Welsh place names are being erased – and so are the stories they tell
Rhys Jones, Professor of Human Geography, Aberystwyth University
The decision to use Eryri rather than Snowdonia, and Yr Wyddfa instead of Snowdon by the national park authority last autumn reignited a longstanding debate over the protection of place names in Wales.
The switch to Eryri and Yr Wyddfa was made following a petition calling for the park authority to use the Welsh names. But campaigners have been pushing for better protections and use of Welsh place names for decades.
One of the most significant examples of this was the campaign in favour of bilingual road signs in Wales, which started in the 1960s. Before then, there were only English-language road signs in Wales.
According to protesters at the time, such signs were a way of indicating that Wales was an English and British territory. For the same campaigners, bilingual signs would signify Wales was a different country – one which had its own unique language and identity.
Not surprisingly perhaps, some recent examples of English names being adopted in place of old Welsh place names and toponyms (names for geographical features such as hills), have been viewed with consternation by some.
That list is already long but it is one that grows from year to year, as English versions of place names and toponyms are coined. Porth Trecastell on Anglesey being referred to as Cable Bay, or Llyn Bochlwyd in Eryri replaced by Lake Australia in tourist guides, are just two examples.
This has led to a campaign to protect, re-emphasise and, in some cases, rediscover Welsh place names.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that English versions of place names being coined often bear little or no relation to the original Welsh meaning. As such, there is a danger that important elements of the cultural landscape, such as local histories and legends, are being lost.
For example, the original name of the farmhouse Faerdre Fach (which translates as “little Reeve’s settlement”), near Llandysul in Ceredigion, points to its role as a local administrative centre during the Middle Ages. With the change to “Happy Donkey Hill” more than a decade ago, a name meant to appeal to tourists, all sense of historical or local context was lost.
Similarly, Banc Cornicyll, the former name of a farm in Carmarthenshire translates as Lapwing Bank, thus giving an indication of the local landscape and fauna where the farm is located. Its replacement name of Hakuna Matata (a Swahili phrase and title of the song from The Lion King), is divorced from the cultural landscape of the area. The owner last year defended the change, saying it was a decision made 25 years ago and that the Swahili term has meaning.
Place names are also important because they indicate patterns of power within society. The right to give places and landscape features names reflects the authority of individuals, groups and institutions. This leads us to question who has the right to decide whether a Welsh name or an alternative English name is used. Which institutions and agencies act as gatekeepers for the naming of places in Wales?
Criticism has been levelled at the Ordnance Survey (OS), in this respect, for being slow to correct the misspellings of Welsh toponyms on its current maps. The OS cited historical precedent, namely that these are the names that have appeared on its maps since the late 19th century.
But such a defence does not recognise the problematic nature of the creation of early maps in places like Wales and Scotland. Native place names were often misspelled on the basis of erroneous information received from English landowners.
Conversely, the farm name Hakuna Matata already appears on OS maps of Carmarthenshire. Despite differences in the contexts of these two examples, they both illustrate the significant, and arguably, arbitrary power of an institution such as the OS in the naming of places in Wales.
Organisations such as the Welsh Place-Name Society and prominent individuals such as newsreader Huw Edwards and comedian Tudur Owen have sought to draw attention to the Anglicisation of place names.
To date, however, the Welsh government has resisted calls to introduce legislation which would protect place names. That said, it is examining ways of stopping people from using English alternatives for Welsh place names, stating it has an “impact on the visible presence of the language in our communities”.
Jeremy Miles, the minister for education and the Welsh language, further stated in November 2022 that the Welsh Language Communities Housing Plan would conduct research into feasible ways of stopping Welsh place names from being changed.
All of this points to a growing appetite to address this issue. Whether it can be solved through legislation is open to debate, however. Many of the changes discussed in this article are taking place in the context of popular usage, by residents and visitors who, for whatever reason, choose to use English versions of Welsh place names. As such, it is a challenge that will be difficult to address, let alone resolve, in practice.
This article was first published on The Conversation.
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Perhaps it should start with councils giving planning permission to new build estate street names being in Welsh, all you seem to see on new build estates are names like “foxes hollow”and “badgers bottom “ to make owners feel they are part of the countryside that the developer has destroyed in the first place
The housing estate on which I live was named The Meadows / Y Waun by the local authority. All the documentation regarding the purchase referred simplyto The Meadows. After we moved in we discovered that the area,which has a public footpath running alongside it, had always been referred to as Y Waun locally. I try to use Y Waun as my postal address but letters to me often arrive with The Meadows written in at the side of Y Waun, presumably at the sorting office, despite the post code being given correctly.
Simple to remedy. 1. Changing a Welsh place name to some English name is forbidden. 2. All new developments should have Welsh-only addresses. 3. Addresses which were formerly in Welsh should revert to that version only.
That would do away with the Cable Bay, Donkey Hill etc garbage.
Some time ago Dr Dai Lloyd introduced a bill in the (then) Assembly aimed at stopping this practice. The bill failed.
It’s time such a bill was re- introduced, but this time the Welsh government must show how much it really supports the language.
I’m not sure that legislation is the way to go, Doc. Given the precedent it affords to government, one can easily envision a not-so-pro-Cymru set of politicians using the legislative weapons forged to protect in order to attack. As much as I agree that Labour’s apathy towards this is indicative of their dodgy history with regards to our language, heritage and culture (not great historically, better now but far too controlling), imagine if someone like the Kinnock Dauphin got into the mix on decision making. At least the Tories have a politically logical reason to oppose such measures (being free… Read more »
I think most people who care about this issue would be willing to take that chance, in order to secure Welsh Government legislation to legally protect or restore Welsh place-names. I can’t ever see a Kinnock-type Welsh Government repealing such a piece of legislation.
