Welsh placenames: Wikis


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The castle at Caernarfon (meaning in Welsh, "the fortress in Arfon"), which was formerly anglicised as "Carnarvon" or "Caernarvon". The name "Arfon" refers to the area "opposite Môn" or Anglesey.

The placenames of Wales derive in most cases from the Welsh language, but have also been influenced by linguistic contact with the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Anglo-Normans and modern English.[1] The study of placenames in Wales reveals significant features of the country's history and geography, as well of the development of the Welsh language.





See: History of Wales

Wales developed between the 4th and 11th centuries as an entity distinguished clearly from England by 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 reasserted increasingly since the mid 19th century.

Language characteristics

See: Welsh language and History of the Welsh language

The Welsh language developed from the Brythonic languages spoken throughout southern Britain in the centuries before the Anglo-Saxon invasions 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 language is 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 Latin and 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.[2]

Development of placenames in Wales

The church of St. Mary, which gave its name to the village of Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, Anglesey (Ynys Môn), 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, Abergele refers to the "mouth of the [river] Gele", Harlech means "fair rock", Rhuddlan "red bank", and Porthcawl "harbour with sea-kale". Aberystwyth means "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.[3]

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; Llangefni refers to a "church on the [river] Cefni"; and Betws-y-Coed refers to a "prayer-house (betws) in the wood".[2] 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.[4]

Over the centuries, Welsh placenames have been variously affected by social and economic changes in the country. The Industrial Revolution saw 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 Talbot and Tredegar took the names of their main landowners and developers. In north Wales, Porthmadog was 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 stunt saw 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.[2]

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 shown in the table below.[5]

Welsh English
aber estuary, confluence
afon river
allt hillside, cliff
bach small
bedd grave
betws chapel
blaen, blaenau source(s) of stream, high land
bryn hill
bwlch gap in hills, pass
caer fort, fortified camp
capel chapel
carn, carnedd heap of stones
cas, castell castle
cefn ridge
cei quay
cil corner, recess
clog, clogwyn steep cliff
coed forest
cors bog
croes cross
crug heap
cwm valley
cymer confluence
din hillfort
dinas city
dwfr, dŵr water
dyffryn valley
eglwys church
ffin boundary
ffordd road
ffridd wood
ffynnon spring
garth promontory
glan riverbank
glyn deep valley
gwaun moorland
hafn ravine
llan church, sacred enclosure
llannerch clearing
llech stone
llyn lake
maen stone
mawr big
melin mill
merthyr burial place
moel bare hill
môr sea
morfa marsh
mynydd mountain, moorland
nant brook, small valley
newydd new
ogof cave
pandy fulling mill
pant hollow, valley
parc park
pen head, end
penrhyn promontory
pentre homestead, village
pistyll waterfall
plas hall, mansion
pont bridge
porth harbour, gateway
pwll pool
rhaeadr waterfall
rhiw hill, slope
rhos moor, promontory
rhyd ford
sarn causeway
sir county, shire
stryd street
tafarn inn, tavern
traeth beach
tref village, town
y, yr the
ynys island
ysbyty hospital
ysgol school
ystrad valley

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, Machynlleth and Llandudno all 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.[2]

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).[6]

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 anglicisation of placenames are the towns of Denbigh and 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))".[2]

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. Brecon and 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, Fishguard and 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 Orme and Worm's Head both 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 differ


