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Iconic Mountains: What’s in a Name?

We have previously discussed how English has progressively become the world’s lingua franca. The use of English doesn’t please everyone and is certainly a hot topic in the European Union right now. You would probably think that the use of English in the UK wouldn’t be so controversial. But you would be wrong.

Many destinations and attractions in Wales have acquired English names over the years. The Welsh are now rebelling against the anglicisation of the country’s leading attractions.

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The Welsh icon with an English name

The Welsh are anxious to preserve their language. Almost everyone in Wales speaks English and only 30% of the population speak Welsh. However, in the north-west of the country, Welsh is the first language of as many as 80% of the residents. Many people in North Wales are unhappy that the region’s principle attraction is almost always referred to by its English name. But a campaign has been launched to change all that.


Snowdon is the highest mountain in England and Wales. It is an iconic peak which now attracts 600,000 visitors each year. The Snowdonia National Park receives almost 4 million visitors every year. The tourists mainly hail from England. The guidebooks, maps and websites they read will identify the mountain as Snowdon. The name is derived from the Saxon term snaw dun which meant snowy hill. But in Welsh, Snowdon is known as Yr Wyddfa. This is pronounced “Air-with-va”. The national park is known as Eryri in Welsh (pronounced “Eh-ruh-ree”).

A task group has been established to explore whether the English moniker, Snowdon, should be dropped and only Yr Wyddfa used. The Welsh name means grave and refers to the legend that the giant Rhita Gawr was buried on the mountain after a battle with King Arthur. The proponents of change argue that Welsh names are in danger of being lost and should be the official names of places and attractions. Snowdon should only be referred to as Yr Wyddfa and Snowdonia as Eryri, a name which is thought to be derived from the Latin word oriri, meaning to rise up.

Confusing or a great idea?

It’s easy to understand why the Welsh would like to preserve their language and place names. In the north-west of Wales there is certainly growing concern that so many names have been anglicised. But Wales’ highest mountain has been known as Snowdon for so long that whatever the local authorities decide to call it, most visitors will inevitably continue to refer to it as Snowdon. Many visitors to the region would struggle to pronounce the Welsh name correctly and that would doubtless annoy the locals as well. There is much scope for confusion, if the name Snowdon suddenly disappears from all guidebooks, leaflets, websites and maps.

If the mountain is to be officially known as Yr Wyddfa, it will be a very costly turn of events for the national park authority. They will be faced with rewriting their website, reprinting their literature and changing all of their signage. Suffice it to say, they are not at all happy about the idea!

Is there a precedent?

The name of North America’s highest peak has also been a matter of great debate over the years. The Alaskan peak was designated as Mount Mckinley in 1896 by gold prospector William Dickey. He was honouring William Mckinley, the Governor of Ohio, who would become president of the United States the following year. The name was officially adopted by the federal government of the United States in 1917.


But in 1975, the Alaskan state government requested that the mountain be officially known as Denali, the name that was and is usually used in Alaska. Their attempts to change the name were blocked by senators in Ohio but the argument over the mountain continued for another 40 years!

In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act saw McKinley National Park (established 1917) incorporated into a larger area which was named Denali National Park. However, the park’s tallest peak remained Mount Mckinley. The renaming of the national park was seen by many as a compromise that merely caused confusion and so the debate about the mountain continued.

In 2015, Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, announced that the name of the mountain would be officially changed to Mount Denali in all federal documents. While on a visit to Alaska in September 2015, President Barack Obama announced the official renaming of the mountain. The name Denali is derived from the Koyukon moniker for the mountain, Deenaalee, meaning “the high one”.

Will Snowdon become Yr Wyddfa?

If events in America are anything to go by, the Welsh might be in for a long wait if they harbour ambitions of renaming their iconic peak. It could be said that it doesn’t really matter what any mountain is officially called as the locals can call it whatever they like. But the highest peaks are precious to those who live close to them. They are central to many myths and legends and even to religious beliefs. They are loved and revered by the natives of the land from which they rise and are inexorably entwined in the histories and cultures of the regions concerned. As such, their names do matter.

Perhaps mountains should be officially known by the names that have been passed down for centuries rather than those that English speakers have evolved relatively recently. But it is likely that even if Yr Wyddfa is used in all written references to the mountain, most visitors will continue to talk about the day they conquered Snowdon.

What about Mount Everest?

Summitting Snowdon isn’t quite as impressive as reaching the summit of Everest, a mountain which has also been given an English official name. But the naming of Everest wasn’t an attempt by the English to quash the local moniker for the mountain. The peak was named Everest in the 19th century after the Surveyor General of India because there were several local names for the mountain. Surveyors representing the Royal Geographical Society had been anxious to preserve local names for Himalayan peaks but could not establish what the official or most commonly used name for the mountain was. This was in part due to Nepal and Tibet’s exclusion of foreigners at the time.


In 2015, the Nepalese government changed their official name of the world’s highest mountain to TICDA (Today I Can Do Anything) despite the usual local name for the peak being Sagarmatha. It is somewhat ironic that this new name is merely an acronym of an English phrase. Mount Everest is known as Chomolungma in Tibet. Confusion continues to reign!

There is certainly a growing resistance to using English names for mountains in countries where English is not the native language. It will be interesting to see which mountain names are debated next.

#EnglishLanguage #languagefocus #placenames #pronunciation

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