A bit of a “no true scotsman” there, Rhosddu. Not great- appeals to nothing are worse rhan appeals to expertise,and that’s what your assumption is based on – nothing. ‘shgwl, s’dim rhaid I rhywun bod o blaid deddfau neu polisiau penodol i fod yn wladgarwr, neu i gal car am dy ddiwylliant; wy’n eitha siwr fy mod yn dadlau y gall y fath esgeulusdod ac ymlyniad anystyriol tuag at llywodraeth, yn enwedig wrth ystyried ein iaith, traddodiadau a threftadaeth, achosi difrod trwy ei dadfeddu oddi wrthom. Mae’r iaith yn eiddo I ni, nid pa bynnag ffyliaid sydd ym Mae Caerdydd.… Read more »
Interesting standpoint, but it implies a pretty low opinion of your average Welsh voter if you’re implying that they would vote for the repeal of any future measure to provide legal protection for Welsh place-names. Doesn’t sound like a vote-winner to me. It isn’t clear. either, why you think the English are “wicked”, nor how that country votes would have any bearing on the Welsh Government’s position on place-names in Wales.
No, I’m not implying that the Welsh public would specifically vote to repeal such a law if it were introduced, I’m implying that nobody would consider voting predicated on this issue at all. And on me having a “low opinion on the average Welsh voter” – people can vote however they please, have their own opinions and can change their minds at any time. It is our own left-leaning political commentariat, along with plenty of our own politicians, the very people I should be agreeing with, that seem to actually look at our population with utter disdain, having spent the… Read more »
Ia Dafydd el yn pleidleisio yn erbyn!!?.
What a load of nonsense. I’m an Australian living in Wales. The most impressive thing about Wales is its Welshness. I don’t pronounce things well but I try. I’ve little to no idea what the words mean but I try to say them.
If refugees can learn Welsh and speak it fluently, maybe English speakers can as well. Tourists adapt.
Llyn Bochlwyd is not even close to the shape of Australia.
Croeso Barbara,Eora/Sydney Yuggera/Brisbane Nipoluna/Hobart are Aboriginal names from your Country.
Maybe NSW could be referred to as De Cymru Newydd,lol
I just half wonder what the indigenous people of Y Wladfa thought of their land getting new Welsh & Spanish names ?
Is anyone really surprised that Welsh politicians are against legislation to protect Welsh names? If the Welsh government won’t do it who the hell will! Welsh identity is being slowly erased and the spineless leaders are doing exactly the same as their predecessors have done since the Act of Union. The only identity they care about is gender identity. The red brigade won’t be happy until all traces of Welsh identity are erased and left with their new society. They then blame the English for their failures. They wear their masks of nationalism marching with their red flags, but they… Read more »
Perhaps the way forward is to say that if you want, you can put whatever name you like on a nameplaque on your house, or name a business as you want, but the official place name will remain the pre-existing Cymraeg name. I don’t see why this would be so difficult to do. There is actually a house called Dun Facebookin’ in Penryn, Cornwall, although I don’t believe this is on any official database.
Provision should be made for people wanting to restore a previously existing Cymraeg name.
Llantwit Major. Who was St. Twit? In fact, the correct name of course is Llan Illtud Fawr but some ignoramous could not say “Illtud” so poked fun at the name by referring to the saint as “Twit”. However, the sad thing is that the people or local authority do not wish to do anything about the insult!
Welcome to Wrexham is showing how Welshness can be marketed and how their is an appetite for it. Would be pathetic if we gave up what makes us unique and what will attract investment for nothing much at all.
(However, also needs to be said that English first speakers may struggle with names and more needs to be done to ensure correct pronunciation and spelling is achieved and accessible, and there isn’t a snob-like attitude to anyone trying and getting it wrong).
Johnstown, Wrexham originally was three farms, Tan-y-Clawdd Uchaf, Tan-y-Clawdd Canol & Tan-y-Clawdd Isaf, one is currently a garage known as Tan-y-Clawdd. Tan-y-Clawdd Canol was built upon 10-20 yrs ago and renamed Stablegates.Tan-y-Clawdd Isaf became a small factory, then a tyre fitters but still with some original buildings, recently demolished and houses crammed in currently being marketed as Belgrave Court.The original names infer that they were below the dyke, Offas Dyke, but by changing the name this reference is lost and many would not even know now that the dyke ran along the main road through the town. What the f***… Read more »
Our place names whether geographic or historical need to reflect our nations journey. The past tells a story and that ( like it ir not ) includes both the habit of incomers adding their own imprint and indeed our struggle to show the confidence of Cymru newydd. Many of the border names of eastern Monmouthshire reflected the patterns of Cornwall names with “ K and “v “ etc or adding English parts to them …..some were anglised across western Walea while others reflected Norman or Flemish influences as indeed “ Welsh “ parts of Shropshire and Hereford see place names… Read more »
Some 2 years ago, I had a conversation with a person who lived locally. He called a hill Clive’s Hill, instead of Pen y Wern.. I asked him what his name was, he replied(not his actual name) ” Edwrd” . I replied, from now on, you’re called
“Ursula “. He got the point.