Mar 17, 2017

The Welsh Names

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The Welsh language derives from the language of the Celts who came to Britain during the first millennium BC. That Celt language survived the Roman occupation, adding words such as ffenestr (window), from the Latin fenestra, and by the middle of the sixth century AD it had evolved into Old Welsh. Thus it is one of the most ancient living languages in Europe, and is still spoken by a significant proportion of Welsh people.

Although Welsh words with their proliferation of w and y may seem strange to the non-Welsh speaker, pronunciation is not difficult. Apart from ch and ll, all the sounds are found in English, and Welsh pronunciation follows simple, definite rules, in contrast to English. Welsh spelling is much more phonetic than either English or French, i.e. there is a closer correspondence between symbol and sound; and every letter is pronounced. Each consonant has one sound only. Vowel sounds vary in length, some short, some long, but are subject to definite rules. Vowel sounds are pure, similar to those in German or Italian, and do not glide into other vowel sounds as happens in English speech. For example, pane in English is pronounced as if it were pain, but in Welsh the sound is clipped to avoid the ee sound at the end of the vowel; though in Welsh the sound is represented by the letter e as in Hen (which sounds quite different from the English hen).

The accent or stress in Welsh words and personal names falls regularly on the last syllable but one, as in Anarawd. In place names the stress sometimes falls on the last syllable, and where this occurs a hyphen is usually inserted, as in Rhyd-y-gors (ford of the marsh: here the penultimate syllable y means the, and would not be accented). In the examples of pronunciation shown below, the accented syllable is also underlined to provide an additional indication of pronunciation.


Welsh has no k, q, v, x or z, and j occurs only in borrowed words. The sound k is represented by c, v by f, x by cs, and the q and z sounds do not occur.

b, d, h, l, m, n, p, ph, and t as in English.
c always the k sound as in English can, never the s sound as in city.
ch as in Scottish loch and German Bach, never as in English church. Rhydderch
dd always the th sound as in English the, never as in English theme. Gruffudd
f always the v sound as in English of and van, never as in off. Fychan
ff always the f sound as in English off, never the v sound. Gruffudd
g always hard as in English get, never soft as in gentle. Gethin
ng as in English sing, never as in danger,
but in place names n and g can be separate sounds.
ll A letter not found in other European languages. Pronounced
by putting the tongue  in the position for l and blowing/hissing.
r trilled in Welsh as in a Scottish accent and in Spanish and Italian. ferch
rh aspirated, as in English perhaps, but with trilled r. Rhys
s always as in English sit, never as in nose. Rhys
th always as in English theme, never as in the. Gethin

Consonental vowels

i at the beginning of a syllable, like English y as in yes. Iorwerth
w  like short English oo sound as in water Gwenllian


a short as in English cat (never as in cape),
or long as in English bar.
e short as in English hen,
or long as in English pane (see above).
i short as in English pit (never as in like), Idwal
or long as in English meet. Gwenllian
o short as in English not (never as in book),
or long as in English robe (never as in groove).
u short, rather like the English i sound in pit (never as in hut), Gruffudd
or long like a French u or as in English meet. Deheubarth
w short as in English book,
or long as in English groove.
y represents two distinct vowel sounds, ‘obscure’ and ‘clear’:
‘obscure’, rather like the e in hover or the u in hut;
‘clear’, either short like the English i sound in pit,
or long as in English meet (never as in my).


A vowel is long at the end of a word and before certain letters such as s, w, ch, d and f except in clusters of consonants.

y   is obscure in the first syllable, and clear in a later syllable. Llywelyn
When two vowels occur together in a word they should be pronounced separately and quickly, and the first vowel is the main one:
ae, ai, au  like the English bike.
aw short a and short w.
ei, eu like the English eye. Einion
ew short e and short w. Tewdwr
iw, uw, yw like the English dew, but emphasis on the first letter. Rhiwallon
oe, oi like the English oil. Foethus
ow long o and short w. Owain
yw obscure y and short w. Hywel
wy short w and clear-short y,
except where y is long (see rules above).

The development of surnames in Wales reflects the history of a small country with its own social structure in which the kinship group was very important. Individuals were identified by the name of their father. The Welsh for son is mab, often written in old Welsh as map, cognate with the Irish mac, and a process of mutation and elision produced ab (usually before vowels) and ap (before consonants). Thus Madog the son of Rhys would be known as Madog ap Rhys. Women were also known by their father’s name, taking the form Gwenllian ferch (daughter of) Rhys, and they would not take up their husband’s patronymic on marriage. Such was the acceptance of this system that it lasted in many parts of Wales until the 18th and 19th centuries, and other European regions such as Scandinavia also had long-lasting patronymic systems.

In this respect the situation was very different from that in England, where fixed surnames were adopted between the 12th and the 14th centuries, largely in response to the needs of growing towns and bureaucracy. Wales had few towns, and the Welsh were initially excluded from them when they were founded by the Normans. Some English surnames were derived from a personal name (Roberts, Johnson), but in much smaller proportion than in Wales. Other surnames were derived from a location, as with Leigh, Nash, Scourfield and Oakley in our ancestry, from occupation or status (Smith, Taylor), and from nicknames or descriptions (Hardy, Merriman).

Fixed surnames were generally adopted by the Welsh gentry in the 16th century and by yeomen in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the change was first introduced by families in close geographical and social contact with England. Thus THOMAS ap LEWIS of St Pierre who was killed at Banbury in 1469 was also known as THOMAS LEWIS, and his son was the first to adopt Lewis as a fixed surname.

