå University.

“It could be about dialects or place names. You could choose that yourself. But it had to be about the region of Jämtland. I wanted to do a PhD and thought that there couldn’t be that many people who were both interested and qualified.”

“Although not everyone is interested in names in general, many are interested in the names of places they come from or their own surname.”

She got the position in Umeå but worked remotely from Uppsala the entire time because that is where the Institute for Language and Folklore (ISOF) has its archive. The topic she chose was place names in two parishes in Jämtland, and she defended her thesis, Bygden, byarna och buanStudier av bebyggelsenamnen i Hackås och Ovikens socknar, med ett särskilt avsnitt om fäbodnamnen (A study of settlement names in Hackås and Oviken parishes, with a special section on summer farm names), in March 2021

She says that her subject area piques the interest of many people she talks to. “Although not everyone is interested in names in general, many are interested in the names of places they come from or their own surname.”

She took the name Devine through marriage. Her husband is from Scotland, but she has not studied the meaning of the surname. She is more familiar with the background to the name of where she is from, Skulla. It is believed to come from the word skulle and probably refers to an elevation, she says.

“Then you need to look at what kind of elevated formation it refers to. Our family farm in Skulla is on a very small elevation. It is not immediately obvious, but it could be that.”

This type of fieldwork was central to Josefin Devine’s work with her thesis, interviewing local people and studying landscapes to try to figure out what gave a certain place its name. “I’ve driven around Jämtland a lot. There are quite large distances between places and I visited there almost every year to check different village names and lakes and mountains.”

She was aware that there would be a lot of fieldwork before she accepted the doctoral position. “That was made clear to me from the beginning, that you have to do it. It’s important and enjoyable,” she says.

Josefin Devine

Josefin Devine, 41, is a place name researcher who works as a research archivist at the Institute for Language and Folklore in Uppsala. She completed her doctorate at Umeå University in 2021, with a thesis on place names in the Jämtland parishes of Hackås and Oviken. Her roots are in Skulla, in the countryside northwest of Uppsala, where she lives with her husband, children and bonus children. In her free time, she is a passionate rugby player.

But first she had to search through archives, where many place names have been documented for a long time. “Someone has gone through all the medieval diplomas from the Swedish National Archives. Every time a place name is mentioned, a card has been written and put in the archive.”

It is also important to pay attention to spelling and pronunciation, which have often changed over the years. “The name Fäste, for example, is from the Iron Age and has changed sound-wise and spelling-wise quite a few times. So I tried to find sources as far back as possible.”

She has also studied collections of dialect material to find out how names sound when pronounced in the local dialect. That can reveal additional details about what words might be included in the name.

Devine explains how she managed to establish hypotheses with the help of field studies, for example when she studied the place name Dödre in her thesis. “I proposed that Dödre could come from a description of the nearby lake Dösjön, in which case it should be boggy and muddy, a bit like marshland. So we went there and saw that was the case. It was a little hallelujah moment. That made it more likely that I was right.”

“Someone has gone through all the medieval diplomas from the Swedish National Archives. Every time a place name is mentioned, a card has been written and put in the archive.”

The locals had believed instead that the name Dödre comes from the fact that many people died there during the Black Death, (called digerdöden in Swedish), but no one has disputed Devine’s conclusions. On the contrary, she has found great enthusiasm in the area that the places are being written about. She used social media and sent postcards to get help from local people to be shown around. “Everyone knew who I was when I was snooping around, and people wanted to come up and talk and ask questions.”

The section on summer farm names involved many interviews with the local population and contact with local heritage associations. It was a deep dive into the history of the area. The summer farm and summer pasture system is dying out. There aren’t that many people left who were around when they were in use and who have used these names themselves. That generation will soon be gone, and then no one will know the names.

When Devine asked around, it turned out that some older names had already been forgotten, even by those who were most interested. That certain place names stop being used is inevitable, she believes, but it is important that knowledge of them is preserved. “It’s cultural heritage, and it’s difficult to explain things in the present without knowing the historical background. Some may think that it’s only interesting on a personal level, but it’s also important on a societal level.”

Before completing her doctorate, Josefin Devine applied for her current position as research archivist at the Institute for Language and Folklore, ISOF, a title she actually thinks is somewhat misleading. “I’m not an archivist. I do research at an archive. Archive researcher would perhaps be a better description.”

Conveniently, she was able to keep the same study room in Uppsala as she had during her doctoral studies, and right now she is in the process of editing her thesis so that it can be published as part of ISOF’s publication series Sveriges Ortnamn,  (The Place Names of Sweden), which is aimed at both the general public and researchers.

“The aim is that the series should cover the whole of Sweden. It’s a mega-mega project that has been going on for the past hundred years. It’s nowhere near finished, but every little publication that comes out is a victory. It’s a basic research project that has persevered and is still going.”

Josefin Devine never did get her teaching qualification, and she thinks she made the right decision. She still has an outlet for her pedagogical side, including as a guest lecturer at Umeå University and SLU, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and through the project ”Borrow a Researcher”, where she talks to school classes about place name research.

ISOF also collaborates with the History of Sweden website, which is run by the National Historical Museums of Sweden and provides teaching material for schools. There, Devine has created a lesson plan on street names that can be used by teachers at secondary school level.

Josefin Devine also writes on popular science for the general public on the ISOF blog, where she has not only written about places like Skarpan, Kilen and Farfarshagen, but also about names connected to rugby, which is a great leisure interest of hers.

Traces of a fading black eye are visible on her face. A rugby injury, she explains with a smile. “We had a match last weekend, against Enköping. It was a heavy defeat. I actually retired from rugby a couple of years ago but had to make a comeback. I was so envious; they were having so much fun.”

That she chose to work scientifically with subjects that are close at hand is no coincidence. “When you are quite free to choose what to focus on, you go for something that is close to your heart.”

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