Jump to the following:

We use cookies to improve this website. Read about cookies

Welsh origins of place names in Britain

Place names are made up of elements – the words people used to describe a place or their response to their environment.

Place names can consist of a single generic element, usually a noun (Bryn, Talwrn or Dinas), but most place names comprise more than one element with a linguistic relationship between the elements. The generic can be qualified by:

  • an adjective (Bryn-coch in Powys, SH7602);
  • an element defining the location in relation to a river (Brynaman);
  • an archaeological site (Bryn-celli-ddu);
  • a building (Bryneglwys in Denbighshire, SJ1447);
  • a person (Brynsiencyn in Isle of Anglesey, SH4867); or
  • vegetation (Bryncelyn).

Qualifying elements may, occasionally, precede the generic element (Gwynfryn in Wrexham, SJ2552). It is quite common for the definite article y to precede a place-name (Y Bala, Y Waun, Y Trallwng).

Generic elements can be:

  • topographic, referring to features of the landscape; or
  • habitative names, describing the settlement in which people lived (tref, pentref and bod); or qualified by:
  • personal names (Tremadog, Pentremeurig, Bodorgan);
  • elements relating to size (Trefechan, Pentre-bach, Bodfach);
  • elements relating to location (Tre'r-ddôl, Pentre-bont, Bodffordd); or
  • elements relating to adjacent building or feature (Trecastell, Pentre'r-felin, Bodysgallen).

Ecclesiastical elements can loosely be described as habitative names, since many are combined with:

  • personal names, usually of saints (Llandudno, Betws Garmon, Capel Curig), or with
  • elements that specify a location (Llan-faes, Betws-y-coed, Capel-y-ffin).

There are many pitfalls for the unwary, attempting to understand place names and indulging in the indiscriminate, uninformed and naïve interpretation of elements on the basis of the place names as they appear today. For example:

  • Swansea has nothing to do with swan or sea;
  • Hope is not connected with hope;
  • Caerdydd has no connection with dydd;
  • Ystradau is not dau;
  • Llai is not llai;
  • Tre-saith is neither tre nor saith.

It is true that very many place names bestowed during the last two centuries do actually mean what they appear to mean. However, it is equally true that many place names are not what they seem, because of the passage of time, oral transmission, changes in spelling conventions and the natural urge to transform the obscure into the recognisable. Only the historical forms as they appear in the earliest documents can reveal a place name’s ultimate derivation and meaning. All who hope to interpret place names must heed that warning, and verify the origin and meaning in authoritative reference books on place names.

This is a glossary of the elements, generic and qualifying, most frequently found in the place names of Wales. Elements found only in the names of mountains, lakes, rivers, islands and bays are not included.

Each element is cited in:

  • its radical form;
  • any common dialectal variant;
  • its feminine form (in the case of an adjective);
  • its plural (if found in place names); and
  • its gender.

The meaning given is that which occurs in place names. Some elements occur only in place names and others are prefixes, suffixes or particles that modify or qualify place names. Two place names (with grid references) are cited in most cases as examples for each element.

Pronouncing the Welsh place names

Welsh pronunciation follows definite rules. Once the system has been mastered, you will be able to pronounce every word. Below are some consonants that differ from English pronunciations, followed by an example from a place name.

calways the k sound as in cat or killnever s as in cityConwy
chalways as the ch in the Scottish lochnever as in lock or churchRhos-goch
ddalways sounds like the th in breathe or thenRhuddlan
falways the v sound as in Venice and ofFelindref
ffhas the same sound as ph and the English offnever the v soundFfestiniog
galways hard as in getnever soft as in gentleGarn
lla voiceless l,. Produce an l, but breathe out both sides of the tongue.Llanelli
nghas the sound of the English ng in singing
In a few exceptions, the ng is pronounced ng + g as in the English fingerBangor
In others, n and g are separate sounds as in LlangollenLlong
rthis is trilled like a strong Scottish r or as in Spanish and ItalianRachub
ssame sound as the ss in moss or the s in sitnever the z sound as in noseDowlais
thhas the same sound as the th in thinnever as the th in theBethesda

Vowels

There are more vowels in the Welsh language than in English.

