White British Names? Welsh names are as ‘Othered’ as those of migrants in the UK context

White British Names? Welsh names are as ‘Othered’ as those of migrants in the UK context

Sara Wheeler

“Families with different surnames may be asked questions to establish their relationship. Thank you” (The Home Office)

It was with this tweet, issued on the 1st August 2018, that the UK Home Office sparked a debate on twitter, about the diversity of naming practices in Britain, and how sharing the same ‘surname’ within families is increasingly uncommon.

As Finch has previously noted, the Anglo-Saxon naming formula of forename(s) and surnames is dominant legally as well as culturally in contemporary Britain – despite not necessarily reflecting the naming customs of other cultural groups now settled in the UK. However, as the debate around this assumption by the Home Office has highlighted, there is an indigenous language community within ‘Britain’, who are as much at odds with this custom as migrant groups – the Welsh-speaking community.

This issue, and a variety of other aspects which demonstrate the chasm between Welsh and English names, are the subject of my recent publication in the field of onomastics – the study of names and naming.

This is an interesting time to be studying Welsh naming practices, because as Wales gains greater political independence and confidence, the Welsh community appear to be doing all kinds of interesting and creative things with regards to personal names; these patterns can give fascinating insights into emerging and transforming identities and senses of belonging.

The re-emergence of the patronymic naming practice in Wales

In response to the Home Office tweet, Plaid Cymru assembly member/ MP Hywel Williams responded by tweeting on the 2nd August 2018:

“Wholly unacceptable. Having different surnames is not some bureaucratic problem. My wife is Davies – she’s not an add-on to me. My children are Hywel – a pattern becoming more common in Wales as we shed practices enforced on us during industrialization”.

Here, Hywel Williams is referring to the patronymic naming practice, in which individuals were identified (or ‘placed’ socially) by their relationships, chiefly in relation to their father, so ‘Mab’, ‘ab’, or ‘ap’ (son of) and ‘Ferch’ (daughter of). Thus Garmon, who was the son of Garth, would have been ‘Garmon ap Garth’.

The patronymic naming practice was common throughout Europe, including England. However, ‘settled surnames’ had mainly been adopted in England between the 12th and 15th centuries, largely in a response to the needs of growing towns and bureaucracy. Meanwhile, Wales was less affected by urban influences and pressures as there were few towns and much of the population was unaffected by English social practice. Thus the ancient naming-system had continued until much later.

However, the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542 removed the Welsh language from all official domains in favour of English. The Act of 1536 specifically had a language clause’, which basically stated that if Welsh people wanted to prosper, they cease speaking any language other than English. Thus, following the Acts of Union, Welsh families found it necessary to take a single ‘surname’, which would be a better match for this linguistic and cultural context which privileged ‘English’ customs. Following on from the patronymic tradition, they tended to choose surnames from within their pedigree, for example the forename of their father or paternal grandfather. Modern surnames demonstrate how Anglicization of ‘ap’/ ‘ab’ meaning ‘son of’, were incorporated into the formation of the new names; for example, Hywel ab Owen, became Howell Bowen.

While these newly formed surnames, which became settled and used in the way that they are today, eventually replaced the traditional patronymic system, there was, according to Moore, an observable ‘intermediate stage’, when it was common to use a Christian name followed by an unfixed surname, the latter of which would often be determined by first names of males in the family: “The great Methodist leader John Elias (who died 1841) was the son of Elias Jones, who was the son of John Elias”.

There was also an allied phenomenon of alternative fixed surnames:

“David Morgan Huw of Trefilan, Cardiganshire, who was also known as ‘David Morgan’” (Moore).

This second phenomenon is particularly interesting in the contemporary context, as there appears to be a recent trend towards a naming practice whereby a first and second name are given, as well as a surname, at birth. However, the use of the surname is discouraged and it is becoming increasingly common to observe people using just their first two names. For example, singer, political activist and past president of Plaid Cymru, Dafydd Iwan, is not commonly known as Dafydd Iwan Jones, which is in fact his full name.

Whilst this could be perceived as a stage name, given his profession, discussions with my students and others from the Welsh-speaking community have revealed that this appears to be a growing trend and a source of much pride. This is despite the problems it can cause, for example, with delivery people for student halls, who express frustration that students don’t use surnames.

