April 18, 2023 - 1:00pm

Yesterday, YesCymru, the campaign for Welsh independence, tweeted a compilation of English commentators and outlets getting angry at the decision of Brecon Beacons National Park to drop the English version of its name. The move was ascribed to “mental illness” by a GB News presenter and “wokery” by the leader of the Heritage Party. According to Nigel Farage, “We are losing our minds.”

Of course, none of these criticisms explained why only using the established Welsh name for a mountain range in Wales is so wrong. Some Twitter critics seemed to think the name was being changed, apparently unaware that Welsh is a living language and that most English place names in Wales have older Welsh equivalents. 

English conservatives, who claim to defend British culture, are often very dismissive of those parts of British heritage which are not English. They assume their version of Britain is the only one that exists, and the rich linguistic heritage of these islands is lost on them. The result of this is, inadvertently, to invigorate nationalists, as every symbolic insult fans the flames of independence. Economic arguments are difficult to win, but messages that boil down to “Some of the English hate our culture” hit home because they seem to be true.

Protecting the Welsh language should be a valued cause for British conservatives. It is an integral part of British heritage, and a reminder of a national antiquity that predates the Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, before the 19th century Welsh was often known in English as the British tongue. Nor is its history one rooted solely in Wales. In the early post-Roman years, versions of what became Welsh were spoken across Britain. As late as the 19th century, there were vibrant Welsh-speaking communities in London, Manchester, Bristol and other parts of England. Liverpool had so many Welsh speakers it was known as the capital of North Wales. 

In 1929, the judge T. P. Ellis wrote a paper bemoaning what was happening to names in Wales. He complained that Welsh councils were using English versions of place names “for monetary gain”, and that Welsh people were translating their house names into English. This, he thought, was desecration. Welsh place names, he argued, had a beauty to them and fed the imagination. They were also logical because they described the features and geography of places. The loss of a traditional name, consequently, was a symptom of “the decay of the old Welsh spirit”. 

Since then, concern around place names has grown. Now the threat is not seen as coming from within Wales but, instead, from outsiders buying properties and changing names they do not understand and cannot pronounce. The backlash against this is partly about wider questions of housing inequality, but it is also about trying to protect Welsh heritage and the things that give it meaning. 

Legislation has been proposed to stop people changing the traditional names of houses, farms and the like. In a society with few surnames, people were often known by the name of their house or farm, and those same names might also capture old stories and legends. To erase the title of a place or building, whether that’s an English pub or a Welsh mountain, is to erase a history and a culture. To protect those names is to protect what they mean and signify.

Of course, Wales is a bilingual nation, and place names are decided more by local usage than official proclamations. Bannau Brycheiniog will continue to be called the Brecon Beacons by many people, including local residents. But to see attempts to promote the Welsh name as madness or political correctness is misguided and insulting. Welsh is a British language, and those who claim to care about the United Kingdom should respect its history and nurture its future.

Martin Johnes is Professor of Modern History at Swansea University and most recently the author of England’s Colony? The Conquest, Assimilation and Re-creation of Wales