They are of the kind often known as pure vowels, being more akin to those found in Spanish or Italian.

They are never diphthonged as is often the case in English, which has to distinguish between can and cane. The forms in the square brackets that come after the letters are the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

ashort [a]as in apple
long [a]as in father
eshort [e]as in enigma
long [e]as in pin
ishort [i]
long [i]as in machine
oshort [o]as in not (never as in note)
long [o]
u as the first y in mystery
wshort [u]as the oo in took
long [u]as the oo in moo
y has two sounds
(i) In monosyllables and in the final syllable of a word, it has the same sound as u, as represented by the i in Brinton.
(ii) In other positions, it has the same sound as the u and the e in under.

Notes

The long forms of the vowels referred to above denote an elongated use of the short vowel sound. It is never a different sound. For example: the short form of w would be the equivalent of the oo in book. The long form would be the equivalent of the oo in moo.

The vowel is short in monosyllables occurring before the letters p, t, c, m, ng, or before a combination of two or more consonants. For example: cwm (valley); nant (brook); pen (top); marl (chalky clay); lloc (fold); cwt (hut, sty), and so on.

The vowel is long in monosyllabic words when it comes at the end or is followed by b, d, g, f, dd, ff, th, ch, s. For example: gwlad (country/region); lle (place); tre[f] (town/homestead); coch (red); de (south); rhos (moor/promontory); rhath (heath), llwch (dust), clos (yard), cloch (bell), and so on.

If a vowel is followed by an l, n, or r, it may be long or short – the long vowel being denoted by the circumflex sign (^). For example: dôl (meadow); lôn (road/lane); tŵr (tower); dâr (oak); pêr (sweet); mân (tiny/small).

The letters i and u are rarely circumflexed as they nearly always occur before l, n, r. For example: tir (land); min (side/edge/lip/brink); cul (narrow); mur (wall).

Long vowels are not circumflexed either in words in common use. For example: hen (old); llo (calf); cil (recess/corner/retreat); dyn (man).

Long vowels are used when a word can be pronounced with either a short or long vowel. For example: ar (on)/âr (ploughed); pin (pin)/pîn (pine); cor (dwarf)/côr (stall/crib).

Stress

Welsh words are usually stressed on the penultimate syllable – the last but one:
Llanfair, Llanfairfechan.

Where the stress falls on the last syllable, a hyphen is usually inserted:
Llan-fair, Llan-faes, Llanfair-is-gaer.

Exceptionally, some well established place names with stress on the last syllable are regularly written without the hyphen:
Caerdydd, Maesteg.

In others, the circumflex accent will show the stress:
Cwmbrân.

Mutations or consonant changes

In Welsh, under certain strict but constant conditions, consonantal change can occur at the beginning of words. Nine consonants can undergo change within three mutations – the Soft, the Nasal and the Aspirate.

Original letter
p
t
c
b
d
g
ll
rh
m
Soft mutation
b
d
g
f
dd
-
l
r
f
Nasal mutation
mh
nh
ngh
m
n
ng
-
-
-
Aspirate mutation
ph
th
ch
-
-
-
-
-
-

The following are a few simple rules:

(i) The first consonant of the second element of a compound word takes the soft mutation. For example:

  • Brith (coarse) + tir (land) becomes Brithdir (the t, as can be seen in the table, has changed to a d)
  • Pen (head/top/edge/end) + tref becomes Pen-dre[f].
  • Pen + cam (crooked/bent) becomes Pengam.
  • Glas (green) + pwll (pit/pool) becomes Glasbwll.

(ii) The first consonant of a feminine singular noun is softened after the article namely – y or yr. For example:

  • Pen (head/top. edge/end) + y (definite article) + glan (river-bank/hillock) becomes Pen-y-lan.
  • Bron (hill/breast) + y + moel (bare/bald) becomes Bron-y-foel.
  • Pen + y + pont (bridge) becomes Pen-y-bont.
  • Pen + yr + gallt (hill/hillside/cliff wood) becomes Pen-yr-allt.