Geraint, Guto and Ioan – White British Names?
Another aspect of Welsh naming practices, which has hit the headlines in recent weeks, is the fact that many Welsh names emanate from the Welsh language, and thus are very different from English names. Welshman Geraint Thomas won the Tour de France this year, but his victory in Wales was somewhat overshadowed by incredulity over the fact that BBC reporters seemed completely unable to pronounce his forename. However, as well as anger, this has prompted some humorous and creative responses, including a video on how to pronounce ‘Geraint’.

This activity all came on the heels of the furore on twitter regarding Welsh politician Guto Bebb’s name, as tweets focussed on belittling his name, rather than why he had resigned his position. This particular incident within social media has been seen by some as another example of racism towards Welsh people. This has been a common theme in recent months, following the comments of Rod Liddle in relation to the debate around the re-naming of the Second Severn Crossing.

Much of the current research in relation to names and naming focusses on migrant experiences. Wykes, makes a distinction between ‘White British Names’ and ‘foreign’ names, claiming that ‘White British Names’ afford their bearers ‘White British Privilege’. However, I would raise the question whether names such as ‘Geraint’ and ‘Guto’ are ‘White British’ – if so, they do not seem to be bringing their bearers much ‘White British Privilege’. Furthermore, the return to the patronymic practice in Wales, and the emerging other expressions of Welshness, will undoubtedly cause non-privileged complications at border control.

In her article, Wykes refers to a series of ‘microaggressions’ towards the migrant participants of her research, which she likens to the ones discussed by Nigatu, which include people asking things like “No, where are you really from?” However, I would point out that these kind of ‘microaggressions’ are common towards Welsh people, for example being accused of only speaking Welsh when English people walk into the pub, or being asked “But do you actually speak Welsh”.

In terms of Welsh names, in my recent article I point out the kinds of ‘microaggressions’ which have been experienced by Welsh celebrities, for example Ioan Gruffudd, which have included:

Your last name is completely preposterous, I don’t know what’s going on over there

In a previous article, I have described similar ‘microaggressions’ which I myself have experienced towards my forename, ‘Sara’, for which my parents chose the Welsh pronunciation ‘Særæ’ (transcribed in phonetics), as in Lara (Antipova from Dr Zhivago). Reactions have included assumptions that I am ‘Trying to be posh’ – despite this simply being my given name.

Furthermore, in another article, I have discussed the fact that, the kinds of incidents which Wykes cites as being ‘microaggressions’ towards migrants, and, conversely the privileges they describe upon changing their names, may in fact be misperceptions. For example, Wykes states that Kayla Brackenbury (pseudonymn), who had a Zimbabwean maiden name, which was then replaced by her ‘White British’ married name, reported that her credit file had improved, because she had a changed:

“I’m getting…offered, more credit…just compared to {what I was offered} as Kayla Manyika”.

However, when I got married and swapped the surname ‘Edwards’, which indexes for Welsh, but probably also for ‘White British’, for the surname ‘Wheeler’, which undoubtedly indexes as ‘White British’ and also ‘English’, my car insurance premium went down. Whilst I might have been tempted to perceived this as ‘White British Privilege’, or in this case ‘White English Privilege’, a discussion with the insurance salesperson revealed that it was actually because insurance companies see married people as not being such ‘risk takers’ – which personally I felt was debatable, though a welcome perception given that it meant I’d pay less to insure my car.

There have been many incidents recently, including the emotive issue of renaming the ‘Second Severn Crossing’, which have raised the issue of ‘Othering’ Welsh people, and even whether it is possible for Welsh people to be the subject of ‘racism’. I think what I have highlighted here is that Welsh people certainly are the subject of negative and prejudiced attentions, particularly with regards to our language and culture; an important part of this sense of identity and sense of belonging are our personal and place names, and the debates regarding them highlight the fractures within the indigenous communities, which collectively are referred to as ‘British’. Unpacking these issues may help explain current unease with the term ‘British’ and help understand current and future tensions within the United Kingdom.


