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If you’re Welsh, renaming ‘Bearded Lake’ to ‘Llyn Barfog’ really does matter

Bearded Lake is referred to by its Welsh name Llyn Barfog
Eryri National Park officials have voted to use Welsh-language names for the area's lakes and waterfalls, including Llyn Barfog (pictured) - Joan Gravell/Alamy Stock Photo

It was recently reported that officials at Eryri National Park have voted to use Welsh-language names for the lakes and waterfalls within the area in order “to promote cultural heritage”.

Some people raised an eyebrow at the renaming of a couple of hundred water-based landmarks, but these small uses of the Welsh language are deeply significant.

This is the latest in a series of developments across the country in which places are switching to give the Welsh-language version, as opposed to the existing English-language version. Earlier this year, the Brecon Beacons National Park announced it would now refer to itself as Bannau Brycheiniog in order to “reclaim its Welsh name”. Snowdonia switched to Eryri and Snowdon to Yr Wyddfa in November 2022. In this latest move, Bearded Lake becomes Llyn Barfog. Australia Lake becomes Llyn Bochlwyd.

Snowdonia switched to Eryri and Snowdon to Yr Wyddfa in November 2022
Snowdonia switched to Eryri and Snowdon to Yr Wyddfa in November 2022 - Peter Lourenco/Moment RF

This matters because Welsh, while the least endangered Celtic language according to Unesco, is still very much a minority language that is lucky to exist today. In 1536, Henry VIII decided to pass the Act of Union, which prohibited the use of Welsh in public administration and the legal system, despite his father having possibly studied Welsh at a young age.

It wasn’t until 1967, 431 years later, that Welsh was allowed to be used in court, and for the language to be officially recognised once again. In school, I dismissed learning Welsh as a waste of time, due to the general prevailing attitude towards the language. These days I often think about the opportunity I missed to connect to my roots, and I am learning Welsh now (albeit slowly).

Irrespective of the independence debate, it’s nothing short of remarkable that Welsh (Cymraeg) continues to be spoken at such volume. Since its compulsory reintroduction into early stages (Key Stages 1, 2 and 3) of the education system in 1990, there is more of an acceptance of Welsh than there has been for generations. Of course, the fact that an outlawed language survived for four centuries is testament to the people who carried on speaking it, in spite of the law.

The Brecon Beacons National Park announced it would now refer to itself as Bannau Brycheiniog in order to 'reclaim its Welsh name'
The Brecon Beacons National Park announced it would now refer to itself as Bannau Brycheiniog in order to 'reclaim its Welsh name' - Stuart Black/Alamy Stock Photo

At the end of the chorus of the (unofficial) Welsh national anthem, Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (which is the last line when the anthem is played at sporting and other occasions) is the line “O bydded i’r heniaith barhau”, translating to “May the language endure forever”. The official national anthem, however, is God Save The King. Preservation of the language is integral to the identity of Welsh people everywhere, whether they speak or even want to speak the language. And if you don’t care about Welsh, well, perhaps you care about history?

Welsh is the oldest language in Britain; according to the Welsh Government it is around 4,000 years old. That’s twice as old as the Colosseum, and more than four times as old as Notre Dame cathedral. It’s important not to overlook the significance of this language, which has survived in spite of four millennia of suppression.

The name Wales is interesting in itself. According to Wales.com, the educational online hub run by the Welsh Government, the word Wales “derives from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘foreigners’”. If the very idea of a country’s name being about them as an outsider wasn’t enough of an indication, the oppression of Welshness by the English is a long and ingrained idea within society.

National pride: 'Welsh is still very much a minority language that is lucky to exist today'
National pride: 'Welsh is still very much a minority language that is lucky to exist today' - Phil Rees/Alamy Stock Photo

These are chief among the reasons why people who are pro-Welsh independence tend to solely refer to the country as Cymru, which translates close to “fellow countryman”, and hence the name of YesCymru – non party-political campaign for an independent Wales. Preservation of the language generally is integral to the identity of Welsh people everywhere, whether they speak or even want to speak the language.

Across the world, countries that are majority English-speaking have place names which use the native language. Close to home, for example, Scotland uses loch in place of lake and nobody bats an eyelid; many Irish place names are pronounced with ease too. Why can’t the same treatment be given to Welsh? Because it’s less familiar and hasn’t been normalised? That feels unfair. The fact that a Welsh place is using a Welsh language name shouldn’t be newsworthy at all, it should be the norm.

Granted, just like most people in Wales call the Prince of Wales Bridge the Severn Bridge still, and the Principality Stadium, the Millennium Stadium, so too will most people keep using English-language place names for Welsh places. You probably still say Snowdonia and not Eryri National Park, and that’s OK: habits take time to break.

But to the people who raised their eyebrows to Eryri National Park’s Welsh-language announcement, I say: it is just a couple of changed nouns. You’d think people have something better to do than squabble over a formality that seeks to officially preserve a language. But apparently not, and so, a word becoming a new word in order to protect heritage is “news”, as if there wasn’t enough going on in the world.