The Roots of Cardiff English

In South Pembrokeshire and in the county of Glamorgan in the rural parts of the Gower peninsula types of English developed more similar to the south-western varieties spoken on the opposite side of the Bristol Channel than to the English of the rest of the historic county of Glamorgan. At the present time English is the predominant language of all historic Glamorgan except chiefly for an area in the extreme north-west bordering on historic Carmarthenshire and west Breconshire. But we find two quite distinct types of English within the county, with a vaguely defined transitional zone between them. One of these is heard in the area between and around the urban centres of Barry, Cardiff and Newport. The other appears to have resulted largely from the spread of the first type into the hill areas, which were almost entirely Welsh in language before the Industrial Revolution, and into the rest of the coastal 'Vale' of Glamorgan which has suffered a great deal of ebb and flow of English and Welsh. This ebb and flow is strikingly demonstrated by some of the Vale place names such as Brynhill Fach and Penhill Fawr, which show three tiers of occupation, and Welsh St Donats, Hampston Fach, Rhiw Saeson, Broadland Fawr, Michaelston-y-fedw and Monkton Ganol which point to Welsh reoccupation of medieval English settlements. The Cardiff variety of Welsh English extends into coastal Monmouthshire at least as far as Newport; the other, 'Cymric' (ie Welsh-language-influenced), variety extends into parts of Monmouthshire, Breconshire and Carmarthenshire, and English of a quite similar type may be heard even in parts of Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire and Montgomeryshire.

A. J. Ellis was so completely mis-informed about almost all Glamorgan that he placed it all within his Celtic border, which he took into the sea three miles south-west of Swansea, not resuming it till two miles south-west of Newport. The suggestion that any form of Glamorgan English can be called 'book English' – which was how Ellis described what he thought to be the only kind within his Celtic Border, defining it as 'Learned by instruction and not communication or else spoken by the children, perhaps even the grandchildren, of those who thus learnt it – is very wide of the truth. As he said in his article 'On the Delimitation of the English and Welsh Languages' (1882), he obtained his information only by means of a postal questionnaire sent to 'clergymen of the parishes along or near the supposed route'. Unfortunately he had only two Glamorgan informants, one at Merthyr and the other at Llantrisant whose incumbent, though it was only ten miles from Cardiff, offered the amazing observation "I can name no particular place within many miles of this place where the natives speak English". It was a pity that nobody brought to his notice the investigations of E. G. Ravenstein (1879) for Ellis 1889 repeated his mistakes. Ravenstein, who traversed the areas himself, observed that "Cardiff forms the centre of an extensive district in eastern Glamorganshire within which Welsh is no longer [sic] spoken by a majority, and which is separated from the more thoroughly Welsh part of the county by a line commencing on the R. Rumney, above Machen, and running thence to the north of Whitchurch between Cardiff and Llandaff, past Leckwith, St. Lythans, Barry, Porthkerry, St. Athan and Llantwit Major, to the coast near St. Donats.

Apart from the fact that the line would now at least run well north of Llandaff and that we have transitional areas at the northern and western ends of his area, Ravenstein's description might well stand as an account of where the Cardiff variety of English was spoken today the earlier twentieth century. He also mentioned another English-speaking area, extending roughly from Margam to Pyle and south to the coast, which today is almost entirely indistinguishable linguistically from the rest of surrounding Glamorgan. An important historical account of the English language in Glamorgan was given in a Celtic-Border survey by Williams (1935) in which he remarked that the 'modern linguistic distribution is primarily the result of the medley of peoples and races drawn into Glamorgan by its recent industrialisation (cf Pryce and again Williams) and, secondarily, the effect of long historical fusion within the area in pre- and post- Norman times'. He expressed the opinion that in the fifteenth century the lowlands of south Glamorgan were English in speech and pointed out that, although before the industrial epoch, north Glamorgan was entirely Welsh in speech, 'the zone lying mainly between Swansea, Neath,Resolven, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney on the north, and Port Talbot, Bridgend and Pontypridd on the south 'became populated by peoples of mixed language affinities, though Welsh was undoubtedly the speech of the majority of its inhabitants'.