Sara Louise Wheeler is a lecturer with Y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol (National Welsh Medium College) based at Bangor University, North Wales. She tweets at @SerenSiwenna

26 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    September 08, 2018

    This is an interesting read, certainly. However, I think I would have preferred an interjection, at least, if not further interrogation of the fact that of course it is not only white people who have Welsh names, which I daresay complicates matters of privilege in different ways. I’d love to read more on this research.


  2. Avatar
    September 13, 2018

    Hi Nia, thank you for your interest in the research. This is definitely a fascinating avenue for further exploration, including the creative ways in which families are combining Welsh and other cultural naming systems, to reflect their diverse heritages – as is the case in my extended family.

    Your point about Welsh people with Welsh names, who are not White, is a very interesting area to consider in itself – and is likely to result in very different narratives within Wales and outside of Wales. Then there’s where mixed-race families have mixed-heritage names – very interesting indeed.

    I very much hope to be able to study and consider these matters in the future and to take Welsh onomastics research into new territory. It would lovely to discuss these matters with someone else who shares this interest. My email address is: s.wheeler@bangor.ac.uk


  3. Avatar
    September 21, 2018

    Just also saw an example of machine learning reproducing racist bias (in the US context, but the sentiment scores are widely used internationally in english-speaking contexts) https://twitter.com/Abebab/status/1042395951560880128


  4. Avatar
    September 21, 2018

    Hi Paul – Wow! What an interesting thread and research. Thanks for sharing this here; that has given me a whole different avenue to consider and explore. It would be interesting to see what would happen if some really Welsh names were entered into this algorithm…


  5. Avatar
    September 23, 2018

    You have chosen an interesting example of patronymic naming. I am Garth and my second son is Garmon ap Garth. I have no Welsh roots and it is by pure accident that I have a Welsh name. I suspect my son is the only living person to bear his name, but perhaps someone knows that to be false. By the way, his son is named Gruffydd Rhys ap Garmon ap Garth.


    • Avatar
      September 24, 2018

      Hi Garth, ah yes, I believe ‘Garth’ is also quite a popular name in America? Well this is an amusing onomastic coincidence, but your son certainly has company in having that name.

      My reason for selecting ‘Garmon ap Garth’ was because this was the name of the very first person I ever met whose name was a patronymic; he was in my class, or at least in the same year, at primary school. I remember him joining our school having moved to the area. We were all very interested in his unusual name and I recall the teachers explaining it to us. This left quite an impression on me, in terms of expressions of Welshness…so much so that some 32 years later, I drew on this experience to write an article for ‘Discover society’!

      Wow, your son really has selected a very Welsh name for his son – I have never seen a double ‘ap’ before! I take it your son lives in Wales?


      • Avatar
        October 20, 2018

        Hi Sara, it is me, the Garmon ap Garth who moved to your school for the final year of primary school. So funny to think you used my name so many years later in this article. Very interesting too. As my dad mentioned above, my kids have ap Garth as surname, but also ap Garmon as middle name. Major reason was to give us all same surname to make immigration and form filling a bit easier!

        Anyway, interesting article and great to come across an old classmate again!


        • Avatar
          October 25, 2018

          Well hello Garmon ap Garth! Ha, this really is funny! Encountering your name during my childhood really shaped my idea of the Welsh patronymic – and as it turns out, the Garth is American!

          So your name is an example of how ‘migrants’ to Wales have navigated and integrated the Welsh naming traditions and responded creatively, as mentioned in my article.

          Furthermore, you have continued with this creativity in naming your own children, adapting the patronymic to act as a fixed surname and middle name, to reduce the negative daily impact of matters such as immigration and form filling – thus adding credence to what I say in the article – how very satisfying!
          I’m hoping to try for a grant to study these matters further and would love to include narratives like yours in it – so I’d really like to keep in touch. It would be great if you could join me on twitter @serensiwenna or email me on: saralouisewheeler@googlemail.com


  6. Avatar
    September 25, 2018

    How fascinating! I’m only half Welsh but I strongly believe in Welsh names and culture – although I can’t always pronounce Welsh names accurately sadly as I’m not Welsh speaking. I remember looking back at my family history and one family around 1800 had half the children with the father’s name Jones and the other half were Evans – even though there was no divorce and they were full brothers and sisters. Confusing!