Sometimes the mutation is retained even when the article that initially caused it has been lost. For example:

  • Y + Celli (grove) becomes Gelli as in Gellilydan; Gelli Gandryll.

(iii) The initial consonant of an adjective softens when it follows a feminine noun singular. For example:

  • Rhyd (ford) + coch (red) becomes Rhyd Goch.
  • Felin (mill) + moel (bare/bald) becomes Felin-foel.
  • Sarn (causeway) + pigog (spiny/prickly) becomes Sarnbigog.
  • Allt (hillside, cliff, wood) + coch becomes Allt Goch.
  • Carreg (stone/rock) + Llwyd (grey/brown) becomes Carreg Lwyd.

(iv) The first consonant of the second element of a compound word (that tells us who the first element of the word refers to) is often softened when the first element is a feminine noun singular. The second element is in the genitive case and acts like an adjective. For example:

  • Tre (town/hamlet/homestead is a feminine singular noun) + Caron (name of a person) becomes Tregaron.
  • Llan (church/monastery) + Padarn (name of a saint) becomes Llanbadarn.
  • Llan + Daniel becomes Llanddaniel.

This sometimes occurs even though the first element is masculine. For example:

  • (house) + Dewi (name of a saint) becomes Tyddewi.
  • Cae (field) + Dafydd (name of a person) becomes Cae Ddafydd.

(v) A few adjectives can be used before a noun. When this occurs they cause soft mutation. For example:

  • Hen (old) + plas becomes Henblas.
  • Hen + tre becomes Hendre.
  • Hen + ty becomes Hendy.

(vi) The initial consonant of a noun takes soft mutation when it follows a preposition such as ar (on/over), tan/dan (under), dros/tros (on/over). For example:

  • Pont (bridge) + ar (on) + Tawe (name of the river) becomes Pontardawe.
  • Pont + ar + Dulais (another river) = Pontarddulais.

(vii) The initial consonant of a noun following the preposition yn takes a nasal mutation. For example:

  • Llanfair + yn + deubwll becomes Llanfair yn Neubwll
  • Llanfair + yn + Buallt becomes Llanfair-ym-Muallt.

Glossary

Place names are made up of elements – the words people used to describe a place or their response to their environment.

Place names can consist of a single generic element, usually a noun (Bryn, Talwrn or Dinas), but most place names comprise more than one element with a linguistic relationship between the elements. The generic can be qualified by:

  • an adjective (Bryn-coch in Powys, SH7602);
  • an element defining the location in relation to a river (Brynaman);
  • an archaeological site (Bryn-celli-ddu);
  • a building (Bryneglwys in Denbighshire, SJ1447);
  • a person (Brynsiencyn in Isle of Anglesey, SH4867); or
  • vegetation (Bryncelyn).

Qualifying elements may, occasionally, precede the generic element (Gwynfryn in Wrexham, SJ2552). It is quite common for the definite article y to precede a place-name (Y Bala, Y Waun, Y Trallwng).

Generic elements can be:

  • topographic, referring to features of the landscape; or
  • habitative names, describing the settlement in which people lived (tref, pentref and bod); or qualified by:
  • personal names (Tremadog, Pentremeurig, Bodorgan);
  • elements relating to size (Trefechan, Pentre-bach, Bodfach);
  • elements relating to location (Tre'r-ddôl, Pentre-bont, Bodffordd); or
  • elements relating to adjacent building or feature (Trecastell, Pentre'r-felin, Bodysgallen).

Ecclesiastical elements can loosely be described as habitative names, since many are combined with:

  • personal names, usually of saints (Llandudno, Betws Garmon, Capel Curig), or with
  • elements that specify a location (Llan-faes, Betws-y-coed, Capel-y-ffin).

There are many pitfalls for the unwary, attempting to understand place names and indulging in the indiscriminate, uninformed and naïve interpretation of elements on the basis of the place names as they appear today. For example:

  • Swansea has nothing to do with swan or sea;
  • Hope is not connected with hope;
  • Caerdydd has no connection with dydd;
  • Ystradau is not dau;
  • Llai is not llai;
  • Tre-saith is neither tre nor saith.

