iot has been well over a year now since I last laid eyes on Yr Wyddfa, the mountain that presided over my childhood, and which the English call Snowdon. I could draw the shape of that peak with my eyes closed. Jan Morris called it a “dream-view” and an “ideal landscape”, writing that “it is as though everything is refracted by the pale, moist quality of the air, so that we see the mountain through a lens, heightened or dramatised”.
I daydream about Yr Wyddfa, mostly of swimming in the clear, cold river that we would walk up to on hot days – a secret spot, known only locally (when I Googled the name of the pool, which is Welsh, nothing came up, and I will keep it that way). Less romantic is the last time I climbed the mountain, where at the summit the inevitable queue awaited us. Yr Wyddfa is a victim of its own popularity, though you could argue that it has kept the surrounding mountains wonderfully empty of tourists.
You’ll notice I use the Welsh, indigenous name, as does Morris in her book Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country. It shouldn’t be a cause for comment, but language is political, with painful memories of colonialism and language suppression by the English in the Welsh collective consciousness. A councillor’s request that the Snowdonia National Park Authority refer to the mountain only by its Welsh name and drop Snowdonia in favour of the Welsh Eryri made headlines this week. It echoes discussions of the names of other colonised places: Uluru in Australia, designated as Ayers Rock by white settlers; and Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for Everest.
Yr Wyddfa or, to give it its proper name, Yr Wyddfa Fawr, refers to the burial place or “great tomb” housing the giant Rhita Gawr. The Old English Snawdune, meaning “snow hill” (Snaudune, Snaudun, Snaudon, Snowedon, Snewedon … its changed spellings are a march through history) is thought to have been bestowed by Saxon sailors, for whom it would have been a notable landmark as they navigated the channel from Traeth Mawr. (The etymology explains why the newspaper favourite “Mount Snowdon”, in other words “mount snow hill”, is so egregious.) As the Guardian country diarist Jim Perrin notes in his book Snowdon: the Story of a Welsh Mountain, Snawdune was written down in 1095, while Yr Wyddfa appeared in 1284. The name of the nearby peak Cnicht is also said to come from Old English, being derived from the word for knight – it is shaped like a helmet – though a Welsh origin has also been claimed.
But the writing down of a name is only a part of its story; it is so often the colonisers who put pen to paper. Like Perrin, I prefer Yr Wyddfa, e, though there is beauty to be found in a snow dune, the Welsh name is at far greater risk of being lost. (That’s not the only thing we risk losing because of the climate emergency. When the Saxons used their word, there may well have been snow on the mountain for a large part of the year; I wonder if, in centuries to come, people will look at the summit and attempt to visualise it.) The history of cultural imperialism in Wales will resonate with the Irish. The Ordnance Survey’s arrogance in dispensing with indigenous names in 19th-century Donegal is the subject of Brian Friel’s acclaimed play Translations. “They’ve been as bad in our country,” Perrin says. “English militaristic values are still enshrined in the Welsh maps we use.” To use the name Yr Wyddfa, which has been spoken on the lips of those who have lived on and around the mountain for far longer than history can record, is to resist attempts to annihilate our linguistic identity.
My father, who lives in the shadow of Yr Wyddfa, agrees, holding the most contempt for the term “Snowdonia”, an exonym that must be resisted (and which I’m guilty of using). Eryri, the true name, is derived from the Welsh word for eagle, eryr, though there are arguments about this, with others saying it comes from the Latin oriri, which means “to rise” (in old Welsh, eryr can also mean uneven ground). Whichever it is, the eagles are long gone, though I often think that Eryri’s barren peaks resemble the bird in their baldness.
The words you use for a place matter, and there appears to be an increasing understanding of this. Even the Daily Telegraph, not known for its nuanced understanding on such matters, has been broadly supportive, with Gareth Davies writing that Snowdon is “a needless title that has seemingly caught on to appease people unable to pronounce Yr Wyddfa”. Well, we are used to visitors mispronouncing our placenames, but we always appreciate them trying. It’s not so hard: Yr, as an English speaker might say “err” (as in “on the side of caution”, but roll the “r”) and “Wyddfa”, like “with”, plus “va”. Err-with-va. See? Easy.