The place-names throughout the Principality may be said to group themselves roughly into four divisions:

  • (i.) Pure and unaltered Celtic names;
  • (ii.) Corrupted or abbreviated Celtic names;
  • (iii.) English names;
  • (iv.) Scandinavian and foreign names.

To the first division belong the vast majority of place-names throughout the whole of Wales and Monmouthshire. Except in some districts of the Marches and in certain tracts lying along the South Wales coast, nearly all parishes, villages, hamlets, farms, houses, woods, fields, streams and valleys possess native appellations, which in most cases are descriptive of natural situation, e.g. Nantyffin, the boundary brook; Aberporth, mouth of the harbour; Talybont, end of the bridge; Troedyrhiw, foot of the hill; Dyffryn, a valley, etc. Other place-names imply a personal connection in addition to natural features, e.g. Nantygof , the blacksmiths brook; Trefecca, the house of Rebecca; Llwyn Madoc, Madoc's grove; Pantsaeson, the Saxon's glen, etc. An historical origin is frequently commemorated, notably in the many foundations of the Celtic missionaries of the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries, wherein the word llan (church) precedes a proper name; thus every Llanddewi recalls the early labors of Dewi Sant (Saint David); every Llandeilo, those of St Teilo; and such names as Llandudno, Llanafan, Llanbadarn and the like commemorate saints Tudno, Afan, Padarn, etc.

To the second division those place-names which have been corrupted by English usage belong most of the older historic towns, in striking contrast with the rural villages and parishes, which in nearly all cases have retained unaltered their original Celtic names. Anglicized in spelling and even to some extent changed in sound are Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin); Pembroke (Penfro); Kidwelly (Cydweli); Cardiff (Caerdydd); Llandovery (Llanymddyfri); while Lampeter, in Welsh Llanbedrpont-Stephan, affords an example of a Celtic place-name both Anglicized and abbreviated. In not a few instances modern English nomenclature has supplanted the old Welsh placenames in popular usage, although the towns original appellation is retained in Welsh literature and conversation, e.g. Holyhead is Caergybi (fort of Cybi, a Celtic missionary of the 6th century); Presteign is Llanandras (church of Saint Andrew, or Andras); St Asaph is Llanelwy; the English name commemorating the reputed founder of the see, and the Welsh name recalling the church's original foundation on the banks of the Elwy. Cardigan, in Welsh Aberteifi, from its situation near the mouth of the Teifi, and Brecon, in Welsh Aberhonddu, from its site near the confluence of the Usk and Honddu, are examples of corrupted Welsh names in common use which possess in addition pure Celtic forms, (Ceredigion, Brychan).

In the third division, English place-names are tolerably frequent everywhere and predominate in the Marches and on the South Wales coast. Even in so thoroughly Welsh a county as Cardiganshire, English placenames are often to be encountered, e.g. New Quay, High Mead, Oakford, etc.; but many of such names are of modern invention, dating chiefly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Of the many English names occurring in south Pembroke and south Glamorgan, some are exact or fanciful translations of the original Welsh, e.g. Cowbridge (Pontyfon) and Ludchurch (Eglwys Llwyd), others are of direct external origin, as Bishopstone, Flemingstone, Butter Hill, Briton Ferry, Manselfield, etc.

Names derived straight from an Anglo-Norman source are rare; Beaupre, Beaumaris, Beaufort, Fleur-de-Lis, Roche, may be cited as examples of such. Scandinavian influence can easily be traced at various points of the coast-line, but particularly in south Pembrokeshire, wherein occur such place-names as Caldy, Tenby, Goodwick, Dale, Skokholm, Hakin and Milford Haven. Specimens of Latinized names in connection with ecclesiastical foundations are preserved in Strata Florida and Valle Crucis Abbeys. Hybrid place-names are occasionally to be met with in the colonized portions of Wales, as in Gelliswick (a combination of the Celtic gelli, a hazel grove, and the Norse wick, a haven), and in Fletcherhill, where the English suffix hill is practically a translation of the Celtic prefix.

A striking peculiarity of the Principality is the prevalence of Scriptural place-names; a circumstance due undoubtedly to the popular religious movements of the 19th century. Not only are such names as Horeb, Zion, Penuel, Siloh, etc., bestowed on Nonconformist chapels, but these Biblical terms have likewise been applied to their surrounding houses, and in not a few instances to growing towns and villages. A notable example of this curious nomenclature occurs in Bethesda, Carnarvonshire, where the name of the Congregational chapel erected early in the 19th century has altogether supplanted the original Celtic place-name of Cilfoden.

But although English and foreign place-names are fairly numerous throughout Wales, yet the vast majority remain Celtic either in a pure or in a corrupted form, so that some knowledge of the Celtic language is essential to interpret their meaning.

A small glossary of some of the more common component words is appended below.

  • Din, a fortified hill, hence Dinas, a fortified town - Dinefwr, Pen Dinas.
  • Dol, a meadow - Dolwilym, Dolau.
  • Dwr, Dwfr, water - Glyndyfrdwy, the patrimony of the celebrated Owen Glendower, of which his Anglicized name is a corruption.
  • Wy, or gwy, an obsolete Celtic word for water, preserved in the names of many Welsh rivers - Elwy, Gwili, Wye or Gwy.

Extracted from the entry for WALES in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.

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