    • Avatar
      September 28, 2018

      Hi Belinda, where are your Welsh family from? Pronounciation of names in different languages is so interesting, and it seems that some names, like mine, are actually incompatible with the English language (a phenomenon to be discussed in a future article).

      Wow, the Evans/ Jones family sound very interesting indeed – I wonder what the story was behind that…it would make for some useful data for a study about Welsh named…and an even more interesting historical novel!


  7. Avatar
    September 25, 2018

    7 out of 10 black American surnames are Welsh


  8. Avatar
    September 29, 2018

    My mother, who is herself Welsh speaking, finds the use of ap, man etc extremely irritating. She views it as a pretention used by the ‘crachach”


  9. Avatar
    September 30, 2018

    Hi 3ryn, thanks for your interest and thought-provoking comment. I’m so far from being Crachach I didn’t know what it meant and had to look it up! I found this article fascinating: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/4754896.stm So they’re a bit like slones, but not necissarily rich – they have a lot of social capital, and thus also have their cultural capital on display in order that they might be identified? Interesting. I think class and names, including within Wales, is one of my next lines of inquiry. Knowledge of the existence of a crachach will certainly help when I come to start on this research. Thanks 😊


  10. Avatar
    July 13, 2019

    “Sara” phonetically is actually pronounced “Sara”, while the English “Sarah” is pro ounced “Særuh”


  11. Avatar
    July 14, 2019

    Interesting article and reawakened old resentments from me about past wrongs. My Nain was named at birth Siân but the registrar wouldn’t accept that name so wrote ‘JANE’. Her husband used to call her Siâni bach (4’11”) so when they buried her the family wanted to put that on the gravestone. For whatever reason, they accepted the alternative suggestion of Jennie. My father said the forbidding of Welsh during school hours went on until the 1940’s on Anglesey.


    • Avatar
      April 30, 2020

      Hi Andrea,
      It’s amazing the sorts of things that used to go on, even in recent times isn’t it? But I think before the Welsh Language Act of 1967, the Welsh language had very little status or protection, including where names were concerned. I’m guessing where the gravestone was concerned, they have been too distraught to push the issue, and I guess if she was Siâni in life, Jennie would be a good comprise to Jennie; still must have been strange for those who knew her though. Thanks fir sharing these comments.


  12. Avatar
    February 17, 2020

    Diolch for this article!
    The Irish though different suffer many similar problems. Surnames – family names are handed down the generations (eg mine Ó Riain was anglicised as Ryan or less common O’Ryan!). But in rural usually the Irish speaking areas a form such as you describe is used in the community. This a person, Máirtín, with the surname of Mac Dhonncha (Angl. McDonogh) would be known as Mairtín Chóilín (as his father or Grandfather is Cóilín) Sometimes this “community name” may be from the Mother thus Jimín Mhaíre Thadhg (Jimín of Máire of Tadhg. The surname – to a large extent the anglicised form – would also be known for formal use.
    Those who use the Irish and more correct forms of their names are asked “What is that in English” or what is your “real” name. A problem I see you identify in your article.
    Place names present unique problems too as the English variations often do nor reflect the ancient names given to these locations.


    • Avatar
      April 30, 2020

      Hi Eoin,
      Thanks for your interest in my article and for your interesting comments! I very much like the idea of a community name, which reminds me of the literature around sign names in Deaf communities. It does then though create the social division, or rural-city divide, perhaps with the potential to widen issues relating to class.

      I am writing about place names at the moment – it is so much more complicated that I first imagined – in terms of ONS officially reflecting what is used in quotidian, thus if enough people move to an area and start calling a nearby valley ‘nameless cwm’, this will be recorded alongside the original ‘cwm cneifion’. This is obviously going to jar,, but what to do about it? The only way to put a stop to it would be to legislate, but this would need to include banning use of ‘nameless cwm’ verbally and in any promotional material ect, which might be difficult.


