When you journey into Wales, whether in person or just by looking at a map, you’ll be struck by the wealth and beauty of the nation’s place names: two millennia of history written into the landscape.
Most of Wales’ place names are in the Welsh language, known in Welsh as Cymraeg. But you’ll also find names whose origins lie in English, French, Irish, Flemish, Latin, Norse and British or Brittonic – the language that was spoken here 2,000 years ago and that developed into what we now call Welsh.
Let’s start at the capital. It’s known in English as Cardiff, a name that derives from the medieval Welsh Caerdyf (which also gives us the modern Welsh Caerdydd). The first part of the name is the common Welsh noun caer, 'fort'. The second part is a form of the river name Taf (English Taff). Linguists have shown that this name – 'the fort on the river Taff' – must have first been coined in the British language, back when the Romans occupied Cardiff some 2,000 years ago.
The meanings of Welsh place names are often very transparent to Welsh speakers. Abertawe, for instance, is the aber ('estuary') of the river Tawe. But the English name for the city – Swansea – is not 'the sea of swans', even though 'The Swans' is the nickname of Swansea City Football Club. In fact, the name has its origins in the Norse language of the Vikings. It commemorates the island ('ey') of a man called Svein.
Dr Dylan Foster Evans
Welsh place names can be very logical!"
At the other end of the country, the island of Anglesey is probably named after another Norseman called Ongul; but in Welsh, it’s known as Môn. The mainland opposite is called Arfon (literally, 'opposite Anglesey'). Arfon’s main town is Caernarfon, earlier Caerynarfon ('the fort in the land opposite Anglesey'). Welsh place names can be very logical!
Even so, we in Wales have long been aware that our place names can be a source of puzzlement to visitors. In the middle of the 19th century, a shopkeeper from Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll ('St Mary’s church at the pool of the white hazel trees') on Anglesey thought up a publicity stunt to draw attention to the little town on the new railway line. He concluded that a ridiculously long name would bring in the tourists, and extended the name to the improbableLlanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch ('St Mary’s church at the pool of the white hazel trees near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St Tysilio of the red cave'). His idea worked. The name now appears on a famous sign that attracts visitors from all over the world.
Earlier visitors to North Wales include the Anglo-Saxon ancestors of the English. Some of them came to what is now Flintshire, and named one of their settlements there Preosta-tun 'the priests’ farm'. In Lancashire the same name appears in modern English as Preston. But in Wales, the linguistic patterns of Welsh preserved the name in a form much closer to the Anglo-Saxon original – Prestatyn.
In other places, Welsh names were changed by being taken up into English. The modern Welsh name Dinbych ('the little fort') has the final –ch sound whose equivalent disappeared from the English language some centuries ago. So two places called Dinbych gave rise to the English forms Tenby in Pembrokeshire and Denbigh in Denbighshire. These rhyme with each other, despite the different spellings. But to avoid confusion, the former – a seaside resort – is known in Welsh as Dinbych-y-pysgod: 'Dinbych of the fish'.
On occasion, Welsh names can be misleading even to Welsh speakers. The meaning of Cwmrhydyceirw near Swansea, for instance, appears to be obvious: 'the valley (cwm) of the ford (rhyd) of the deer (ceirw)'. But this evocative name only appears in that form during the 19th century. Earlier sources show it as Cwmrhydycwrw: 'the bridge at the ford of the beer'. The final element cwrw ('beer') has been replaced by ceirw ('deer') – no doubt as a result of a Victorian yearning for respectability. The village does have its own pub, though. It’s called The Deer’s Leap!
Finally, we come to the names of the country itself. The English name, Wales, derives from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning 'foreigners', or in particular those foreigners who were under the influence of the Roman empire. The Welsh name for Wales is Cymru, which comes from the plural of Cymro, 'a Welshman'. The word Cymro is thought to derive from an earlier Brittonic word, combrogos – 'a compatriot' or 'a fellow-countryman'.
And it’s Welsh, the language spoken by the descendants of these 'compatriots', that has contributed more than any other to the cultural richness of the place names of Wales.