Posted by: travelrat | July 31, 2009

Place Names

Since the Trip Diary moves to Wales next week, I’d better say a word about the spelling I’ve used of various place names. In modern Wales, it’s a no-brainer; the Welsh spelling is preferred. It’s Caernarfon, not Carnarvon. However, they’re both pronounced the same; there is no letter V in the Welsh language.

The English spellings, favoured in earlier years, came about because the first visitors wrote down what they heard. For instance, there’s a three-peaked mountain called Yr Eifl. In Welsh, it means ‘The Fork’, but English Victorian ears heard ‘The Rivals’, and so it appeared on maps until comparatively recently.

The problem arises when you’re writing about the history. Do you use the modern spelling, or that prevalent in the period you’re writing about? You’d write ‘The Ffestiniog Railway takes passengers from Porthmadog …’ if you’re writing about the here and now, But, should it be ‘The Festiniog Railway brought slates down to Portmadoc’ However, I shall use modern spelling throughout, in the interests of consistency.

But,what if the Welsh name for somewhere is totally different to the English name? I had the answer several years ago, from someone who teaches Welsh and is a member of the Welsh Language Society.

‘It’s only Caergybi if you’re speaking Welsh. Otherwise, it’s Holyhead.’

That makes sense; I’d probably be thought affected if I talked about Moskwa, Koeln or Firenze. And, I have no quarrel with anyone who calls our capital Londres or Londino.

So, I shall discuss Snowdon rather that Yr Wyddfa. But, one thing I was asked to do was to emphasise that it is never MOUNT Snowdon … just Snowdon



  1. I don’t agree with you; generally a name is a name except for the French, they translate everything. Whether one is English or Spanish Tierra Del Fuego is exactly that, Nova Scotia is Nova Scotia and not New Scotland. As a Welshman I would say the Severn Sea whereas you would say the Bristol Channel; Biwmaris is stupid and if Cardiff evolved through dialect then it should be left as such. Corruptions such as ‘the Rivals’ should be corrected but understood to be spoken in its quaint form out of ignorance. Llangorse lake is Llyn Syfaddan as Bala Lake is Llyn Tegid, there is no choice involved. A first language Welsh speaker would say Caerwrangon for Worcester because English places had Welsh names before England existed, so there are historical reasons, but on the whole an English name in Wales is an incorrect form, if one is Welsh the Welsh name should be used e.g. Abertawe, but there are similar historical reasons why an English person could choose to say Swansea.

    • In most bilingual societies (eg Switzerland (Suisse/Schweiz/Svizzera) the name to be used should depend on whichever language you are speaking. Interestingly, Google Maps do give the names of places in the majority language of that country; the city I just looked up was given as ‘Antwerpen’ … not the French Anvers or the English Antwerp.

      Curiously, though, they give the English names to Holyhead, Cardiff and Swansea … maybe because the Welsh names aren’t so widely known???

      Good point about the French … I often wondered why we refer to Bruges when most of the people who live there call it Brugge?

      (Reason for the post is that I recently got taken to task for calling writing Den Haag instead of The Hague!)

      Thanks for the comment!

      Take care,


  2. P.S. To qualify my point; when one speaks in English person one may use the English form for respect of his or her understanding and not to be a bore, but to a Welsh person one must use the correct form which is invariably in Welsh, although there could be an historical anomaly. An example of my argument is in the case of the name of the Country, as with the Inuits more and more Welsh people are using the Welsh name ‘Cymru’ instead of the iniquitous German name of ‘Wales’. precisely because it is of the Welsh for the Welsh. The Welsh language was put out bounds by law for the sake of English uniformity, but a name is a name, a motherly gift, a foster parent may re-baptise and brainwash you but deep down you know your own name and one day when you are adult and mature you will get your chance to use it again.

    • Hi, Bryn!

      I’m with you on the name of the country … much better a name that means ‘Homeland’. than it being (allegedly) derived from a word meaning ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner’.

      But, was it Germanic, though? Memory on this is somewhat dusty, but wasn’t it the Romans who bestowed the name ‘Gwalia’?

      Compare this with the French for Wales ‘Pays Galles’ … which doesn’t seem a thousand miles from Gaelic. Gaul, Gallic and Gallego (the language spoken by people of Celtic origin in Spain) … maybe the word doesn’t mean what it’s alleged after all?

      BTW, I had a look at your blog & it looks great! I’ll be in for a drink if I’m ever in the area!

  3. I meant “in English to an English person”

  4. Reminds me of some of the places in New Zealand where the names are written in Maori and it is frowned upon if you say them in English. You’ll do well in Wales, Keith. You know so much about the etiquette of traveling.

    • Oh, dear; I am in trouble! The only words of Maori I know are ‘Kia-ora’ … and that’s only because we used to have a fruit drink of that name!

  5. “The English name of the country of the Welsh derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wealas’ or ‘walas’, used for the natives they found as they conquered parts of Britain. Generally believed to mean strangers or foreigners, it was in fact a Germanic word referring to people who had been Romanized compare Walloon and Vlach). It was perhaps derived from a Celtic tribe, the Volcae, familiar to Germanic peoples”. – ‘The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales’
    O.E. ‘Welisc’, ‘Waelisc’, etc., = O.H.G. ‘wal(a)hisc’, ‘walesc’ Roman, Italian, French, O.N. ‘valskr’ Gaulish f. Gmc *’walhaz’ foreign f. L ‘Volcae’, name of a Celtic people.
    It was the word in the mouths of the Germanic invaders at the time that concerns me. Apparently ‘Wealh’ from the same root also meant ‘slave’ in Saxon law.

    • Thanks, Bryn!

      Interesting that Wales and Wallonia (the French-speaking part of Belgium) are believed to come from the same root.

  6. I forgot to acknowledge the Oxford Dictionary

  7. As far as I know all Gals and Wals, with the odd exception such as Galilee, are names that are given by others and applied by us from the other person’s’ viewpoint to ironically mean ‘foreigner, ‘e,g: Gaul; Galatia; Galicia; Wallachia; Wales; Walloon; it refers to neighbouring peoples whom they encountered and were different to themselves. It is a sad thing for these people themselves to take pride in the word as it is applied externally and not meant to be used internally. Inuit for an eskimo; Cymro for a Welshman.

  8. I like Canada … supposed to be derived from the Inuit word for ‘our village’ !

  9. Huron-Iroquois

  10. […] Generally, I try to avoid controversy, but this one seems to have got under someone’s toenails; I can’t understand why, because I’m saying more or less what this guy’s saying. […]

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