Welsh language permeates the hills of Wales, and an understanding of some basic vocabulary can really enrich any days' walk there. Myrddyn Phillips and Aled Williams are our linguistic guides...
Carnedd, crib, llechwedd, moel and pen are familiar words to many hillwalkers who visit the mountains of Wales, but what do they mean and how are they pronounced? In any language, such words provide the means by which places can be described and in turn, these words provide linguistic character to a landscape. Topographic and linguistic character go hand-in-hand and the sense of reward one can obtain by exploring the former can be enriched by knowledge of the latter.
The knowledge of just a small part of the language can give a greater understanding of the Welsh uplands and enhance any hill walk. The names on a map are so important, as they help bring the landscape alive with meaning.
The language is known by natives of the country as Cymraeg, a name simply denoting the ownership of the language to the Cymry [Welsh people], where the singular noun Cymro [Welshman] derives from the Brittonic word combrogos [compatriots]. The Brittonic language represents the precursor for a number of Celtic languages; namely, Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Cumbric. It is a subdivision of the Insular Celtic class of Indo-European languages along with Goidelic, from which developed the Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic languages and was the language of the Celts living within Roman Britain, the portion of Great Britain which fell to the Roman Empire and remained under its control for approximately 400 years. The power struggles of Post-Roman Britain (the legendary setting for King Arthur) eventually led to the geographical separation of the Brittonic Celts during the 6th century and the evolution of the common language they spoke into the four aforementioned branches. When Germanic people from the continent (most notably, the Angles and Saxons) gradually invaded and settled the southern and eastern portions of Great Britain during the Post-Roman era, they referred to the opposing Britons and their language as Welsh, which derives from the Old English word wælisc [foreigner].
The culture of Wales is rich in myth and legend and the uplands are the setting for a number of the nation's most well-known and fantastic folklore.
The highest mountain in Wales is home to a number of tales related to King Arthur, in fact the name Yr Wyddfa translates as 'burial-mound', of which folklore attributes to a terrible giant called Rhita Gawr whom the legendary Arthur is said to have slain.
Taking the ridge south-east from the summit and we arrive at Bwlch y Saethau [pass of the arrows]; this is where Arthur is said to have been fatally wounded during a skirmish with the enemy and near to which he was buried at a place called Carnedd Arthur [Arthur's cairn].
Further south and we find the squat stronghold of Dinas Emrys [Emrys' stronghold]. This spot takes on a magical quality when the name is investigated as local legend identifies Emrys as the prophet Myrddin Emrys, more popularly known as Merlin. It was here that Merlin revealed the duelling red and white dragons to Gwrtheyrn [Vortigern] and the prophecy that they symbolised!
In each and every section of the Welsh uplands Cymraeg permeates the landscape, with the provenance of many names being of great antiquity. Documents such as the 'Aberconwy Charter' which allocates land by the Welsh ruler Llywelyn Fawr [Llywelyn the Great] to the Cistercian monks of Aberconwy circa 1198, document names such as 'wedua vaur' (the highest peak in the country, Yr Wyddfa), 'grýbgoch' (scramblers' favourite; Crib Goch), 'moel berned' (the 482m high Moel Berfedd) and 'bwlch chwmllem' (the pass of Bwlch Cwm Llan, between Nant Gwynant and Rhyd Ddu) with many other recognisable names also appearing in the charter. The longevity of names associated with habitations is readily understandable, but it seems amazing that these places are still known by the same names as they were over 800 years ago; an unbroken link through the ages.
Examples such as the Aberconwy Charter show the hereditary nature of many upland names and although language can be empowering it is also extremely fragile. The recent history of Mynydd Epynt [horse-way mountain] illustrates this point. Much of this Mid-Walian upland is today out of bounds to hillwalkers due its occupation by the military. The land was seized by the MOD in 1939 and resulted in fifty four families being forced to leave the area with minimal notice and compensation for vacating their land. This had a devastating effect on the state of the Welsh language in the area. Since the 1930s, the Welsh place-names of this mountain have been severely eroded; some names have survived while others have given way to the uncharacteristic names coined by the military such as Canada Corner, Gallows Hill and Concrete Hill.
The preservation of place names was enhanced throughout the country in the nineteenth century with the establishment of the Ordnance Survey (OS). OS field surveyors scoured the land and documented many thousands of upland place-names. By doing so the OS saved many hundreds of names from vanishing into the ether. These names now appear on maps and have become known to hillwalkers, but their origins remain rooted to the local community. The earliest names documented by the OS can be seen on the draft surveyors' and the one inch 'Old-Series' maps; both of which are works of art and paved the way for the paper and online mapping of today.
