Welsh: A Language Revived

One of the first things that greets me as I journey on my way home from Oxford to Wales is the sign, ‘Croeso i Gymru’ (welcome to Wales) – it’s one of many bilingual signs which line Wales’s roads and streets, bearing the Welsh first, English second. This seemingly inconspicuous sign is symbolic of years of struggle to preserve the ancient language of Wales – after centuries of English taking precedence in business, law courts, and everyday life, the country is finally embracing its indigenous language. So what prompted this colossal change?

Strength forged in adversity

Welsh is the only Celtic language in the British Isles not to hold a ‘critically endangered’ status, according to UNESCO. A descendant of Brythonic, the main language which was spoken in Wales, England and Southern Scotland at the time of the Roman invasion in 43 AD, the history of Welsh spans over 1400 years. 

Red Book of Hergest, early manuscript of the Mabinogion

At the time of Henry VIII’s Act of Union in 1536, Welsh already had a rich history of literature and song, such as the Book of Taliesin, a middle Welsh manuscript which is said to contain songs by the bard Taliesin from as early as the 10th century, and the Mabinogion, a collection of prose stories compiled between the 12th and 13th centuries based on a much earlier oral tradition, which features tales of knights, giants and even a woman made of flowers. The Act of Union dealt the language a significant blow, making English the language of power and thus creating a class hierarchy which associated Welsh with the minority. Welsh-speakers could not plead in court in their native language, nor speak it at work, and were as a result cut off from engaging with much of society. The Industrial Revolution saw a further decline in Welsh speakers, particularly in areas like the South Wales Valleys, where English-speaking workers in the coal and steel industries outnumbered their Welsh counterparts.  Meanwhile, children caught speaking Welsh in schools were given the ‘Welsh Not’, a piece of slate hung around their necks, designed to humiliate. 

Interspersed between these moments of adversity, however, are glimpses of triumph – take, for example, the translation of the Bible into Welsh by William Morgan in 1588, or the creation of the Gorsedd of the Bards, an alliance of poets, writers, musicians, and artists, which led to the rise of the Eisteddfod, a festival which celebrates all these art forms. One thing certainly seems clear – Welsh speakers were not going to give up without a fight. 

A rebirth like no other 

I have never known Wales without its language. I learned Welsh in school, and though not a fluent speaker myself, it would be challenging to leave the house without seeing at least some Welsh. In many areas, such as Pembrokeshire or Carmarthenshire, the musical ebb and flow of the language which lends itself so well to song can be heard in everyday settings, such as in supermarkets, in cafes, on public transport. Such a feat has been achieved through the unwavering dedication of pioneers, such as Ifan ab Olwen Edwards, who founded the first Welsh-medium primary school in Aberystwyth in 1939, and Angharad Tomos, author and language campaigner who was imprisoned several times throughout the 80s for her activism as part of the Cymdeithas yr Iaith Cymraeg (Welsh Language Society), and wrote about her experiences in her book Yma o Hyd

Children not attending Welsh-medium schools study Welsh up to the age of 16, and many universities in the country offer degree courses taught in the language, along with summer schools for adult beginners. The television channel S4C provides Welsh-language programmes and news around the clock, whilst listeners can also tune in to BBC Radio Cymru to get their fix of Welsh-language music. Two major music festivals in Wales, Green Man in Crickhowell and Sesiwn Fawr in Dolgellau feature Welsh-language performers in their line-ups, demonstrating that music is key to revitalisation. You only have to go to a Welsh rugby match to discover that, for the hundreds of people chanting Sospan Fach or the national anthem, song is a centuries-old way for Welsh speakers to express pride in their language and culture.

A model for other languages  

Other minority languages in the British Isles have not been so fortunate. The last native speaker of Manx (the language of the Isle of Man), Ned Maddrell, died in 1974, causing the language to be labelled ‘critically endangered’ by UNESCO. Its precarious status led to efforts for revival, such as through street signage and radio broadcasts, along with the establishment of the local primary school, which teaches all of its lessons in Manx. Cornish underwent a similar revival, after its status was changed back from ‘extinct’ by UNESCO in 2010. 

It takes extraordinary effort and passion to bring a language back from the dead, and minority languages in the British Isles have a long battle ahead of them. There is a constant push and pull where these languages are under threat. In Ireland, Gaeltacht districts – areas where Irish is the predominant language – face crippling rates of depopulation, whilst numbers of Irish speakers working in translation and interpretation in the EU have almost tripled in the last 5 years, calling many away to better opportunities Brussels and Luxembourg. In Scotland, just 60,000 people can speak Scottish Gaelic, which the government attempts to combat through their ‘Gaelic Language Plan’. If governments are serious about wanting to protect their indigenous languages, much more – such as funding inquiries, setting up language medium schools and creating jobs in areas where they are most spoken – needs to be done.

The future of the Welsh language

The situation is by no means a perfect one. According to estimates by the Annual Population Survey of 2022-23  just 29.2% of the population can speak Welsh, the result of a steady decline over hundreds of years. Efforts to erase the language, whether conscious or not, continue – Welsh place names are exchanged for English ones, as we can see from the example of Lake Australia, known in Welsh as Llyn Bochlywd, named so from an ancient myth of a grey stag, which escaped its hunters by plunging into the waters. There is also still a widespread belief that Welsh, being a language of minor economic significance, should not be learned.

“Welsh is the only Celtic language not to hold a critically endangered status, according to UNESCO”

Welsh speakers are still fighting for their language to be honoured and celebrated, and rightly so – if we lose any of our indigenous languages, we lose countless stories and poetry: we lose the tales of our ancestors.

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