There is an abundance of place-names in Denmark. These have been coined in the course of a very long period – at the very least 1500-2000 years – and they cover territories, waters, settlements, cultivated areas, streets and roads, houses and shops, and many other things.
The corpus of place-names is like a living organism. In the course of the centuries many place-names have been lost but many new ones have also arisen. The old peasant culture has been gradually replaced by an urban culture and while names are disappearing from the countryside, more and more names are developing in the towns.
How is a name formed?
The very word place-name reveals that the term points to one particular place. Most place-names will therefore through their meaning reveal something about the individual locality, but only if the name has been interpreted correctly. For example, one might think that the name Grenå reveals that the locality has something to do with a river (Danish å) and a characteristic branch (Danish gren) but a name-scholar will look more closely at the name and see that older forms of the name such as Grindhøgh and Grinøgh show that the name rather points to a mound (Danish høj) characterised by the presence of either gravel (Old Danish grind) or a gate (Old Danish grind).
In this way the total number of old place-names can be an important source of information about the Iron Age, the Viking Age or the medieval period in Denmark. It was not until the 17th century that urban culture began to give rise to a large number of place-names. From then on we find many place-names that do not have a local background (for example Timiangade 'thyme street', Krusemyntegade 'mint street').
A typical Danish place-name has for the last 1,500 years from a linguistic point of view been a two-element compound, e.g. Hårlev, Åstrup, Langager, Fredensborg, Guldsmedegade, corresponding to the way in which we form compound nouns such as mappedyr, sporvogn, klaphat etc.). There are also other kinds of formation, however, e.g. imperative forms (Spring-forbi, Sluk-efter) and various ways of using simplex words (Lund, Hals, Skagen), as well as very old names that are derivatives of simplex words (e.g. Skjern, Mors, Fyn).
The publication of place-names in Denmark
There is no complete list or data base containing all the Danish place-names but the series Danmarks Stednavne, Danske sø- og ånavne and Sydslesvigs Stednavne each cover a large proportion of the country with a thoroughly researched and interpreted corpus of names. The handbook Danske stednavne provides a brief explanation of over 7,000 place-names – first and foremost settlement names – in Denmark.