The language in 21st Century Wales:
It is currently estimated that circa 20% of the Welsh population are Welsh-speaking with approximately 700,000 speakers worldwide. This is a far cry from the 90% who could speak the language in 1850 following the effects of the industrial revolution and the decades of systemic persecution the language received, such as the Welsh Not education initiative. In 1993 the Welsh Language Act gave Cymraeg equal status with English in all public bodies; an act which was welcomed and was long overdue. There are currently ambitious plans headed by the Welsh government to boost the number of Welsh speakers to one million by 2050.
This article seeks to give a glimpse into the rich wealth of Welsh-upland names; but many hillwalkers are prone to just pass through the land, driving to the hill, doing the walk and then heading home. And as one of the joys of any hill walk is solitude one may not see a local on a day's outing, either on or off the hill. This is why names on a map are so important, as they can help bring a landscape alive with meaning.
An understanding of Welsh words used within our uplands can bring so much to a hill walk and the glossary below will help you on your way. Those who have spent time on the Welsh hills will recognise many of these words, with language and land intrinsically linked together. For those who have not, and who are just setting off on their hill adventures, the knowledge of just a small part of the language can give a greater understanding of the Welsh uplands and enhance any hill walk, with names that open up meaning and resonate the landscape they are situated in.
The following section lists Welsh words commonly applied to the naming of upland places. The list also includes rough pronunciation guides, which require understanding of the following Welsh letters denoted in italics:
ch: the same as the 'ch' in the Scottish Gaelic word 'loch'.
dd: the same as the 'th' in the English word 'then'.
ll: no English comparison can be drawn; it sounds like a soft ch!
rh: the same as the 'rh' in the English word 'rhinoceros'.
th: same as the 'th' in the English word 'thin'.
The list above is by no means exhaustive, but should provide the non-Welsh-speaking hill-walker with a useful reference point for toponymic expeditions! However, there remains one sore point: the mutation of consonants, known in Welsh as treiglad. This process of mutation is responsible for carn becoming garn, craig becoming graig and moel becoming foel. In effect, some Welsh words have a split personality, which can result in fruitless and frustrating dictionary searches for the learner. There are three types of consonant mutation: soft (meddal), nasal (trwynol) and aspirate (llaes), out of which the soft mutation is the most important for the connoisseur of Welsh upland place-names. A number of mechanisms exist by which mutation occurs, the details of which lie outside the scope of this article. However, the table above should serve as reference point if for example the learner is unable to find a word in a dictionary because the word within a place-name has been mutated, e.g. Pen y Graig (mutated from Craig).
Let's put the above into practice on two virtual walks on the Welsh hills:
Starting with a traverse of one of the most popular mountains of North Wales, Cadair Idris [Seat of Idris], we ascend from the western end of the massif to the top of Geugraig [hollowed or closed rock], with the deep chasm which gave the hill its name situated to the north-east of the summit. The eastern side of this hill is also referred to locally as Mynydd Gwerngraig, however this is not a hill name but a land-area name, specifically acknowledging the mountain-pasture or cynefin [sheep-walk] belonging to the farm of Gwerngraig.
Heading west and we come to the peak of Mynydd Moel [bare mountain] and the cliff of Tŵr Du [black tower] before the highest point of Cadair Idris is reached, which is known as Pen y Gadair [top of the chair]. Nestled below the north face of Cadair Idris is Llyn y Gadair [lake of the chair], occupying the hollow which furnishes the seat of the legendary giant Idris from which the mountain takes its name. Heading further west and we reach the peak of Cyfrwy [Saddle] before descending the mountain via Llwybr Pilin Pwn [pillion-load path] (marked on OS maps as the 'Pony Path'), which historically was one of the major routes across the mountain.
Let's also explore an upland in South Wales by visiting Y Mynydd Du [the black mountain]. Starting at the shore of Llyn y Fan Fach [lesser lake of the mountain] we ascend Llethr y Llyn [slope of the lake] and subsequently the ridge which crests Tyle Gwyn [white steep-slope] to the summit of Bwa'r Llyn [bow of the lake]; an apt name describing the bowed-shaped ridge above the lake. On the way to the top of Picws Du [black peak] we pass Cwar Du Bach and Cwar Du Mawr [lesser and greater black crag], which are separated by the dark gully of Gwter Gau [the closed gutter]. Heading east from the summit of Picws Du we arrive at Bwlch Blaen Twrch [the pass at the head of the Twrch river], before scrambling down to Pant y Bwlch [hollow of the pass] and following the Afon Sychlwch [river of the dry lake] down from the mountain.