Before this change to fixed surnames, naming patterns had altered. Some old Welsh names, such as Anarawd, Cadell and Cynfyn, had fallen out of use, and others were anglicized. Thus Gwilym changed to William, Dafydd to David, Gruffudd to Griffith, Rhys to Rees, Ieuan (which derived from Latin Johannes) became John or Evan, Maredudd changed to Meredith, and Trahaearn to Treharne, while other names were replaced by approximations, Llywelyn being changed to Lewis, Iorwerth to Edward, and, particularly in north Wales, Hywel being replaced by Hugh. A few Welsh names, such as Morgan, continued unchanged. The end result was that by the 15th century the range of names in use was affected by the great popularity of a limited number of names such as John, William and Thomas, which had also been adopted in England by that time.

The ap system gradually decayed, so that someone whose name was David ap William became David William, though both forms continued in use together, sometimes by the same person.

In some cases, a vestige of ap and ab remained by attaching itself to the name which followed it, so that ab Owain became Bowen, ap Rhys became Price, the new name Richard became Prichard, ab Evan became Bevan, Rhydderch became Prydderch or Protheroe, ap Hywel became Powell, and ap Hugh became Pugh. In most cases, however, the second name cannot be described as a surname at this stage, because the ap was implied and the patronymic system remained, the name continuing to change generation by generation.

The change to a fixed surname took place gradually and at different times, even within the same family. The eldest brother would usually be named after his grandfather, so he might take the grandfather’s second name as his surname when the rest of the family kept to the patronymic system, or one brother might take the father’s second name as his surname. We will see later that HUGH VAUGHAN took his grandfather’s second name FYCHAN in anglicized form as his surname, and Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur, the grandfather of Henry VII, did the same, thus ensuring that his descendants reigned as the Tudor and not the Meredith dynasty.

At a slightly later stage, many newly acquired surnames had an "s" attached to them. This was a practice used in England when surnames were forming, and represented the possessive case of the father’s name used for his children and wife. It was adopted much later in Wales, and though in some cases it came into use at the same time as the surname became fixed, in many areas it was not generally adopted until the early 19th century. In this way John and his family became Jones, William and his became Williams, and David and his became Davies. Not all surnames changed in this way, some families keeping the surname John for example, and some surnames rarely changed, such as Morgan and the surnames in which ap had been absorbed. The Christian names that were popular in the 15th century continued in use because of the traditional practice of naming children after grandparents and other close relations, so the ten most common surnames in Wales 400 years later were Jones, Williams, Davies, Thomas, Evans, Roberts, Hughes, Lewis, Morgan and Griffiths, and they were held by over 50% of the population. These were still the most common names found in Welsh telephone directories in 1959.

A few Welsh surnames came from personal characteristics, as had been the case in England. A person might become known as Dafydd Llwyd because he had brown hair, and in some cases this attribute was retained by the family and became a fixed surname in the anglicized form Lloyd. Similarly the epithet Goch for red hair or ruddy complexion could if continued in use become the surname Gough (in both of these cases the pronunciation also changing significantly), and Wyn for white hair or complexion became Wyn, Wynn or Wynne. Sometimes a less pleasant description was applied, such as gam for crooked, lame or squinting, and in one case it eventually become the surname Games, presumably after the original meaning had been lost.

Another distinguishing adjective that could be applied was Fychan (junior) for a son with the same name as his father, particularly in the gentry class. When it became a surname it was usually anglicized to Vaughan, again with a change in pronunciation. In the case of our ancestor HUGH VAUGHAN the name began with his grandfather DAFYDD FYCHAN ap DAFYDD, following which his father was known as GRUFFUDD ap DAFYDD FYCHAN. HUGH would have been Hugh ap Gruffudd, or Hugh ap Gruffudd ap Dafydd Fychan, but instead he was known as Hugh Fychan (junior) even though his father’s name was not Hugh. The word Fychan had become a surname (perhaps in the style of a pet name, a common source of surnames in England), and was anglicized to Vaughan. The change took place early and in a single lifetime in the case of our other Vaughan family who lived just over the Herefordshire border in Bredwardine. ROGER VAUGHAN who died at Agincourt in 1415 was also known as ROGER FYCHAN, and as most of his sons were called Fychan or Vaughan, it is clear that it had become their surname.

Place-names were often attached colloquially to a personal name, and farm names in particular were used in this way, but only in special conditions did they become surnames. One of HUGH VAUGHAN’S ancestors who lived close to the boundary of England and Wales was known as MADOG KYFFIN, from Cyffin meaning border. This went out of use for several generations but was adopted later by one branch of the family as a fixed surname.

Non-Welsh surnames such as Nash first appeared in Wales in areas of Anglo-Norman settlement, and many have continued to the present day, though some families did follow the patronymic system. The Edwardian conquest and the establishment of new boroughs brought further new names, including Scourfield, and around 1600 our Leigh and Oakley ancestors arrived in Carmarthen, where other English surnames appeared during that century. Sometimes the patronymic system continued under cover of fixed surnames, as for example in the Games family, descendants of the Welshman DAFYDD GAM: here David the son of William Henry Games would take the name David William Games. With the Industrial Revolution, many more English people came to live and work in Wales, and now surnames from many countries are present.
T. J. Rhys Jones, Teach Yourself Welsh (Hodder and Stoughton, 1992).

M. Auronwy James, "Some Basic Welsh for Family Historians," in Welsh Family History, ed. John Rowlands and others (Association of Family History Societies of Wales, 1993).

Sheila Rowlands, "The Surnames of Wales," in Welsh Family History, ed. John Rowlands  and others (Association of Family History Societies of Wales, 1993).

John and Sheila Rowlands, The Surnames of Wales (Federation of Family History Societies, 1996).

T. J. Morgan and Prys Morgan, Welsh Surnames (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1985).

P. C. Bartrum, "Personal Names in Wales in the fifteenth century," NLWJ, 22, 4 (quoted by J. and S. Rowlands).
By Derek Williams
March 2006

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