That Welsh place with the long name

A village on the island of Anglesey in North Wales is famous for having the longest place name in the British Isles. Reciting the full name was the favourite party trick of a boy who was in my class in the first year of secondary school.

Name and history

This is the name:

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandysiliogogogoch

English spells this name with 58 letters. But unlike English, Welsh spelling treats the sequence <ll> as a single symbol (a digraph), not a sequence of two symbols. Because the word contains 5 instances of this sequence, the name contains only 53 letters in Welsh.

For more on the Welsh digraph <ll), please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/09/how-do-you-say-llantwit-major
For more on digraphs in English, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/12/can-english-words-start-with

The historical name of the village was just Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll. Then in the 19th century, a local cobbler concocted the longer version as a marketing stunt to attract tourists. Naturally, locals don’t use the full name. They generally call the village Llanfairpwyll or Llanfair PG.

Meaning

The full name means ‘St Mary’s Church in the hollow of white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and Church of St Tysilio by the red cave’.

The following table shows the 13 components of this monstrous name, grouped into 6 clusters.

ComponentMeaning
Llan fairChurch (of) Mary
pwll [gwyn gyll]pool (of) [white hazel]
gogernear
y chwyrn drobwllthe rapid whirlpool
llan dysilioChurch (of) (Saint) Tysilio
gogo gochcave red

Consonant mutation

Some of the components above exhibit what is known in Welsh and the other Celtic languages as ‘consonant mutation’: regular sound changes that affect the first consonant of a word when it follows particular types of word. For example, fair is a mutated form of Mair (‘Mary’) which is used when it forms the second part of a compound word, such as Llanfair (‘Church of Mary’).

Other mutated forms in this name are gyll (form of cyll), drobwll (form of trobwll), dysilio (from Tysilio) goch (form of coch). For more on consonant mutation in the Celtic lagagues, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/01/consonant-mutation-in-manx.

Source

David Crystal’s book By Hook or by Crook: a journey in search of English (2007).

The book is an engaging travelogue, blending personal reflection, historical allusions and traveller observations. Crystal is a retired academic linguist, who has written dozens of books on many different aspects of language. He was brought up on Anglesey and moved back there after his retirement.

2 comments

  1. In my teens, for several summers I worked at a Boy Scout camp in eastern Massachusetts. Another staff member was from the nearby town of Webster, Massachusetts. He told me about a lake in Webster commonly called Webster Lake, but with a much longer and difficult-to-pronounce official name. To this day, I remember how to say the lake’s name: Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg.

    The name is in Nipmuc, an Algonquian indigenous American language.

    The lake has a Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Chaubunagungamaug

    That name has 45 letters and 14 syllables – well bested by Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandysiliogogogoch even if we count each ll as one letter.

    If the pronunciation of the Welsh lake on this website is correct https://llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.co.uk/say.php, it seems much more melodic than the pronunciation of the US lake (https://pronouncebee.com/lake-chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg/).

    When I was told about the Massachusetts lake, the translation was said to be “you fish on your side of the lake, I fish on my side of the lake, and nobody fishes in the middle”. Today, websites seem to use a less confrontational translation: “fishing place at the boundaries—neutral meeting grounds”.

    Surprisingly, neither of those two places holds the Guinness World Record as the longest official place name in the world. The Welsh lake is only number two, and the American lake number three.

    The Guinness record holder is:
    Taumata­whakatangihanga­koauau­o­tamatea­turi­pukaka­piki­maunga­horo­nuku­pokai­whenua­ki­tana­tahu

    That’s the Maori language name of a hill on New Zealand’s North Island. It, too, has its own Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taumatawhakatangi%C2%ADhangakoauauotamatea%C2%ADturipukakapikimaunga%C2%ADhoronukupokaiwhen%C2%ADuakitanatahu

    A final comment: The human brain is remarkable. I can hardly remember what I had for breakfast this morning. But I can remember the name of an obscure lake that I learned 65 years ago.

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