Naming Names

One of the first of many customs we notice when we visit Cymru(Wales) is that there are two names for most larger towns and cities (and the country itself): the original Cymraeg(Welsh) and an English approximation or replacement.  For example:  legend has it ‘Swansea’ is a Nordic word brought by the Viking invaders corrupted by usage from ‘Swan’s Eye’, possibly a proliferation of aquatic birds or, as likely, not a corruption at all but a description of a sea port with lots of swans flying around. The Cymraeg name of the city is Abertawe, meaning the estuary of the Tawe River.

Salvation: Book CoverFurther up the river, we find Pontardawe, meaning Bridge on/over Tawe (‘ar’ is a participle that causes a soft mutation but we will go into the language and its secrets at another time). In my novel, Salvation, Christophe Maides, a foreign invader, demonstrates his understanding of place names when he is guessing where Caryl might have been born.

Another example is the Dulais River. Pontarddulais, Aberdulais and Blaendulais will all put us in a geographic location along this river. If we know the name of the river, we will know where we are along its route when we come to Bryndulais.

We might also recognize Aberdeen – that well known city in the north of Scotland – Dee being the river and Aber signifying the estuary into which it flows. This is evidence the Brythonic Celtic language known now as Cymraeg(Welsh) was the predominant language throughout the four countries of the main island of Britain: Cymru, Yr Alban(Scotland), Kernyw(Cornwall) and Lloegr(England). The Celtic language of both (Kernyw)Cornwall and Llydaw(Brittany) are closely related to Cymraeg.

Until the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the Dark Ages and the final push in the 8th Century that drove a terminal wedge through the mid-section of Britain, Cymraeg was spoken in every region from Land’s End to Wick. The proximity of the most northerly region of Iwerddon(Ireland) facilitated a cross-flow of language and culture between Yr Alban (Alba in Scots Gaelic), and its Gaelic Celtic neighbor. In fact, there were ample opportunities for the Cymry(Welsh people) and the Gwyddelod(Irish people) to comingle in many ways.

Following the Anglo-Saxon invasion, many of the Cymry remained in Lloegr and assimilated the Saeson(English people) or were assimilated themselves but traces of their language abound still. With no access to their Brythonic Celtic cousins in Yr Alban, a void allowed the Gwyddelod to encroach further into Alba, eventually subsuming the native people and their language with a variation of the Gaelic Celtic language, taking as well Ynys Mannaw(Isle of Mann) with them.

As the Saeson moved westerly and northerly, they accumulated and assimilated as necessary, changing names of geographical locations or adopting an Anglified version, such as Llundain became London and Baddon became Bath. In Cymru, the capital city, Caerdydd (meaning Day Fort), became Cardiff – a meaningless simplification and unnecessary.

By far, the worst example of approximation is the small town of Llanilltud Fawr. Illtud was a saint in the early middle ages, during the period of Christian conversions (circa 400-600AD) throughout the British Isles. Llan means ‘church land’ and mawr means ‘great, powerful, big’. This particular town was named for the church of the saint’s name. (Mawr mutates to ‘fawr’ when it follows a feminine noun; Illtud was a woman – a great and powerful one at that.) This town in English has suffered the ignominy of being approximated to Llantwit Major.

I have never understood why that was allowed.

Hwyl am y tro,


PS: Cymru, Cymry, Cymraeg, Cymreig, Cymro, Cymraes are all the appellations for, in order,  the country, its people, their language, their culture, a man, a woman. The terms Wales and Welsh are those used by the Angles and Saxons to differentiate the Cymry from themselves and mean ‘foreigner, stranger.’ I don’t use these terms because they imply that the Cymry are strangers in their own land.


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Filed under Cymraeg/Welsh Language, Hanes Cymru/Welsh History, Y Cymry/Welsh People

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