Village Names

There is nothing the editor of a newspaper’s correspondence column likes more than an argument among his readers, particularly if they are for the most part inveterate pedants and the subject is of minimal importance, at least at the start. One example is the question of the “correct” way to spell the name of our village. It was featured briefly in the Monmouthshire Beacon in the year 2000 and centred on whether there should be one “l” or two – Penalt or Penallt – both having been used indiscriminately in both common usage and official documents.

Generally speaking, English speakers used one “l” and Welsh speakers and those deferring to the name’s linguistic origin used two. One sensible correspondent tried to persuade readers that there was no harm in continuing to use both, for it made no difference to the Post Office. And then the ground was cut from under his feet for both officialdom locally and the local paper adopted the Welsh spelling as a matter of “policy”, satisfying those anxious to see the Welsh language preserved in active use and those incomers who wished to escape the charge of anglicising everything they touched. (Many of them give their dwellings in Wales a Welsh name, possibly for much the same reason.)

It is surprising that so simple a name should present such apparent difficulty. In part, the trouble was that English clerks had little to guide them when first attempting to write down place-names spoken to them by the Welsh. An early attempt by Church clerks was a rather feeble Penauth while those who compiled church tax tables (the Norwich Taxation) came up with a learned version – Penethlan. The map-makers, beginning with Saxton in 1579, wrote Pennalth as did John Speed in 1610. This spelling was used generally until 1694 when John Sellars seems to have become really confused and wrote Pennarth. No-one copied Sellars. Instead, map-makers worked their way through Pennallte, Penalth (the most common) and Pennalte. Penalt appears in a faculty requested by Dixton parish in 1817. Most, but not all, of the commercial maps of the 19th century used Penalth.

The War Office was an exception when, as the forerunner of Ordnance Survey, it used Penallt, as did Government Commissioners in 1847 and subsequently the Ordnance Survey itself, local government documents and local historians including Bradney. However, the 20th century still saw both spellings and indiscriminate usage – although the survival of Penalt with only one “l” probably owes much to sloppiness in legal documents – deeds of sale, wills and such – and possibly the difficulty some folk affect in pronouncing the double “l”.

Champions of the Welsh language will applaud the growing predominance of the Welsh spelling which describes the location of the village – Pen (the top or head of) allt (the wooded hill). But who knows, we still might see the argument resurrected by a desperate editor.

[from: Penallt Revisited]