- Welsh placenames
in Wales reveals significant features of the country's history and geography, as well as showing the development of the Welsh language.
History of Wales"Wales emerged between the 4th and 11th centuries as an entity clearly distinguished from Englandby its language, culture, legal code, and political structures. By stages between the 11th and 16th centuries, Wales was then subdued, conquered and eventually incorporated into the Kingdom of England, while still retaining many distinct cultural features, most notably its language. Since then, there has been a mixing of cultures, with English dominant in the processes of industrialisation and commerce, but with Welsh maintaining itself as a living language, particularly in its stronghold, the "Fro Gymraeg" of north-west, mid and west Wales. Welsh culture and political autonomy has been increasingly reasserted since the mid 19th century, through the 20th century and later.
Welsh languageand History of the Welsh language"The Welsh language developed from the Brythoniclanguages spoken throughout southern Britain in the centuries before the Anglo-Saxoninvasions which led to the creation of England. Many placenames in England, particularly of natural features such as rivers and hills, derive directly from this proto-Welsh language. Obvious examples are the numerous rivers named Avon, from the Welsh "afon" ("river"), and placenames such as Penrith. The Cornish languageis closely related to Welsh, and many placenames in Cornwall(and to a lesser extent neighbouring Devon) therefore have similar origins to names in Wales. This is also true of Cumbria, where there are numerous examples of Brythonic placenames.
Welsh remains a living language, spoken as a first language by many in the country, and it is important to recognise that, like all languages, it has changed over time and continues to do so, for instance by accepting loan words from other languages such as
Latinand English. The Welsh language itself has many characteristics which are unfamiliar to most speakers of English, and can make it seem confusing and difficult to understand. For example, it uses a number of mutations in different circumstances, so that, depending on how they are placed in relation to other words, letters may change. In relation to place names, for example, this means that a church ("llan") dedicated to Mary ("Mair") becomes "Llanfair", the initial "m" of "Mair" changing to "f". Similar changes can apply to vowels. There are also differences between Welsh and English in how some letters are pronounced, and this has affected how placenames are spelled in the two languages. For instance, a single "f" in Welsh is always pronounced "v", while "ff" is pronounced "f"; thus, the Welsh word for river, "afon", is pronounced with a "v" sound.Hywel Wyn Owen, "The Place-names of Wales", 1998, ISBN 0-7083-1458-9]
Development of placenames in Wales
Early inhabitants of Wales gave names first to noteworthy natural features, such as rivers, hills, mountains, harbours and shores. However, before the Roman occupation of the 1st century, there seems to have been little tradition in Wales of people coming together in organised settlements, and so little reason to give names to those places. The Roman towns which were established were generally fortified, and were given the generic name of "castra", which in Welsh became "caer", originally with the meaning of "fortified enclosure". Many of these continued as towns after the Romans left, and included
Caernarfon, Carmarthen("Caerfyrddin"), Caerleon, and Caerwent.
Elsewhere, many villages and later towns took their names from natural features. For example,
Abergelerefers to the "mouth of the [river] Gele", Harlechmeans "fair rock", Rhuddlan"red bank", and Porthcawl"harbour with sea-kale". Aberystwythmeans "mouth of the Ystwyth", a river a mile or so away from the town centre, and was apparently so named as a result of confusion by the English over the different castles in the area. [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/whatsinaname/sites/videoexplorer/pages/?flash=1&themeNumber=1 BBC on naming of Aberystwyth] ]
Many others took their name from churches established from the 5th century onwards, many of which use the prefix "llan" for "church". For example, the many examples of Llanfihangel refer to a church dedicated to
St. Michael the Archangel; Llangefnirefers to a "church on the [river] Cefni"; and Betws-y-Coedrefers to a "prayer-house ("betws") in the wood".Hywel Wyn Owen, "The Place-names of Wales", 1998, ISBN 0-7083-1458-9] The word "llan" is believed to have originally had the meaning of a family, or tribal, enclosure. It later came to mean a sacred enclosure for worship, and hence a church. [http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Wales 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Wales] ]
Over the centuries, Welsh placenames have been variously affected by social and economic changes in the country. The
Industrial Revolutionsaw the development of many new towns and villages, particularly in south Wales. Some of these used already existing place names, while others acquired new names. For example, the towns of Port Talbotand Tredegartook the names of their main landowners and developers. In north Wales, Porthmadogwas originally named "Portmadoc" by its developer William Madocks, both to commemorate his own name and that of the possibly mythical sailor Madoc. An early example of a publicity stuntsaw the village of Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll("St Mary's church beside the hollow with white hazels") renaming itself in the 1860s with an even longer title, in an attempt to keep its railway station open.Hywel Wyn Owen, "The Place-names of Wales", 1998, ISBN 0-7083-1458-9]
Common elements of Welsh placenames therefore include both words for topographical features and words reflecting human influence. Some of the most frequently encountered placename elements in Wales are set out in the table below. [ [http://www.cs.cf.ac.uk/fun/welsh/LexiconForms.html Welsh-English dictionary] ]
Relationship between Welsh and English placenames
In the majority of cases in Wales, the Welsh and English names for a place are identical, almost always because the Welsh name is used. So, for example, Aberystwyth,
Blaenau Ffestiniog, Bangor, Machynllethand Llandudnoall have the same spelling in Welsh and English, although it is also often the case that most English people do not pronounce the name in the same way as the Welsh.