Here we have the explanation of the rapidity with which a genuine not-book-learnt dialect of English has become the speech of this area today: there always was a very substantial minority of English speakers in the area from the time of the first immigrations. The resultant Cymricised variety of English shows considerable signs of Welsh influence, more phonologically than grammatically or lexically. The really outstandingly significant feature of Cardiff English is the totally non-extreme-southwestern quality and distribution of its 'r' sound, which is the commonest 'Danelaw' variety. In un-Cymricised South Pembrokeshire, West Gower and East Monmouthshire 'r' is usually distinctly retroflex and survives before consonants. As a non-retroflex alveolar sound is also the usual value of 'r' in the area surrounding Cardiff it may occur to some to suggest that the Cardiff 'r' is due to the influence of Welsh. However, there are serious objections to this explanation. Firstly, we should expect that it should be a tapped or possibly trilled sound initially before vowels in strong syllables as in the adjacent varieties of Welsh, but Cardiff speakers never ordinarily tap or trill 'r' in such a position. Only a very small minority of Cymric Glamorgan English speakers may be heard to do so, chiefly those who are bilingual. Secondly, we should expect that at the time of the suggested substitution of the Welsh 'r' for the English, the previous (retroflex) sound would have been in use before consonants, and therefore that an 'r' sound would be retained there. In fact there do seem to be some signs of such a development surviving between Margam and Neath where a flapped 'r' was often to be heard in such words as thirty and dirty, at least until the mid twentieth century. This is not surprising because we have evidence for the existence of a south-western type of dialect in the Vale of Glamorgan almost as far east as Cardiff, just west of which we have in the place-name Drope a strikingly typical south-western phonological development (of thorpe). Trevelyn (1910) gave the form drepence for "threepence' and Pierce (1968) shows v/f alternations in several Dinas Powis names. Phillips (1956) recorded vally, an obvious adoption of 'felly' (ie felloe), for the Ely valley dialect of Welsh.

Before the Norman occupation of the Glamorgan lowlands a few years after the Doomsday Book, we have very little information on language distribution in Glamorgan but it is clear from place-name evidence that there was a considerable amount of Scandinavian settlement there. Charles (1934) concluded that 'in Glamorgan there existed a stronger Norse agricultural community than in south Pembrokeshire'. Ekwall (1918) said that 'Some settlement certainly look place in Glamorgan, especially round Cardiff'. There is certainly no extensive non-standard Scandinavian lexical element in the present-day dialect but this is hardly surprising in view of the tremendous rate of the nineteenth-century immigrations. As Dieth said: 'in the mixing of dialects the lexical differences are usually the first to be levelled out'. However, if we presume that the Anglo-Norman settlers were outnumbered linguistically by natives of Scandinavian origin, it is perfectly feasible that the 'r' sound of the latter could have prevailed in the ensuing linguistic assimilation. This would suggest that a Teutonic dialect has been the language of the Cardiff area for well over 1,000 years. Certainly, as far as influence from what is properly describable as the Welsh language is concerned, there is no single item of general everyday vocabulary, syntax, morphology or phonology in the dialect which can certainly be assigned to a Welsh-language origin and which is not shared with the general forms of English.


Charles, B. G. 1934. Old Norse Relations with Wales. Cardiff.

––– 1938, Non-Celtic Place-Name's in Wales. London Medieval Studies.

Coupland, N. 1988. Dialect in Use: Sociolinguistic Variation in Cardiff English. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Ekwall, E. 1918. The Scandinavian Settlements. In H. C. Darby (ed.), An Historical Geography of England before 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, A. J. 1882. 'On the Delimitation of the English and Welsh Languages'. Y Cymmrodor.

––– 1889. Early English Pronunciation Vol V.

Phillips, V. H. 1956, 'Astudiaeth o Gymraeg Llafar Dyffrin Elai a'r Cyffiniau'. Unpublished University of Wales thesis.

Pierce, G. O. 1968, The Place-Names of Dinas Powys Hundred. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Ravenstein, E. G. 1879. 'On the Celtic Languages of the British Isles'. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society.

Trevelyan, M. 1910. Old Llantwit Major.

Williams, D. T. 1935. Linguistic Divides in South Wales. Archaeologia Cambrensis.

[Minor revisions made at 1 Sep 2016.]