  13. Avatar
    February 17, 2020

    Shwmae, I’m fascinated by Welsh naming systems so enjoyed this article. My own name is proof of this drift towards anglicisation for fear of prejudice for being Welsh or wanting to look more prestigious by appearing English (Price comes from ap Rhys). I was named after my great great grandfather, Evan Jones, who was a first language Welsh speaker and my middle name was given in honour of Hywel Dda. Despite all this Welshness and Welsh ancestry, I am ashamed to say that I can’t speak Welsh fluently but will do Welsh at A level in the hope of becoming fluent. I am also ashamed of lacking a particularly Welsh accent due to the heavily anglicised area I now live in, despite my dad being from Llanddewi Rhydderch with a noticeable valleys accent. Although once I reach 18 I intend to get a name change to something like Hywel ap Rhŷs or something similar, without abandoning the family name. The sad thing is that no one even knows I have all three Welsh names: Evan is seen as English or American but is the Welsh form of John and Price looks English but it isn’t, why I want my name changed. The other sad thing is that I get picked on at school for enjoying Welsh lessons and admiring Welsh culture, how can this happen in Wales?! I think it might just be the school I go to receives vast majority people of English/foreign descent and none appreciate the culture because they don’t see it in the flesh, most think Welsh is dead! I have literally done research and have found that I have the Welshest name in the school, a source of pride for me but a constant reminder that I feel like an imposter without a Welsh accent and what should be my native tounge. Sorry for too much detail
    Diolch yn fawr


    • Avatar
      April 30, 2020

      Annwyl Evan,

      Not too much detail at all! I am so sorry that I didn’t see this message sooner, I hadn’t thought to check!

      I think Evan is a bit like Sara in that way – versions of it are common in many places. But it is Welsh!

      I think Price, like Jones, Williams and Roberts fits the bill for ‘perpetual incognito’ which is discussed in the Rowlands book I cite. This is a good point – so many people with it, it causes confusion…it will be good to switch back to Rhys 😊

      I sympathize with how you feel about wishing you could speak Welsh, but you shouldn’t feel ashamed, it isn’t your fault, and your story is part of the wider picture of language loss in Welsh history. You must keep up with your studies and join twitter – loads of us Welsh speakers on there, happy to help!

      On the matter of accent: my father’s family are from Rhosllannerchrugog and so in Welsh I have a strong dialect from the coal-mining district. However, my English accent is one I constructed by watching the films: Mary Poppins, The King and I, and the first Star Wars (an elegant weapon, from a more civilized age – Obi Wan). Consequently, I’ve been at conferences where people assumed I was from somewhere posh and English, then they discover I am Welsh, speak Welsh to me, and are shocked when they hear my working class accent/ dialect! And though in some ways I regret wha5 I have done to my English accent, I also accept it as part of my contrary nature, and I figure this just shows that I had an interest in language and dialect from a young age.

      The school situation is most unfortunate, as you say, in Wales?! Then again, the Rhos dialect was subject to derision and negative prestige as late as the 1990s, when I was in school in Wrecsam. There’s a couple of chapters about it in this book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Language-Obsolescence-Revitalization-Sociolinguistically-Contrasting/dp/0198237111

      And now it is I who am sorry…that really is a lot of detail!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  14. Avatar
    April 30, 2020

    Diddorol Sara!
    Ond dwi ddim yn meddwl mai “Særæ” ydi’r ffoneteg cywir am ynganiad Cymraeg “Sara”. Yn wir, “a” ydi’r llythyren yn y wyddor ffonetig (IPA) sy’n cyfateb i’r “a” yn Sara. Felly mae dy enw yn gwbl ffonetig yn barod!

    Dyma siart defnyddiol o’r seiniau –


    • Avatar
      April 30, 2020

      Haia Geraint,
      Diolch am y sylwad ac mi wnâi fynd ari i sbïo – ond mi wnes i cwrs ffoneteg yn y brifysgol a prynnais y llawlyfr IPA, a wnes i hefyd gyhoeddi erthygl cyfnodolyn peer reviewed yn benodol am fy enw yma:


      Cafodd ei adolygu gan cyfoedion ym maes ieithyddiaeth (un o Sbaen), ac roedd nhw i weld yn cytuno hefo fi…actiwli, cawsom drafodaeth hir ynglyn a sut i’w ddisgrifio mewn geiriau hefyd…ond wnai wirio ar trydar hefo’r grŵp ieithyddiaeth, jest rhag ofn, achos dwi wedi sgwennu cerdd amdano yn ddiweddar a’i heli cylchgrawn llenyddol…eisiau iddo fod yn gywir!