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Putting out the flames of culture wars

Have we just hit peak language wars?

Just when we thought it was safe to go back down the pub, the language wars have again broken out. This time it is the mighty ire of the English directed against a Welsh National Park.

The flames of battle were ignited by the decision of the Welsh authorities to drop the English name, Brecon Beacons. ‘Beacon’ it seems, refers etymologically to an old and rather unecological practice of setting fires alight on mountain tops to warn of invaders. The Welsh National parks service feel this name is now insufficiently green. Indeed, a smoldering brown with a distinct smell of stale cigarette butts, would appear a better colour match.

So, the mountain range is now to be known officially to all by the ancient Welsh name Bannau Brycheiniog.

Since this name has been used by Welsh speakers for at least the last 1,000 years, it is scarcely a neologism. As to how to pronounce it, the BBC helpfully informs us to try saying “ban-aye bruch-ay-nee-og, with the ch making the same sound as in loch.”

Inflamed by this polysyllabic moniker, English commentators have blasted it as “woke”, “communist” and “bonkers”. Even “number 10” is reported to have sworn to keep on using the term Brecon Beacon. (For non-Brits, “number 10” here refers to the number on the Prime Ministers house rather than the one on Lionel Messi’s football shirt. Quite why the Prime Minister, or indeed his house, feel such burning anger about the name of Welsh mountain tops remains unclear.)

The most common complaint is that it is “anti-English”. “The Welsh just want to have a laugh at us because we can’t pronounce it,” spluttered one commentator. Certainly the Welsh might enjoy the spectacle, just as English people collapse in giggles every time we hear an American trying to pronounce the word Worcestershire.

It ill behoves the English to complain about unpronounceable place names. After all we are the ones who took the words Leicester and Marlborough and, having removed several syllables from the way we pronounce them, stuck them on our Monopoly board alongside Marylebone and Pall Mall. This last, incidentally, doesn’t rhyme with either the word ‘pall’ or indeed the word ‘mall’. And as for Marylebone, no two Londoners pronounce it the same way, but it never begins with the sound for the name ‘Mary’.

Such spelling shenanigans aren’t limited to the English or the Welsh. Try asking a Scot how to say Kirkcudbrightshire or the Northern Irish how they pronounce Lough Neagh. At some time in the Dark Ages, the warring tribes of Britain must have come up with the same cunning plan to avoid invasion: just making the spelling of your place names so incomprehensible that your enemies will never be able to spot where you are on the map.

As military strategies go, it beats the hell out of setting fire to a mountain.

Image courtesy of Harry Burgess
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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