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Why the longest place name in Europe can go-go-go away

25 Jan 2019 5 minute read

Ifan Morgan Jones

There’s nothing I hate more than place names being erased.

Walking past a farm that’s been called, say, Faerdre Fach for hundreds of years and seeing that it’s been re-named Happy Donkey Hill fills me with almost existential dread.

It’s a process of slow, unwitting colonisation whereby names that have deep roots in a culture going back thousands of years – names that mean something and tell us something about the geographic and cultural history of an area – are done away with.

But in one case – just the one – I would make an exception. And that is Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.

This 58-character place name is the longest place in Europe – and the second longest in the world after Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu in New Zealand.

It’s one of the most well-known Welsh landmarks worldwide.

But as valuable as the name may be to the local tourist trade, I really can’t stand it. And that is because it does largely seem to exist to satisfy the local tourist trade, and at the expense of a real understanding of the area’s language and culture.

There are a number of misconceptions about the Welsh language, but primary among them are that the language is made up of a long series of random letters.

Now, Welsh looks like gibberish to many English speakers because it is gibberish to them – they can’t understand the language, and so can’t be expected to decode the sounds of written words let alone their meaning.

Words sometimes seem long because double letters such as ‘dd’, ‘ll’ and ‘ff’ represent different sounds in Welsh to ‘d’, ‘l’ and ‘f’. They’re individual letters.

It just uses the same alphabet to English but because it’s a different branch of the languages family tree it uses it in an entirely different way. So no, we’re not just piling up letters for the sake of it.

If you keep that in mind, it quickly becomes apparent that Welsh words aren’t any longer than English ones.

The longest word in English, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust), is quite a bit longer than what happens to be the longest Welsh word, cyfrwngddarostyngedigaeth (intercession).

But if you attempt to explain this to someone, they will shake their heads: “Welsh words are long. Famously so! Everyone knows about that Clanforepool-place!”

Damn you Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery… well actually, let’s call you by your real name, Llanfairpwll Gwyngyll.

I spend a lot of my time reading newspapers from the 19th century and I became suspicious that I could find almost no record of the second longest place name in the world.

The people of Llanfairpwll called it Llanfairpwll, and have for centuries. Of course they did – a 58 letter name is too much of a mouthful to be of use to anyone.

The name Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch seems to have only started coming to the fore in the second half of the 19th century when Wales become a popular holiday destination for tourists from England.

My suspicions were confirmed by the Dictionary of the Place-names of Wales, which states that the name of this village is definitely just Llanfairpwll Gwyngyll:

“The internationally celebrated addition of -­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch is little more than a fanciful appendage deliberately coined to ensure continued prominence for a temporary railway station and freight yard about to become redundant following completion in 1850 of the Britannia Bridge (locally Pont Llanfair).

“A tailor from Menai Bridge (one Thomas Hughes who died in 1890) is credited with the fabrication which is based on features in the immediate landscape.”

So, with a P. T. Barnum-esque eye for the absurd, he took an already very long local place name and decided to extend it to ensure a continued flow of visitors.

Tourism is always welcome – it brings money and spreads the good word about your nation around the world.

But it can also be a dangerous thing.

Because in order to attract the tourists, people will often give them what they want, or what they are expecting, to see, rather than a genuine representation of local culture.

So rather than confirming that Welsh words or place names are long, Llanfairpwll Gwyngyll seems to have been extended in order to confirm to tourists what they already suspected about the Welsh language.

It’s the linguistic equivalent of dressing up in ‘traditional’ costume and playing the fool for someone else’s amusement. It’s entertaining the majority culture by satisfying them that ultimately, your language/culture is a bit silly and theirs is superior.

It strikes me as no coincidence that all four of the ‘longest place names in the world’ belong to minority languages.

All of these place names, I suspect but cannot confirm, owe their length to a need to satisfy the local tourist trade at the expense of the self-respect of those who speak the languages associated with them.

Of course, whether they keep the second longest place name in the world is up to the people of Anglesey, or more specifically Llanfairpwll.

Unfortunately, given the news about Wylfa B and the REHAU job losses in Amlwch the island is not going to be able to wean itself off tourism any time soon.

So I’m not against them keeping it if they want to, as long as they don’t mind me suggesting an addition to the second longest name in the world: ‘Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch-thisisamadeupnamefortouristswordsinthewelshlanguagearentlongbuttakeaninstagrampictureofthesignnandejoyyourselvesinwales.’

This would make it the longest place name in the world and clear up any misconceptions about the language – win win!

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