Names of villages, in France

Keith Briggs published a post here on names of English place name element distribution, which contains almost twenty maps like the one where names ends by -bourn,bourne,burn (here) or -head (there). Actually, it is possible (Robin mentioned that already here) to do similar things in France… Consider the dataset containing the 35,250 commune names (here), it is an xls file containing the official name, the latitude, and on the longitude. To start with something simple, it is possible also to look at village containing “saint” in it

There are a lot, and there is no obvious geographic trend. For some simple geographic trend, t is possible to see where are villages having a name ending with “sur mer” (meaning literally “on the sea”) below on the left. Obviously, we cannot find such places in the Alps. Similarly for names ending with “Seine” they are clearly on the Seine river, on the right

> ville=read.table("D:\\r-data\\ville.csv",sep=";",header=TRUE)
> nrow(ville)
[1] 35376
> ville$maj=as.character(ville$Nom.Ville)
> n=nchar(ville$maj)
> I=substr(ville$maj,pmax(0,n-8),n)
> Ind=I=="-sur-Mer "
> sum(Ind)
[1] 98
> library(maps)
> map('france', fill = FALSE)
> X=ville[Ind,]
> x=as.numeric(as.character(X$Longitude))
> y=as.numeric(as.character(X$Latitude))
> points(x,y,pch=19,col="blue",cex=.6)

In order to continue with some geographic pattern, consider the end of the names, such as “-gny” (below on the left, in red) or “-ac” (below on the right, in blue)

Some pretend that “-ac” comes from Gaelic, and can be found in Celtic regions (here in Brittany). Obviously, there is also an origin in Occitany (south west of France). And this gave also in Oïl region the “-gny” (in North and North-East regions). Consider similarly end of the names, such as “-an” (below on the left, in red) or “-ey” (below on the right, in blue)

Still about the end of the names, it is also possible to look for village ending either with “-a” (below on the left, in red) or “-o” (below on the right, in blue)

We are now in the southern part of France…. “-a” in Corse and Pyrénées, while “-o”can be found in Corse, and in Brittany. For the beginning “ker-” or “lan-”  (below on the left, in red) or “castel-” (below on the right, in blue),

“ker-” appears in 18,000 location names (as mentioned here) but only in some village names. It is similar to “castel-” in the southern part of France.
To go a bit further, 40 years ago, Georges Brassens sang a song entitled “La ballade des gens qui sont nés quelque part“.

He says that people are usually extremely proud of their villages…. Actually, their are more people proud of living over something than under something: below are villages containing “sous” (i.e. under below on the left, in red) or “sur” (i.e. over below on the right, in blue)

On the other hand, villages containing “grand” or “grande” (i.e. tall or big below on the left, in red) or “petit” or “petite” (i.e. small below on the right, in blue) seem to be correlated: close to a city with “grand” there is a village with “petit” in it. For instance Virieu-le-Grand and Virieu-le-Petit, or  Essigny-le-Grand and Essigny-le-Petit.

And finally, I found surprising to see so many village containing “montagne” (ie mountain below on the left, in orange) or starting with “Mont” (below on the right, in purple) that are far from mountains,

You do not need to live close to some mountains to get mountains in it. Even in Brittany you can find dozen of villages starting with “Mont”….

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Arthur Charpentier (November 2, 2010). Names of villages, in France. Freakonometrics. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from

3 thoughts on “Names of villages, in France”

  1. Nice entry… A few remarks:
    – “-ac” suffix can be found in celtic toponyms (Loudéac, Yffiniac, Carnac…). It is also a standard derivation of the latin suffix “-acum” in langue d’Oc areas (it is derived as “-ay”, “-y” or “-eux” in other parts of France).

    – you’d probably find a high spatial correlation between places called “-le-Petit” and those called “-sous-” something, because they denote the same kind of settlement pattern, where a new village is created in the vicinity of an other one.

    – studying toponyms of of hamlets which are not “communes” (which are mostly derived from Ancient Régime parishes) would give other interesting patterns. For instance you’d find a lot of toponyms starting with “Chez”, followed by a anthroponym, on the border between langue d’Oc and langue d’Oil; lots of “Convenant” (also followed by an anthroponym) in parts of Brittany where there was a specific form of land tenure, etc.

  2. Thanks, It works using your idea. Here is the code :

    ville$maj= as.character(ville$Nom.Ville)
    n= nchar(ville$maj)
    Ind= which((n==5)&(substr(ville$maj,1,1)==” “&(substr(rev(ville$maj),1,1)==” “)))

    I have tried to use rev() and it works well also on vector of characters strings.

    And thus the answer is that in France there is 153 tows whose name is made of three letters… and many (but not a lot) are located on the South-West. Thank you for your answer, Arthur.

  3. Hi,
    Your post is very interesting. Since I live in Pau, I was asking myself about the number of towns whose name is made of three letters. Thus now I have my answer… or almost because I have some troubles… My script gives some names with more than three letters :

    ville$maj= as.character(ville$Nom.Ville)
    n= nchar(ville$maj)
    I= substr(ville$maj,2,n-1)
    Ind= (nchar(I)==3)

    # [1] TRUE
    # [1] “Ilhat”
    # 3

    Maybe I miss something… Have you an idea ? Thanks !!! Anyway I have to convience my colleagues in geography to use now R (we propose to our student a course of GIS in master 1 and another one in master 2).


    REPONSE: I guess the following should work,

    n= nchar(ville$maj);
    Ind= (n==3)

    The only problem is that there might be space at the begining, and at then end of the string… for perhaps 5 is better than 3

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