There are also many instances where the Welsh and English names are very similar, both in spelling and pronunciation. Examples include
Caerphilly("Caerffili"), Raglan ("Rhaglan"), Treorchy("Treorci"), Barry ("Y Barri") and Merthyr Tydfil("Merthyr Tudful"}. In most of these cases, English usage adopted and anglicised the Welsh name, although there are some cases, especially close to the English border, where the English name was adopted by the Welsh. Examples include Flint ("Y Fflint") and Wrexham("Wrecsam") in north east Wales, and Caldicot("Cil-y-coed") in south east Wales. A related case is the Norman French foundation of Beaumaris("Biwmares"). In a few cases, such as Prestatyn(originally "priest's town", which elsewhere became "Preston"), the original name was wholly English but has gradually taken on a Welsh appearance. In one or two others, such as Caergwrle, the name combines Welsh ("caer") and English elements - the village was originally the English settlement of Corley.Hywel Wyn Owen, "The Place-names of Wales", 1998, ISBN 0-7083-1458-9]
In some cases, the spelling formerly used in English has, over the past few decades, no longer become accepted - examples include
Caernarfon(formerly, in English, Ca(e)rnarvon), Conwy(formerly Conway), and Llanelli(formerly Llanelly). Most of these examples are in predominantly Welsh-speaking areas of Wales. There are also places where there are ongoing disagreements over whether the Welsh spelling should be used exclusively or not, such as Criccieth("Cricieth"), Rhayader("Rhaeadr"), and Ruthin("Rhuthun"). [ [http://www.bwrdd-yr-iaith.org.uk/cynnwys.php?pID=109&nID=2272&langID=2 Lecture by Prof. Hywel Wyn Owen] ]
In other cases, the Welsh and English names clearly share the same original form, but spellings and pronunciation have diverged over the years. One obvious example is
Cardiff("Caerdydd"), where it is the English spelling and pronunciation rather than the Welsh which most closely reflects the original name of "Caer-Dyf" ("fort on the [river] Taff"). Some examples of the anglicisationof placenames are the towns of Denbighand Tenby, both derived from the Welsh name "Dinbych" ("little fort"); Pembroke (from "Penfro", literally "land's end"); Lampeter(from "Llanbedr", in full "Llanbedr Pont Steffan"); Skenfrith(from "Ynysgynwraidd"); and Barmouth(in modern Welsh "Y Bermo", but originally "Aber-mawdd", meaning "mouth of the [river] Mawdd(ach))".Hywel Wyn Owen, "The Place-names of Wales", 1998, ISBN 0-7083-1458-9]
Finally, there are a number of places, listed in the table below, where the English and Welsh names have, or may appear to have, different origins. These have developed for a variety of reasons.
Breconand Cardigan both took their English names from their surrounding historic kingdoms, but their Welsh names from local rivers; almost the reverse process occurred at Usk. Names given by Norse settlers, such as Swansea, Fishguardand Anglesey, tended to be adopted in English usage but not by the Welsh. Again, there are exceptions such as the island of Skomer(from Norse words meaning "cloven island"). English names for the Great Ormeand Worm's Headboth derive from the Norse word "orm", referring to their shape resembling a serpent's head.
=Places in Wales where the Welsh and English placenames appear to differHywel Wyn Owen, "The Place-names of Wales", 1998, ISBN 0-7083-1458-9] =
Official policy on placenames in Wales
The naming of places in Wales can be a matter of dispute and uncertainty. In some cases there is an issue of whether both the Welsh and English names should be used, or only one, and which should be given priority. In other cases it is because usage and style has changed over the years, and there is debate over which form or spelling of a placename should be used. Both the
Welsh Assembly Governmentand the Ordnance Surveyhave policies on standardising placenames, drawing on advice from the Welsh Language Boardand the Place-name Research Centre at the University of Wales, Bangor.
