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Wales: A Nation With Its Own Traditions

While most people in the global community recognize that Scotland and Ireland are separate entities from England, the same cannot be said for Wales. Perhaps the confusion comes from Wales' diminutive size and intimate location along England's western

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Lise Hull
Word Count: 1012 (approx.)
Labels: Surname Origin 
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While most people in the global community recognize that Scotland and Ireland are separate entities from England, the same cannot be said for Wales. Perhaps the confusion comes from Wales' diminutive size and intimate location along England's western ribcage. Perhaps it's because Wales and England have been united under one flag for centuries. Or, perhaps it's just that Wales has not received the publicity that the other Celtic nations have achieved over time. (Ironically, at least one famous Welsh actor has described himself as English when giving interviews to American journalists. No wonder people get confused!)

Finally, people are beginning to realize that Wales is a distinct country, with its own Celtic past, culture and language, known in Welsh as Cymraeg. Yet, when it comes to tracing one's Welsh roots, not only can the native language create problems for the family history researcher, so can those aspects of Welsh heritage that distinguish the place and its people from neighboring England. The following article is a brief introduction to the study of Welsh surnames, an endeavor that may challenge or frustrate the hardiest of researchers.

Patronymics and Welsh surnames

The adoption of fixed surnames is a relatively recent phenomenon in Wales. Like Ireland and Scotland, the Welsh have followed a patronymic system of naming heirs for centuries. Even today, when fixed surnames are the norm, many Welsh have reverted back to patronymics to name their children and also to recognize their distinctive heritage.

The patronymic system of naming involves creating a surname for one's child based on the father's forename. Derived from "mab" or "map", which are similar to the Scottish "mac" or the Irish "mc," the words "ap" (before a name beginning with a consonant) or "ab" (with names beginning with vowels) signify that a male child is the "son of" another man. For female children, the prefix "verch" or "ferch" means "daughter of." Be aware, however, that shorthand variations of this word often occur in the records, where you may find "vch" or "vz", or even "ach" associated with the father's forename.

Consider the following example:

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the first and last native Prince of Wales, who died in 1282, traced his pedigree as:

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd ap Llywelyn ab Iorwerth ab Owain ap Gruffydd ap Cynan . . .

Here we can determine that Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was Llywelyn ap Gruffydd's father, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth was Llywelyn ap Gruffydd's grandfather, and so on.

Variations in patronymic naming traditions

Over time, a shorthand version of the above system developed, and new surnames were created which still reflected their patronymic origins but in many cases were easier to pronounce or transcribe. Common Welsh surnames, like Bowen, Price and Powell, derive from "ab Owain", "ap Rhys" and "ap Hywel", and mean "son of Owain", "son of Rhys" and "son of Hywel." So do Richards, Stevens, Williams - and that most common of Welsh surnames, Jones. In each of these cases, families added an "s" to the end of the father's forename to reflect blood ties. Richard's son acquired the surname, Richards, or adopted the surname ap Richard (which evolved into Pritchard). Steven's son became known by the surname Stevens, William's son as Williams, and John's son became known as Jones, Johns, Jenkins, and even Evans.

Oftentimes, different children within the same family acquired different surnames, albeit ones based on the same father's forename. A father might bestow his name, John, on two sons, using John as one boy's surname and as another boy's forename. For example, William John might name his sons Dafydd John and John William. It could take several generations for a single surname to be adopted permanently and passed on intact. Ultimately, the fixed surname for the family in this example could have evolved to Jones.

The influence of anglicization on Welsh surnames

History has played a critical role in the development of Welsh surnames. The arrival of the Normans in the decades after the Conquest of 1066 dramatically changed the socio-political system in Wales, with the introduction of feudalism and the resettlement of the native population in the more rugged frontier regions. The territorial division between the two groups became known as the "Englishry" and the "Welshry." Welsh surnames like Llywelyn, Gruffydd and Rhys metamorphosed into Lewis, Griffith and Rees. Each still reflects its patronymic origins, and family historians should examine surname variations when researching a specific ancestor.

The physical separation between the Welshry and Englishry is revealed not only in surnames but also in placenames and the enduring prevalence of Cymraeg in certain regions. Placenames, in particular, began to reflect the anglicization of Wales. Pembrokeshire, in the far west, even acquired the nickname, "Little England Beyond Wales." Indeed, northern reaches of Pembrokeshire have retained Welsh placenames, like Eglwyswrw, while in the Englishry in the south, names like St David's, Wiston and Johnston are common.

Research considerations

By the 19th century, most Welshmen and women had adopted specific surnames, which were often based on patronymics but might also have derived from placenames, occupations or a person's physical characteristics. (Vaughan, for example, derives from bychan or fychan, which mean "small" or "little.) In general, the Welsh adopted only a relatively small number of surnames, such as Davies, Jones and Thomas. The new researcher might imagine that this limited number of fixed surnames should make tracing one's Welsh roots fairly straightforward. However, in reality, it has broadened the possibilities for confusion.

When researching Welsh ancestry, always remember to consider patronymics, spelling variants and even language changes over time. In many cases, you will find surnames have changed within the same family within a generation or two, due to patronymics, anglicization and other ways of identifying individuals, particularly those with the same names living in the same or neighboring communities. For example, two or three Thomas Jones's may have lived in Tregaron at the same time. To make sure you have identified YOUR ancestor, be sure to double check for spelling variations, job appellations and nicknames. Thomas the Tinker and Tiny Tommy, both surnamed Jones and living in Tregaron in 1882, may or may not have been your great-grandfather.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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