Names used to be unique in early Welsh history. Originally, they were a
single name by which the person was known followed by any honours they achieved,
such as in about 110 bc we had Beli – followed by Mawr ( The Great) who was a
King in the then island of Britton consisting of the present England, Wales and
Scotland, later to be Latinised to Brittania, speaking a common Celtic language
of Pretanic, later Brittonic. Most people were referred to in two ways, either
their physical appearance or by what they did. So we have Brochfael Ysgythrog,
meaning Brochfael ‘the fanged’ or more literally ‘of the protruding teeth’ and
later Jones the Baker.
With the coming of the Romans and the colonising of England and the shoreline and lowlands of Wales, people were allowed to carry on much as usual but doing homage to the Romans. Some Kingdoms, including that of Beli Mawr moved more into the uplands of Wales, but still encompassed all of Shropshire, part of Cheshire and of Herefordshire.
During this Roman occupation the Welsh used a further system of identification, this being by family and became a form of genealogical tree quotation. This was by means of what in English would be ‘son of’, in Scottish ‘mac’ and in welsh ‘ab’ or ‘ap’, depending if it preceded a vowel, with ‘ferch’ for a daughter. So now we have men referred to as Rhodri ap Llywellyn ab Eudeyrn etc.
Although similar means of identification existed in England until about 800 or so it rapidly died out in populated areas such as the south west, where people began to adopt surnames either by using the fathers name, a nickname, a trade or profession or the place of residence. The Welsh on the other hand carried on as usual.
It wasn’t until the 15th and early 16th centuries that the Welsh names underwent a further change, having to use names that were understandable to the British and Europeans, dropping the Arthfael, Brochfael, Cadfael, Cynddylan, Llywarch, etc. and adopting Morgan, Mathew, Lloyd and Vaughan, etc. These names were still descriptive, Lloyd coming from Llwyd meaning grey and Vaughan from Fychan meaning small.
The apostles and saints were the originators of many surnames, such as Mathew, John, Thomas, etc. Dafydd was the Welsh of David, Gwilym for William and Ieuan, because of no j in the Welsh language was John. As can be seen many of these names do not come from Wales but have been adopted leaving such as Lloyd, Llywelyn, Vaughan and Morgan purely Welsh.
It was the late 18th century and in many parts the mid 19th century before the majority of Wales adopted surnames but a lot of Welsh words became surnames, so that Caradog became Craddock, Einion became Onions, Coch (red) became Gough, and Ddu (black) became Dee.
The ‘ap’ and ‘ab’ prefixes also originated a lot of names such as Ieuan (John) being misquoted into Evans and ab Evan into Bevan, Richard became Prichard, Bowen from Owen, Prosser from Rhossr, Proger from Roger, Parry from Harry, Pugh from Hugh, Penry from Henry, Powell from Hywel, etc.
As can be seen from the above Welsh genealogy can be made both harder and easier. Harder because so many names were ‘adopted’ as late as the 19th century and easier through the system by which most Welsh families use the ‘ab’ and ‘ap’ suffix, so giving the name of the father or family. This means that a Welsh family can be proved to be of true lineage by the list of ab and ap ancestors by which he is usually known in short form but which can be quoted back into antiquity.
The above is designed to be a very short, basic look at the Welsh system but may give help or food for thought. For instance, if you are an American, Canadian, etc, with Welsh or suspected Welsh ancestry and your name begins with either B or P, then it is worthwhile to drop the B or P and think of names that could originally have been ap or ab a name similar to the remainder. On the other hand, with a name like Butcher, Baker or Candlestick you know that your ancestors originally went by another name.
It is also worth remembering that throughout early history the Romans, Jutes, Saxons and Normans all invaded Britain with varying amounts of success. Wales and the West Midlands, with most of Cornwall was only affected by its coastal regions being taken, the West Midlands being left alone because it was mainly marshland, the coasts of Wales and Cornwall being required for its tin, copper and gold. There were, however, intermarriages between these races and the Welsh, in turn leading to a range of names being derived from such. The most famous of these is Jones, being derived from John, a popular European name which was also used to corrupt the Welsh name of Ieuan, there being no letter J in the Welsh language.
Now we come to place names, which follow to a large extent the same pattern, being mainly a description. This gives rise to Aberystwyth, aber – river mouth of the river Ystwyth. Other prefixes and suffixes are abaty – abbey, afon – river, ban – peak or crest, castell – castle, cors – bog, ffordd – road, llan – place of church, llyn – lake, pen – head or end, rhyd – ford, tri – three, ystad – estate, ystrad – valley floor, etc.
With information such as this a Welshman can look at a map of Wales and know how the place he looks at comprises of its main feature. The name Gilfach, meaning ‘hole of the water crab’, will conjure up the picture of a mine of some sort dug in to the side of a hill and which may be liable to flooding.
Many of the titles of ancient gentry also gave descriptions. For instance Lord Nannau was Lord ‘of the brooks’, land in West Central Wales that was crossed by numerous brooks carrying water from the central hill country into rivers emptying into Cardigan Bay.
In conclusion and to summarise, Welsh names of people and places and even everyday language, when it is understood, is almost like looking through a picture book. A beautiful country inhabited by beautiful people which their language tries to paint.