It is true that very many place names bestowed during the last two centuries do actually mean what they appear to mean. However, it is equally true that many place names are not what they seem, because of the passage of time, oral transmission, changes in spelling conventions and the natural urge to transform the obscure into the recognisable. Only the historical forms as they appear in the earliest documents can reveal a place name’s ultimate derivation and meaning. All who hope to interpret place names must heed that warning, and verify the origin and meaning in authoritative reference books on place names.

This is a glossary of the elements, generic and qualifying, most frequently found in the place names of Wales. Elements found only in the names of mountains, lakes, rivers, islands and bays are not included.

Each element is cited in:

  • its radical form;
  • any common dialectal variant;
  • its feminine form (in the case of an adjective);
  • its plural (if found in place names); and
  • its gender.

The meaning given is that which occurs in place names. Some elements occur only in place names and others are prefixes, suffixes or particles that modify or qualify place names. Two place names (with grid references) are cited in most cases as examples for each element.

Pronouncing the Welsh place names

Welsh pronunciation follows definite rules. Once the system has been mastered, you will be able to pronounce every word. Below are some consonants that differ from English pronunciations, followed by an example from a place name.

calways the k sound as in cat or killnever s as in cityConwy
chalways as the ch in the Scottish lochnever as in lock or churchRhos-goch
ddalways sounds like the th in breathe or thenRhuddlan
falways the v sound as in Venice and ofFelindref
ffhas the same sound as ph and the English offnever the v soundFfestiniog
galways hard as in getnever soft as in gentleGarn
lla voiceless l,. Produce an l, but breathe out both sides of the tongue.Llanelli
nghas the sound of the English ng in singing
In a few exceptions, the ng is pronounced ng + g as in the English fingerBangor
In others, n and g are separate sounds as in LlangollenLlong
rthis is trilled like a strong Scottish r or as in Spanish and ItalianRachub
ssame sound as the ss in moss or the s in sitnever the z sound as in noseDowlais
thhas the same sound as the th in thinnever as the th in theBethesda

Vowels

There are more vowels in the Welsh language than in English.

They are of the kind often known as pure vowels, being more akin to those found in Spanish or Italian.

They are never diphthonged as is often the case in English, which has to distinguish between can and cane. The forms in the square brackets that come after the letters are the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

ashort [a]as in apple
long [a]as in father
eshort [e]as in enigma
long [e]as in pin
ishort [i]
long [i]as in machine
oshort [o]as in not (never as in note)
long [o]
u as the first y in mystery
wshort [u]as the oo in took
long [u]as the oo in moo
y has two sounds
(i) In monosyllables and in the final syllable of a word, it has the same sound as u, as represented by the i in Brinton.
(ii) In other positions, it has the same sound as the u and the e in under.

Notes

The long forms of the vowels referred to above denote an elongated use of the short vowel sound. It is never a different sound. For example: the short form of w would be the equivalent of the oo in book. The long form would be the equivalent of the oo in moo.

The vowel is short in monosyllables occurring before the letters p, t, c, m, ng, or before a combination of two or more consonants. For example: cwm (valley); nant (brook); pen (top); marl (chalky clay); lloc (fold); cwt (hut, sty), and so on.

The vowel is long in monosyllabic words when it comes at the end or is followed by b, d, g, f, dd, ff, th, ch, s. For example: gwlad (country/region); lle (place); tre[f] (town/homestead); coch (red); de (south); rhos (moor/promontory); rhath (heath), llwch (dust), clos (yard), cloch (bell), and so on.

If a vowel is followed by an l, n, or r, it may be long or short – the long vowel being denoted by the circumflex sign (^). For example: dôl (meadow); lôn (road/lane); tŵr (tower); dâr (oak); pêr (sweet); mân (tiny/small).

The letters i and u are rarely circumflexed as they nearly always occur before l, n, r. For example: tir (land); min (side/edge/lip/brink); cul (narrow); mur (wall).

Long vowels are not circumflexed either in words in common use. For example: hen (old); llo (calf); cil (recess/corner/retreat); dyn (man).

Long vowels are used when a word can be pronounced with either a short or long vowel. For example: ar (on)/âr (ploughed); pin (pin)/pîn (pine); cor (dwarf)/côr (stall/crib).

