Language, a heritage asset

Christopher Catling, Contributing Editor for Current Archaeology, delves into the eccentricities of the heritage world. This is his latest 'Sherds' column.

In CA 398, Sherds asked whether certain words or phrases that we think are modern have a longer history – ‘woke’ being an example that we can trace back to the mid 19th century. That thought sparked a strong response, mainly from readers adding to the list of recent usages they dislike or consider transgressive, though it was interesting to hear reader Rob Baldwin’s suggestion (Letters, CA 399) that the use of ‘myriad’ as a noun dates back to the original Greek, where ‘myriad’ means 10,000 (although, as the Letters page of this issue attests, not everyone agrees). Thus, my claim that it was wrong to say ‘a myriad of possibilities’ was itself incorrect. Guides to English usage now allow myriad to be used as a noun or an adjective. So ‘myriad reasons’ and ‘a myriad of reasons’ are both acceptable.

What did readers find irritating? Perhaps some or all of the following are on your hate list: the compulsory use of ‘accessible’ to describe everything from a Proms concert to the rewording of the Coronation ceremony (‘adapted to make it more accessible’, we were told); ‘thank you so much’ (instead of ‘very much’); ‘you are welcome’; ‘have a nice day’; ‘can I get’ instead of ‘may I have’; ‘smart’ (for ‘clever’, rather than ‘well-dressed’); ‘if liked’ instead of ‘if you like’; ‘bored of’ and ‘comprising of’; ‘full disclosure’ (invariably used in order to boast rather than to reveal a genuine conflict of interest); ‘likely’ instead of ‘probably’; he/she has ‘passed’ instead of he/she has ‘died’; ‘reaching out’ to somebody instead of simply ‘contacting’ them; ‘curated’ and ‘edited’, for ‘selected’; and the latest journalistic cliché, ‘cookie-cutter’ to mean ‘identical’. Oh, what a censorious lot we are.

below The reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver in the UK has been met with resistance by some factions. IMAGE: Paul Stevenson CC BY-SA 2.0
The reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver in the UK has been met with resistance by some factions. IMAGE: Paul Stevenson CC BY-SA 2.0

Pantomime words

Some of these are what Andrew Selkirk, our esteemed Editor-in-chief and founder of this magazine, would call ‘boo’ words: that is to say, words that you cannot use if you want to present a persuasive argument because they invoke an instinctive negative reaction, like the chorus of ‘boos’ that greets a pantomime villain. Except that pantomime audiences tend to be unanimous in their likes and dislikes, whereas some words are capable of eliciting cheers as well as boos.

One such word is ‘rewilding’ – a concept that the proponents would say means trying to reverse the damage that we have done to the natural world over the last 50 or more years, but that those who are guilty of causing the harm characterise as abandoning productive farming land to wolves and scrub, and to those most evil and destructive of creatures, the beaver.

Full disclosure (boast on the way): I began championing the reintroduction of beavers in my very first contribution to this magazine (CA 210, July 2007), having interviewed Bryony Coles about the archaeology of beaver dams, which could easily be mistaken for the kind of prehistoric trackways that she and John Coles had been excavating in the Somerset Levels. Bryony persuaded me that beavers bring multiple ecological benefits, and that these far outweigh any damage that they might do to riverside trees. You would not think so from the chorus of opposition that recently greeted the announcement by NatureScot, the Scottish environment agency, that they had designated land around Loch Lomond and Glen Affric for further beaver introductions, arguing that beavers are ‘ecosystem engineers’ that create wetland habitats and alleviate flooding.

One spokesperson for farmers in Scotland made the extraordinary claim that ‘beavers pose a bigger risk to their livelihoods than Brexit’. Another was quoted in The Times as saying that people have stopped riding horses close to beaver habitats ‘in case they get thrown on to the spikes’ of trees felled by beavers. A third claimed to have lost valuable crops to flooding caused by beaver dams and stated that this ‘eliminates the possibility of growing high-value crops and at a time when food security is so high on the agenda’.

Food security is the ‘hooray’ word that opponents like to use in opposition to the ‘boo’ word of ‘rewilding’, but to be truly secure foodwise would involve the UK population reverting for six or more months of the year to what we ate in the 1950s. Based on what we can grow in the UK’s cold, wet climate, we would have to give up the tomatoes and strawberries that consumers now demand year-round (and whose irrigation is causing rivers on the Continent to run dry).

