Map of Winterthur and surroundings, circa 1709.
Map of Winterthur and surroundings, circa 1709. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

From ‘Uitoduro’ to ‘Winti’: how place names change

Since they were founded centuries ago, place name have undergone constant change. Unsophisticated descriptions of the local landscape, or ownership, have morphed into abbreviations popular among the young. In Winterthur’s case, it has gone from ‘Uitoduro’ to ‘Winti’.

André Perler

André Perler

André Perler is a dialectologist and historian and works at SRF as a dialect editor.

As long as a language is living and in use, it will change constantly. That also applies to names, which are naturally also a part of our language. Having been extensively documented, often over centuries, place names offer a particularly good way of observing linguistic developments over time. Winterthur is a great example of how place names change. The second-largest city in the canton of Zurich has its origins in Roman times (vicus = small town) with the Vitudurum fort in what is now upper Winterthur. It was on an important route between Lake Geneva and Lake Constance. An analysis of the tree rings of excavated Roman wooden buildings date the settlement back to the first century.
How the small Roman town of Vitudurum might have looked in the first quarter of the second century.
How the small Roman town of Vitudurum might have looked in the first quarter of the second century. bunterhund Illustration / Canton of Zurich

Winterthur, the pasture gate

The first evidence of the Latin place name Vitudurum originates from approximately 280 AD, but it is actually Celtic. The Roman vicus must therefore have been given to an existing Celtic settlement, although there has been no archaeological proof found of it. The population in Roman times consisted mainly of Romanised Celts. The Celtic *Uitódurō can be reconstructed from the Latinised Vitudurum. Uitódurō is composed of the Celtic uito, for pasture, possibly also a person’s name, and durōn for door or gate. Winterthur therefore means pasture gate, pasture yard, or a fence made of woven straw. It might also refer to uito's marketplace.

Celtic place names were Romanised

The Celtic place name ending durōn can also be found in Solothurn (*Salódŭrōn, or marketplace on the water/marketplace of the Salo). Many other Celtic place names survive in Switzerland to this day, such as Thun (dūnon, or stockade, fort or fortified place), Yverdon (*Eburodūnon, or fortified place of the eburo, or yew) and Zurich (*Turīcon, settlement of the Tūro). With the integration of what is now Switzerland into the Roman Empire at the start of modern times, and the swift change of everyday language from Celtic to Latin, Celtic place names were Romanised, so Salódŭrōn > Salodurum, Dūnon > Tunum, Eburodūnon > Eburodunum, Turīcon > Turicum.
The first written mention of the city of Solothurn is on a former altar stone dating from 219 AD. The abbreviation Salod marked in red stands for the place name Salodurum.
The first written mention of the city of Solothurn is on a former altar stone dating from 219 AD. The abbreviation Salod marked in red stands for the place name Salodurum. Steinmuseum Solothurn

New Celtic-Roman establishments

At the same time, a few new Latin place names were created, such as Augst/Kaiseraugst (Latin *Augusta Rauricorum, or the city of Augustus in the region of the Raurici) and Koblenz (Latin *confluentia, or confluence). Much more common than purely Latin place names are Celtic-Latin hybrids, such as those ending in -ach(t): Bettlach, Alpnach, Küsnacht etc. The first part of the word in each case is a Latin personal name, the second a Celtic place name ending -akos, Latinised into ‑acum. These hybrid name reflect the linguistic circumstances in the Romanised Celtic society of the extended Alpine region.
Winterthur in an engraving by Matthäus Merian, circa 1640.
Winterthur in an engraving by Matthäus Merian, circa 1640. ETH Library

Yet another change of language

The migration of the Alemanni to the territory of what is now German-speaking Switzerland from the 6th century onwards brought another change of language. While they founded a large number of new settlements (with place names ending in -ingen, ‑ikon, -dorf and -wil), they also took over many existing ones, and adapted their names to their Germanic language. That is how the Swiss German names that we know today evolved over the centuries. This change of language naturally did not happen in the Romance language parts of Switzerland, where local place names developed in the individual Romance dialects and languages.

What are the Winter and Thur in Winterthur?

Then, of course, were the occasional popular etymological adaptations. Where part of a word or name was no longer understood, speakers adopted a similar sounding but etymologically incorrect alternative. In Winterthur’s case, there is evidence of the Alemannic form of Wintarduro from as long ago as 856, when the Vitu part of the name, which was no longer understood, became replaced in popular usage by the Alemannic wintar (Winter). Later still, the second part of the name was changed to Thur, like the river Thur, which does not actually flow through Winterthur. Other examples of place names that have changed in popular usage are Weinfelden (which does not refer to the German for wine, but to the Alemannic personal name of Wino) and Herzogenbuchsee/ Münchenbuchsee (whose names have nothing to do with any book (Buch) or lake (See), but originate instead from the Latin *ad buxa, for ‘by the boxtrees’).
‘Winti’ in lights at the Sulzer complex in Winterthur.
‘Winti’ in lights at the Sulzer complex in Winterthur. Keystone/ Roger Szilagyi

Youth short and casual forms

In the local area at least, people refer to the town not as Winterthur, but often simply as Winti. The diminutive is no more than a century old. This author was unable to find any examples from the first half of the 20th century. Many other place names have been abbreviated according to the same pattern, such as Neftenbach > Nefti und Wiesendangen > Wisi (and Seuzach often to Seuzi). Rapperswil > Rappi and Solothurn > Soli are further examples It’s possible that these shorter forms arose in usage among young people, and later became established in casual use. In Swiss German the diminutive -i form found in descriptors such as Badanstalt > Badi (lido), Gymnasium > Gymi (high school) probably became adopted for place names. Other place names are given the diminutive form without the -i ending, usually by being reduced to the first two syllables (Wünnewil > Wüne, Neuchâtel > Neuch). Wit is also in evidence, with Wollishofen becoming the more creative Wollyhood, and Emmenbrücke also borrowing from the American to become Emmebronx . Local place names will continue to change for as long as language is spoken in Switzerland.

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