At the time of writing we’re still waiting for news of the miners trapped underground in a drift mine in the Swansea Valley. We hope for the best but fear the worst.
The Gleision ˈɡlaɪʃɒn mine is at Cilybebyll ˌkɪləˈbebɪɬ, a village near Pontardawe ˌpɒntəˈdaʊi. I was impressed by the way the Sky News newsreader on TV yesterday evening handled the Welsh place names. He didn’t hesitate or stumble; he didn’t even break his rhythm. His ɬ was exemplary.
Gleision is a straightforward Welsh name, the plural of glas ‘blue, green’, so meaning just ‘blues’ or ‘greens’. The other two names involved are more interesting, because they bear witness to the influence of Latin on Welsh, dating from the time before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, when southern Britain was part of the Roman Empire.
Pontardawe means ‘bridge on the (river) Tawe’. The first element is pont, the Welsh for ‘bridge’, an obvious borrowing from the Latin pons, pont- of the same meaning. This word also gave us French pont and Spanish puente. No doubt the Romans introduced their bridge-building technology into Britain, and with it their word into the British (= Old Welsh) language.
Cilybebyll literally means ‘back of the tents’. The last element, bebyll, is the soft-mutated plural of the word pabell ‘tent, tabernacle’, from the Latin papilio, papilion-. In Latin this word primarily meant ‘butterfly’, but it was also a Roman army slang word for ‘military tent’, “probably from the similarity of shape when the ends of the covering are turned over at the entrance of the tent” (OED). The same word came into English via French as pavilion pəˈvɪliən, -ljən.
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I shall be away again next week. Next blog: 26 September.