English name Welsh name Notes
Anglesey Ynys Môn English name derived from Norse meaning "Ongull's island", Welsh name related to (but probably predated) Roman Latin Mona
Bardsey Ynys Enlli English name derived from Norse meaning "Bard's island" ("Bard" probably being a person's name), Welsh name probably originally Ynys Fenlli, "Benlli's island".[7]
Blackwood Coed-duon Both English and Welsh names mean "black woodland"
Brecon Aberhonddu English name derived from Brycheiniog, Welsh from local river Honddu
Bridgend Pen-y-bont (ar Ogwr) Both English and Welsh names mean "end of the bridge"
Builth (Wells) Llanfair-ym-Muallt Both English and Welsh names derive from the original Welsh Buellt, meaning "cow pasture", with the Welsh name mutating with the additional reference to "St. Mary's church"
Cardigan Aberteifi English name derived from Ceredigion, Welsh from local river Teifi
Chepstow Cas-gwent English name meaning "place with market", Welsh meaning "castle of Gwent"
Chirk Y Waun English name possibly an early anglicisation of the nearby Afon Ceiriog, Welsh meaning "the heath"
Cowbridge Y Bont-faen English name meaning "bridge used by cows", Welsh meaning "the stone bridge"
Fishguard Abergwaun English name derived from Norse meaning "fish yard", Welsh from local river Gwaun
Hawarden Penarlâg English name meaning "high enclosure", Welsh meaning "high ground rich in cattle"
Hay (-on-Wye) Y Gelli Both English and Welsh names mean "enclosed forest"
Holyhead Caergybi English name meaning "holy headland", Welsh meaning "St. Cybi's fort"
Knighton Trefyclo English name meaning "town of the knights", Welsh meaning "town beside [Offa's] dyke"
Menai Bridge Porthaethwy English name applied after bridge over Menai Strait opened in 1826, Welsh meaning "ferry of Daethwy people"
Milford (Haven) Aberdaugleddau English name derived from Norse meaning "sandy inlet", Welsh from local river estuary Daugleddau (i.e. the two rivers Cleddau)
Mold Yr Wyddgrug English name from Norman French "mont hault" or "high hill", Welsh meaning "the mound with burial cairn"
Monmouth Trefynwy Both names derive from the local river Mynwy or Monnow, the English name meaning "mouth of the Monnow" and the Welsh meaning "town on the Mynwy", the initial m mutating to f
Montgomery Trefaldwyn English name from that of Norman lord who built castle, Welsh meaning "Baldwin's town"
Mountain Ash Aberpennar English name from inn around which industrial development took place, Welsh from local river Pennar
Neath Castell Nedd English name from the river Neath an anglicised version of Nedd, Welsh meaning "fort of (the river) Neath"
Newport (-on-Usk) Casnewydd (-ar-wysg) English name meaning "new borough", Welsh meaning "new castle (on the river Usk)"
Newport, Pembrokeshire Trefdraeth English name meaning "new borough", Welsh meaning "town by the shore"
New Radnor Maesyfed English name meaning "red bank" originally applied to Old Radnor, Welsh meaning "Hyfaidd's field"
Newtown Y Drenewydd Both English and Welsh names mean "(the) new town"
Presteigne Llanandras English name meaning "house of priests", Welsh meaning "St. Andreas' church"
Snowdon Yr Wyddfa English name meaning "snowy hill", Welsh meaning "the burial mound". The Welsh name for Snowdonia, attested since the Middle Ages, is Eryri, meaning "highlands" or "upland" - the traditional interpretation as "place of the eagles" (eryr, "eagle") has been shown to be etymologically incorrect
St. Asaph Llanelwy English name from dedication of cathedral, Welsh meaning "church on the river Elwy"
Swansea Abertawe English name derived from Norse meaning "Sveyn's island", Welsh from local river Tawe[8]
Usk Brynbuga English name from local river Usk (originally Welsh Wysg), Welsh meaning "Buga's hill"
Welshpool Y Trallwng Both English and Welsh names mean "(the) boggy area", with the English name adding "Welsh" to distinguish it from a nearby (but unidentified) "English" Pool

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 Government and the Ordnance Survey have policies on standardising placenames, drawing on advice from the Welsh Language Board and 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."[9] 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. There is pressure from Welsh speakers in Denbighshire and Conwy to have the Welsh forms given first in their respective counties.

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

See also Welsh exonyms

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 England itself, 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 Mercia after 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").

See also


  1. ^ Wyn Owen, Hywel; Richard Morgan (2008). Dictionary of the Place-names of Wales. Llandysul: Gomer Press. pp. vii. ISBN 9781843239017.  
  2. ^ a b c d e f Hywel Wyn Owen, The Place-names of Wales, 1998, ISBN 0-7083-1458-9
  3. ^ BBC on naming of Aberystwyth
  4. ^ 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Wales
  5. ^ Welsh-English dictionary
  6. ^ Lecture by Prof. Hywel Wyn Owen
  7. ^ Britainnia History: Bardsey Island
  8. ^ BBC on names of Swansea
  9. ^ Welsh Assembly Government Welsh Language Scheme

External links


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