The policy of the Welsh Assembly Government on placenames as shown on road signs within its jurisdiction is set out in its "Welsh Language Scheme". This states: "The signs for which we are responsible (mostly motorway and trunk road signs) will be bilingual. Signs which are in English only at the moment will be made bilingual when they are replaced.... When both languages are included on one sign with one language above the other, the order in which the languages appear will follow the practice adopted by the local authority where the sign is located." [ [http://new.wales.gov.uk/depc/publications/welshlanguage/languagescheme/scheme06.pdf?lang=en Welsh Assembly Government Welsh Language Scheme] ] The latter proviso applies because local authorities have discretion over the forms used on local highway signs. In the predominantly Welsh-speaking areas of Wales, the Welsh form of the name is usually given first; in other areas, the English name is usually given first.
The guidance also states: "Signs containing place names in England will contain the Welsh and English versions of the name....". This proviso has led to new motorway signs in south Wales which direct towards England showing the names "Llundain" and "Bryste" as well as their English names, London and Bristol.
Welsh names for other places in Britain and Ireland
The modern Welsh language contains names for many towns and other geographical features across Britain and Ireland. In some cases, these derive from the Brythonic names which were used during or before the Roman occupation: for example, "Llundain" (London), "Cernyw" (Cornwall), "Dyfnaint" (
Devon), and "Efrog" ( York). The origin of the modern Welsh name for Englanditself, "Lloegr" (/ɬɔigr/), is disputed, but one widely-believed theory - which, however, has no etymological foundation - is that it derives from purportedly poetic words meaning "lost land", and was originally applied to areas of Merciaafter the Saxon conquest before being applied to the whole of England.
Many English county towns, founded as Roman "castra" and now having the English suffix "-c(h)ester", also have Welsh names, in most cases using the prefix "Caer-". Examples include "Caer" or "Caerlleon" (for
Chester), "Caerloyw" ( Gloucester), "Caerwrangon" ( Worcester), "Caergrawnt" ( Cambridge), and "Caerwynt" ( Winchester). In some other cases, Welsh names are translations of the English name, often influenced by the Welsh poetic tradition - for example, "Rhydychen" (literally, "oxen ford") for Oxford, and "Gwlad-yr-haf" ("land of summer") for Somerset. Some English cities which have developed more recently, but with which Welsh people have had commercial links through trading or other economic associations such as through population migration, have developed Welsh forms of their English names. Examples are "Bryste" (Bristol) and "Lerpwl" ( Liverpool).
A final set of Welsh placenames are those for settlements in England which lie close to the modern border with Wales. In some cases, such as
Ross-on-Wye("Rhosan-ar-Wy") and probably Leominster("Llanllieni"), the English name seems to have derived from the Welsh name. In other cases, such as "Llwydlo" ( Ludlow) and "Henffordd" ( Hereford), the Welsh name derived from the English name of the settlement. The Welsh name for Shrewsbury, "Amwythig", means "fort in scrubland", which is one theory of the origin of the English name. Oswestry("Oswald's tree") is in Welsh "Croesoswallt" ("Oswald's cross").
List of generic forms in British place names
Cumbrian placename etymology
Aber and Inver as place-name elements
Llan place name element
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/whatsinaname/ BBC Wales: What's in a name?]
* [http://www.bwrdd-yr-iaith.org.uk/cynnwys.php?pID=263&langID=2 Welsh Language Board: Placenames Advisory Service]
* [http://www.bwrdd-yr-iaith.org.uk/cynnwys.php?pID=109&nID=2272&langID=2 Place-names Standardisation Lecture by Prof. Hywel Wyn Owen]
* [http://www.bangor.ac.uk/PlaceNames/English/index.html Placenames Research Centre, University of Wales]
* [http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/oswebsite/aboutus/reports/wales/docs/welshlanguageschemefinal.pdf Ordnance Survey Welsh Language Scheme]
* [http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/oswebsite/freefun/didyouknow/placenames/docs/welsh_guide.pdf Ordnance Survey Guide to Welsh origins of place names in Britain]
* [http://www.lexilogos.com/english/welsh_dictionary.htm Links to various English-Welsh dictionaries]
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