By Eleanor Nickerson
A cursory glance at the top names in both England and Wales shows many of the same favourite choices, but, dig a little deeper, and Wales‘ Celtic heritage and separate language becomes apparent, with names almost exclusively found inside Wales alone. For one thing, Welsh has its own phonetic rules for letters of the alphabet which don’t always match English. That’s why the Welsh Top 200 has spellings which — to English speakers — look like “creative” spellings, but to Welsh parents are most compatible with their mother tongue: Harri, Tomos, Jac, Alys, Ela, Lili, Efa to name a few.
A rough pronunciation guide:
* w = ‘oo’ sound (wy = ‘ooee’ like the French oui)
* dd = ‘th’ as in that and this / th = ‘th’ as in thin and three
* ei/eu = ‘ay’ sound (or ‘eye’ sound in South Wales)
* f = ‘v’ sound / ff = ‘f’ sound
* u = ‘ee’ sound / y = short ‘u’ sound.
* Names that start with an ‘I‘ followed by a vowel makes a ‘y’ sound (e.g. Iestyn = YES-tin / Ieuan = YAY-an)
* Welsh names mostly have the stress on the penultimate syllable
Alaw / Awen / Awel – one notable trend for girls’ names in Wales is four-letter, vowel-heavy vocabulary names. Alaw (AL-ow -rhymes with how) meaning “harmony,” Awen (AH-wen) meaning “inspiration, poetic gift, muse” and Awel (AH-wel) meaning “breeze” are great examples of this trend. All three have been in rare use since the 19th century, but in the last decade have seen more consistent use in Wales.
Anest (AH-nest) – Nest/Nesta was a common name in Medieval Wales, borne by several royal women. It has traditionally been attributed as the Welsh form of Agnes (hence the A in Anest), but as the name pre-dates the common use of Agnes in Britain, it perhaps derives from the Latin Honesta or is Celtic in origin.
Eila (AY-la/EYE-la) –Eila has most likely been adopted in Wales as a short form of several Welsh names beginning with Eil- such as Eilwen, Eiluned, Eilian and Eilir and similar to Top 100 favourite Eira (AY-ra) “snow.”
Elliw (EH-hyoo) – Scarlett, Blue, Gray, Ebony… we’re familiar with color names in English, but how about calling your daughter “color”? This Welsh name meaning “color” is rising in Wales, but that double l makes it very tricky for non-Welsh speakers to pronounce correctly.
Eirwen (AYR-wen/EYER-wen) / Liliwen – Gwen “white, flair, blessed” is a staple element in Welsh names and they are still going strong. Eirwen combines (g)wen with eira “snow” while Liliwen is lily + wen.
Eos (AY-os) / Iola (YOL-a) – Eos may be a mythological Greek name meaning “dawn” but it also the Welsh word for “nightingale” now used as a name. Similarly, Iola is not only a Greek name, it is also the feminine form of Iolo, a short form of the old Welsh name Iorwerth “worthy lord.”
Lleucu (HLAY-kee/HLEYE-kee) – Pronounced with that tricky Welsh ‘ll’, Lleucu has traditionally been used as a Welsh counterpart to Lucy (from Latin lux “light”) based on meaning, rather than the phonetic spelling Liwsi.
Lleu (itself ranking at #441 for boys), is the ancient name of the twin brother of Dylan in Welsh legend whose name means “light, brightness, shining.” The –cu part of Lleucu means “dear, beloved” in Welsh and was no doubt used to echo the -cy of Lucy.
Medi (MED-ee) – We may use the English month names April, May and June, but in Wales the most popular Welsh month name is Medi “September.” The reason for its success is likely thanks to its similarity to Welsh staples like Cadi (Katie), Mali (Molly) and Mari (Marie).
Menna – Coined in the 19th century by Welsh poet John Ceirog Hughes (1832-1887) for the love interest in his poem Alun Mabon. Similarly, poet Eliseus Williams (1867-1926) addressed some of his poems to the a woman named Men. It isn’t clear where Menna comes from, but it was most likely conceived as a short form of Welsh names such as Morwenna, Mairwen and Meriona or from the Welsh word menyw “woman.”
Swyn (SOOEEN) – A magical modern coinage taken from the Welsh word meaning “magic, charm, enchantment.”
Eifion (AYV-yon/EYEV-yon) – An ancient Welsh name with obscure meaning. Welsh poet Eliseus Williams (1867-1926) used the bardic name Eifion Wynn which he no doubt took from Eifionydd (itself named after an ancient Welsh leader called Eifion) – the place where he grew up. The name has had recent expose thanks to Welsh rugby player Eifion Lewis–Roberts.
Gruffydd (GRIFF-uth) – A traditional Welsh name which has seen continual use since it was borne by Welsh royalty in the 11th century. The second part is certainly the Old Welsh iudd “lord.” The first is uncertain, but most likely represents cryf “strong, powerful.”
Not only does the Welsh Top 500 have the spellings Gruffydd and Gruffudd, but also the short form Griff, Gruff and Gryff (which together would rank in the Top 100). Added to this is alternate short form Guto (GEE-to).
Gwion (GWEE-on) – A figure of Welsh mythology who was charged with stirring Ceridwen’s cauldron of inspiration (“The Awen”) and accidentally drank some, leading to his becoming the great bard Taliesin. It has been used as a genuine given name since the 19th century.
Hywel (HOO-ul) – A traditional Welsh name, borne by early royalty, that survived in continual use in Wales from the Middle Ages (later often found in the English form Howell). It derives from the old Celtic words *su– “good” and *welo- “to see” and probably was originally a nickname for someone who was forthright.
Iori (YOR-ee) – Alonside Iolo (YOL-o), Iori is a short form of the traditional Welsh name Iorwerth: ior “lord” and gwerth “worth, merit.”
Mabon (MAB-on) – The name of one of the most significant Celtic gods, which means “(divine) son.” Mabon also appears in Arthurian legend and as a genuine given name in the Middle Ages.
Math – A character in Welsh mythology who most likely represents an ancient Celtic god. The name derives from either the Celtic *matu- “bear” or *mati- “good.” It has been used as a genuine given name since the 19th century, but as a name might be confused with the word.
Rhydian (HRID-yan) – An early Welsh saint, whose name is possibly from the Old Welsh rudd “red” making it cognate with the Irish Ruadhan. It has been in use as a given name since the early 20th century.
Many thanks to the website annaprints.co.uk for permission to use their adorable illustration.
And now for your weekly bonus: Katinka‘s fabulous Forum findings this week:
* This is such a sweet request! In search of a baby boy name that comes with its own lullaby, just like big sister’s music-inspired moniker.
* The Great Gender-Bender Debate rages on: why are conventionally masculine names so popular for girls these days — and why should we care?
* And, on a lighter note: stellar sibsets! What are your criteria for super sibling names?