Traces of Ancient Gaul in French Place Names

History records that the land once known as Gaul was (eventually!) entirely occupied by the Romans. But not even the Romans could remove all traces of the Celtic language that used to be spoken there. A surprising number of places in modern France take their name from one given by the ancient Gauls.  And some of these places even preserve the name of the Celtic tribe that used to live there.

Modern French owes little to the language spoken by the Celtic tribes that once lived in the areas called Gallia Celtica and Belgica by the ancient Romans (roughly most of modern-day France, Belgium, and Switzerland). The historian and linguist, Mireille Huchon, says that standard modern French contains only around 150 words that come from this language, called Gaulish. While linguist Xavier Delamarre, one of the foremost experts on the Gaulish language, puts the number at closer to 300 if we count little-used dialectical words from different regions in French.

However, one area where Gaulish has left its mark is in French toponyms, or place names. Hundreds of villages, towns, cities, and even regions in France actually take their name from one given to it by a Gallic tribe. Sometimes these names originally held information about a settlement’s location, like Chambord, from camboritu, the ford at the river bend. Or the numerous towns now called Brive, Brives, or Brèves which indicated the presence of a briva, or bridge. Others indicate the worship of a god at a certain location. The cities of Laon and Lyon, for example, take their name from sites associated with the Celtic god Lug. While Nîmes and Nemours derive their name from the Gaulish word nemeton, a temple or sacred site.

A map of Gallia Celtica and Belgica.
A map of Gallia Celtica and Belgica around the time of Julius Caesar’s invasion in 58 BC.

More frequently, these modern place names are derived from Gaulish compound names formed of two different elements. For example, the widely used suffix -dunon (hill, fortress), can be found in the original names of towns like Medun (Meclodunon) and Verdun (Verodunon). The suffix -magos (field, market) can be found in the names of Rouen (from Rotomagos), Caen (Catumagos), and Nyons (Noviomagos). While the prefix Novio- (new) also lies at the root of names like Nevers and Noyon (both from Noviodunon).

When Gallia Celtica and Belgica officially became part of the Roman Empire at the end of the 1st century BC, the new provinces were organized around civitates. These were essentially regional market towns, that included the name of the original Gallic tribe that lived there. Interestingly, this tribal name later often came to replace the name of an original Gaulish settlement. It was also sometimes even extended to include the region in which the town was found. Probably the best known example of this is the city of Paris, which was originally called Lutetia by the Gauls. But by the 3rd century AD, the town was known as Lutetia apud Parisios, or Lutetia of the Parisii,the tribe whose settlement it once was.

Below is a list of the main Gallic tribes attested in ancient Roman sources that have given their name to a modern French settlement or region. Most of these tribal names come from Julius Caesar’s account of his invasion of Gaul, Commentarii de Bello Gallico (mid 1st c. BC). But others are mentioned, sometimes in a slightly different form, in Polybius (mid 2nd c. BC), Cicero (mid 1st c. BC), Livy, (late 1st c. BC), Pliny (mid 1st c. AD), and Ptolemy (2nd c. AD).

Gallic tribeModern French place names
AbrincatuiAvranches, Avranchin
AmbarriAmbérieu-en-Bugey, Ambérieux-en-Dombes
Andecavi / AndesAngers, Anjou
AtrebatesArras, Artois
Aulerci CenomaniLe Mans, Maine
Aulerci DiablintesJublians
Aulerci EburovicesÉvreux
Baiocasses / BodiocassesBayeux
Bituriges CubiBourges, Berry
CadurciCahors, Quercy
Caletes / CaletiPays-de-Caux
Coriosolites / CuriosolitesCorseul
LemovicesLimoges, Limousin
LexoviiLisieux, Lieuvin
ParisiiParis, Villeparisis
PetrocoriiPérigueux, Périgord
Pictones / PictaviPoitiers, Poitou
RedonesRennes, Redon
RuteniRodez, Rouergue
Santones / SantoniSaintes, Saintonge
Turones / TuroniTours, Touraine
VellaviLe-Puy-en-Velay, Velay
ViromanduiVermand, Vermandois