Stress

Welsh words are usually stressed on the penultimate syllable – the last but one:
Llanfair, Llanfairfechan.

Where the stress falls on the last syllable, a hyphen is usually inserted:
Llan-fair, Llan-faes, Llanfair-is-gaer.

Exceptionally, some well established place names with stress on the last syllable are regularly written without the hyphen:
Caerdydd, Maesteg.

In others, the circumflex accent will show the stress:
Cwmbrân.

Mutations or consonant changes

In Welsh, under certain strict but constant conditions, consonantal change can occur at the beginning of words. Nine consonants can undergo change within three mutations – the Soft, the Nasal and the Aspirate.

Original letter
p
t
c
b
d
g
ll
rh
m
Soft mutation
b
d
g
f
dd
-
l
r
f
Nasal mutation
mh
nh
ngh
m
n
ng
-
-
-
Aspirate mutation
ph
th
ch
-
-
-
-
-
-

The following are a few simple rules:

(i) The first consonant of the second element of a compound word takes the soft mutation. For example:

  • Brith (coarse) + tir (land) becomes Brithdir (the t, as can be seen in the table, has changed to a d)
  • Pen (head/top/edge/end) + tref becomes Pen-dre[f].
  • Pen + cam (crooked/bent) becomes Pengam.
  • Glas (green) + pwll (pit/pool) becomes Glasbwll.

(ii) The first consonant of a feminine singular noun is softened after the article namely – y or yr. For example:

  • Pen (head/top. edge/end) + y (definite article) + glan (river-bank/hillock) becomes Pen-y-lan.
  • Bron (hill/breast) + y + moel (bare/bald) becomes Bron-y-foel.
  • Pen + y + pont (bridge) becomes Pen-y-bont.
  • Pen + yr + gallt (hill/hillside/cliff wood) becomes Pen-yr-allt.

Sometimes the mutation is retained even when the article that initially caused it has been lost. For example:

  • Y + Celli (grove) becomes Gelli as in Gellilydan; Gelli Gandryll.

(iii) The initial consonant of an adjective softens when it follows a feminine noun singular. For example:

  • Rhyd (ford) + coch (red) becomes Rhyd Goch.
  • Felin (mill) + moel (bare/bald) becomes Felin-foel.
  • Sarn (causeway) + pigog (spiny/prickly) becomes Sarnbigog.
  • Allt (hillside, cliff, wood) + coch becomes Allt Goch.
  • Carreg (stone/rock) + Llwyd (grey/brown) becomes Carreg Lwyd.

(iv) The first consonant of the second element of a compound word (that tells us who the first element of the word refers to) is often softened when the first element is a feminine noun singular. The second element is in the genitive case and acts like an adjective. For example:

  • Tre (town/hamlet/homestead is a feminine singular noun) + Caron (name of a person) becomes Tregaron.
  • Llan (church/monastery) + Padarn (name of a saint) becomes Llanbadarn.
  • Llan + Daniel becomes Llanddaniel.

This sometimes occurs even though the first element is masculine. For example:

  • (house) + Dewi (name of a saint) becomes Tyddewi.
  • Cae (field) + Dafydd (name of a person) becomes Cae Ddafydd.

(v) A few adjectives can be used before a noun. When this occurs they cause soft mutation. For example:

  • Hen (old) + plas becomes Henblas.
  • Hen + tre becomes Hendre.
  • Hen + ty becomes Hendy.

(vi) The initial consonant of a noun takes soft mutation when it follows a preposition such as ar (on/over), tan/dan (under), dros/tros (on/over). For example:

  • Pont (bridge) + ar (on) + Tawe (name of the river) becomes Pontardawe.
  • Pont + ar + Dulais (another river) = Pontarddulais.

(vii) The initial consonant of a noun following the preposition yn takes a nasal mutation. For example:

  • Llanfair + yn + deubwll becomes Llanfair yn Neubwll
  • Llanfair + yn + Buallt becomes Llanfair-ym-Muallt.

Back to top
© Ordnance Survey 2016
Be sure to take a look at our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy