Craig ab Iago
There are many things that people could claim as being unique to Wales, but perhaps the strongest contender for that claim would be the way we divide our country up with the terms North Wales and South Wales.
The words north and south can be nouns, adjectives or adverbs but when they are used with capital letters as part of a name, as in North and South Wales, it is the noun form that is being used and the words become part of a proper name.
There are plenty of examples of the use of this noun form in place names, North and South Carolina, North America, South Australia, North Yorkshire and South Africa to name a few, but these are all distinct geographic entities with clearly defined borders.
North and South Wales have no such borders; no one knows where North Wales ends and South Wales begins (nor for that matter where West Wales and Mid Wales fit in), they are just vague references to the northern and southern parts of our country.
From what I can tell, there are no other examples, anywhere in the world, of the use of the noun form of north and south to describe non-delineated regions of the same country or place.
The general worldwide rule of thumb seems to be, when you want to refer to the bottom and top parts of a geographical or political entity you use the adjective form of the words with an “of” (as in the south of Spain), or the adjectives northern and southern (as in northern England).
There are many examples that demonstrate how this rule works. Southern Scotland refers to anywhere in the bottom half of Scotland; however, South Scotland is one of the eight electoral regions of the Scottish Parliament.
North Korea is not the northern half of Korea it’s the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a completely separate entity from the more southerly South Korea.
But perhaps the best way of showing how serious this rule is taken by the rest of the world is with Vietnam. Between 1954 and 1976 Vietnam was divided into two separate countries, North Vietnam and South Vietnam, but since their re-unification at the end of the war with the USA these terms have disappeared.
Now when you want to refer to the top and bottom third of that country you speak about northern and southern Vietnam.
But for some reason, we have decided that we don’t like the inclusivity of “northern Wales” or the solidarity of “the south of Wales”. Instead, we are the worldwide anomaly, the Welsh exception that proves the global rule, the etymological quirk.
And as if this situation wasn’t weird enough, it has even been exported. New South Wales exists in isolation, there’s no New North Wales above it and it’s not part of a greater New Wales; it’s there as if to solidify South Wales’ separateness.
A new Australian state named by an Englishman after a vague geographical concept 10,000 miles away, and for no known reason. But even here, at least the rule was adhered to and New South Wales is a political construct with clearly defined borders.
How has this happened? Well, as far as I see it there are two obvious possible explanations. The first one is that the English terms come from translations of the Welsh Gogledd Cymru and De Cymru.
There are Welsh words for northern (gogleddol) and southern (deheuol) but as far as I know they are never used in conjunction with places, therefore Northern Ireland (another anomaly but one with positive connotations) is Gogledd Iwerddon, the north of England is Gogledd Lloegr, and North Korea is Gogledd Korea.
So whilst Gogledd Cymru could mean North Wales, it could also mean northern Wales or the north of Wales. Perhaps whoever translated it first chose the one that suited them best.
The second option, and in my opinion the one more likely, is that as England’s first colony the terms were deliberately designed to divide Wales.
Rule number one in any aspiring conqueror’s handbook is divide and rule and what better way to do that than by nominally cleaving a country in two? This theory has the advantage of being backed up by England’s long history of “confidence” when it comes to naming places.
The word Wales itself, the name most of us, unfortunately, use for our own country, comes from the other side of Offa’s Dyke, originating in the Anglo Saxon for foreigners.
Then there’s the favourite of the English establishment, “the Principality”, a subtle, pat on the head reminder (made even more subtle by its lack of any basis in fact) of our place in the relationship with our easterly neighbour, and cleverly dressed up as a regal compliment.
The renaming of hundreds of Welsh towns, villages and houses by English speakers to something easier for them to say and more reminiscent of “home”, again indicates a certain subtlety of power.
It doesn’t end with place names either. The English have neatly summed up the Welsh, Scottish and Irish national characters with the names Taffy, Jock and Paddy, terms that, no matter how they are used, are always loaded with an expectation of inferiority; we all know that “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief”.
And of course, there is no equivalent name for the English character. The appropriation of our country’s name by the playboy princes Willy and Harry Wales, despite them being born, brought up and living in England, voraciously supporting England, being walking definitions of quintessential Englishness, and having no link to Wales at all, is evidence that the name game is not a thing of the past; these things don’t just happen by accident.
Furthermore when you look at a map of Britain the terminology used is incredibly Anglo-centric and doesn’t tend to fit the actual geography of the island.
“The North” refers to anywhere between Sheffield and Newcastle, and a man from London would automatically expect someone from Thurso, a Scottish town 500 miles north of Sheffield, to understand where he was talking about when he spoke about “up north”.
Similarly, The Midlands means the English midlands and not the geographical midlands of Britain which is somewhere up by Middlesbrough. And you’ve got to love the self-belief of the term The Home Counties!
Places and people were named from an English perspective and according to an English agenda. This is understandable in its context; England made history, Wales had history forced upon it.
But part of that agenda has been, and I submit still is, control of Wales and the best way to achieve that is a North Wales and South Wales forever apart; capitalised, confused and squabbling over minuscule differences.
Granted this might not be the biggest, most obvious of Wales’ present problems, but it just might lie at the root of them all.
In any abusive relationship, control is gained in very small, subtle increments and is complete once the victim starts to think and talk like the oppressor and self-regulate the required behaviour.
Until we stop using terms that have been directly or indirectly designed to divide, deride or denigrate us, we run the risk of never having the self-belief and self-esteem to ever really solve any of our problems.
No doubt some people will tell me to lighten up and not take it all so seriously (another common control tactic) but a north/south rule that the rest of the world adheres to instinctively doesn’t get broken accidentally, and being unique in this respect is not something we should aspire to.