Meanwhile, the beavers are thriving. There were zero beavers in the wild in 2007; now there are several thousand. Beavers in Kent and Oxfordshire are moving closer to London, but plans are afoot to give them a helping hand by releasing a breeding pair in Ealing’s Paradise Fields. Dr Sean McCormack, vet and chair of the Ealing Wildlife Group, says that the project will be used to study how beavers interact with an urban river catchment and with urban communities. ‘Many people assume beavers are a wilderness species’, he said, ‘when in fact we’ve just forgotten how closely we used to live alongside them.’

Welsh place names

Why would an archaeology magazine even be concerned with words and their meaning? Because language is a heritage asset in its own right and one that, according to UNESCO, constitutes ‘tangible evidence of underlying norms and values’. That may well explain why such strong feelings were on display when Michael Sheen announced on 17 April 2023 that the National Park formerly known as the Brecon Beacons would henceforth be known by its historic Welsh name, Bannau Brycheiniog (pronounced ‘ban-eye bruch-aye-knee-og’ – ‘ch’ as in ‘loch’) meaning ‘Peaks of [the kingdom of] Brychan’.

Sherds assumed that the use of Welsh place names in Wales would be as uncontroversial as using Italian place names in Italy, or Greek in Greece – but the announcement was greeted by an outpouring of protest. Without a hint of irony, some business leaders described the change of name as ‘anti-English’. Some have threatened a High Court challenge on the basis that ‘losing our identity as the Brecon Beacons National Park will be detrimental to tourism, hospitality, and trade.’ Others pointed out, however, that Uluru is no less famous as an Australian landmark today than when (before 1993) it was known as ‘Ayers Rock’.

Full disclosure (again): my organisation, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, has been entrusted with the task of helping to safeguard and promote historic Welsh place names. James January McCann, our Place Names Officer, can proudly claim to have had a lasting impact on the map of Wales because of the number of new streets – as well as housing, industrial, and retail estates – that have been given historic Welsh names thanks to his advice.

below The announcement that the National Park formerly known as the Brecon Beacons would henceforth be called by its historic Welsh name, Bannau Brycheiniog was also criticised, with some even (without a hint of irony) claiming it to be ‘anti-English’. IMAGE: Jack Pease Photography CC BY-SA 2.0
The announcement that the National Park formerly known as the Brecon Beacons would henceforth be called by its historic Welsh name, Bannau Brycheiniog was also criticised, with some even (without a hint of irony) claiming it to be ‘anti-English’. IMAGE: Jack Pease Photography CC BY-SA 2.0

Are second homes to blame?

People in the Welsh-speaking heartlands of Wales see the dilution of the language as one consequence of the growth in demand for holiday cottages. English names such as ‘Rose Cottage’ or ‘Lovespoon House’ make Welsh cottages more appealing to holidaymakers from the eastern side of Offa’s Dyke than those with names like ‘Meini Glas’ (‘Bluestones’) or ‘Yr Onnen’ (‘The Ashes’). The campaign group Cymdeithas yr Iaith is lobbying for a new law to require property and business owners to obtain planning permission for a change of name from Welsh to English, and Cadw, the Welsh heritage agency, has responded by commissioning research to establish just how prevalent the problem is.

Protecting Welsh language place names is, of course, a proxy for a much more challenging problem that impacts many parts of the UK, not just Wales: the issue of second home ownership, which critics say drives up property prices and makes them unaffordable by local people, as well as turning holiday hotspots into ghost towns out of season. Others say this is a simplistic analysis: that many holiday-home owners are themselves local people, not incomers, and that the community benefits from the money that holidaymakers spend in shops, cafés, and pubs, and that property owners spend on cleaning and maintenance services.

Leaving such thorny issues aside, place names are an excellent and enjoyable way of engaging with Welsh history and language, something that Cadw has recently embraced by launching a series of guides to historic monuments in simple Welsh designed specifically for learners. Meanwhile, many in Wales are looking at the way New Zealand has embraced Māori language and culture as core to what makes the nation special. Who wants to live in a monoglot (or should that be cookie-cutter) world?