History and Status of the Welsh Language

Incomplete draft of 8th January 1995, last changed 24th September 1999.

This document is written to accompany Mark Nodine's online Welsh lessons and used to be an appendix of that document, although I think it has now been removed from there (which makes the huge numbers of accesses to it the more confusing).

It aims to answer, from the - perhaps necessarily opinionated - standpoint of a native Welsh speaker, some questions about the historical, political and cultural background of the language that he or I think might be asked by a learner from outside that culture.

The present document has been drafted as responses to a list of questions, originally based on those that Mark thought might be asked:

If you think the answers are wrong or misleading, or if you think there are other questions that should be asked, please contribute by sending mail to Geraint.Jones@wolfson.ox.ac.uk. There is also a list of suggested background reading which needs filling out; I welcome suggestions for additions to this.

I plan eventually to add more detail to some of the answers. Since this document is written for the potential users of the online Welsh course, there is no parallel Welsh text.

What is Welsh?

Welsh is one of the Celtic languages still spoken, perhaps that with the greatest number of speakers. The only natural communities of speakers are in that part of Britain which is called Wales, and a small colony in Patagonia (in the Chubut province of Argentina), although there are many speakers of Welsh elsewhere, particularly in England and Australia and the United States of America.

The English names of the Welsh language (in Welsh, y Gymraeg) and the Welsh people (y Cymry) and Wales (Cymru) derive from a Germanic name for foreigners that crops up elsewhere in Europe in the same way, and which comes from a Latin name for a lost Celtic people, the Volcae.

Isn't Welsh just a dialect of English?

No. It is a language with an older pedigree, and a distinct one.

An English speaker may recognise the rhythms of the opening of the Gospel according to Saint John:

Yn y dechreuad yr oedd y Gair; yr oedd y Gair gyda Duw, a Duw oedd y Gair. Yr oedd ef yn y dechreuad gyda Duw. Daeth pob peth i fod trwyddo ef; hebddo ef ni ddaeth un dim i fod, ynddo ef bywyd ydoedd, a'r bywyd, goleuni ydoedd. Y mae'r goleuni yn llewyrchu yn y tywyllwch, ac nid yw'r tywyllwch wedi ei drechu ef.

but would otherwise be pretty much lost.

Welsh is an Indo-European language and so has much of the deep structure of its grammar shared with other Indo-European languages, as well as much vocabulary cognate with that of other members of the family - including English. Welsh is less closely related to English than are languages like French and German and the Scandinavian languages. English is a language which developed from the confluence of various influences in the Indo-European family, but has surprisingly few signs of direct influence from Welsh. (There is some Welsh vocabulary: obvious words like coomb, coracle, corgi, cromlech and eisteddfod, but also much less obvious ones like gull and car.)

You may be thinking of the dialect of English spoken in Wales, sometimes jokingly called Wenglish, which has many idiosyncrasies that can be traced to the grammar or vocabulary of the Welsh language. (Characteristics include bringing - often additional - verbs to the beginning of a sentence, an excess of auxiliaries, strange emphatic repetitions, using unlikely parts of verbs, literal translation of idioms and uses of non-standard prepositions. Aye, come you over by here now. I do do that sometimes. Now, there's a thing.)

You may, on the other hand, be fooled by the large number of English words which have been absorbed into the Welsh vocabulary, and by a common tendency to use English words, particularly nouns and verbs, in Welsh speech. The latter is partly a sort of inverted snobbery in those communities where the speaking of Welsh is associated with a good education or high social standing. There is also a tendency in asymmetrically bilingual cultures to identify one language as standard, in this case English, and all of the mixtures of the two language which get spoken tend therefore to be identified as debased forms of the other.

Where is Wales?

It is a double peninsula of the largest island in the archipelago off the north-west coast of France. It is bounded in the north by Liverpool Bay and the river Dee, to the west by the Irish Sea, to the south by the Bristol Channel and the river Severn, and to the east by a fairly arbitrary administrative boundary essentially dating back to the thirteenth century and very roughly following the boundary between high ground (in Wales) and fertile plains (in England).

So what exactly is Wales? A country? A district?

Well, that rather depends what you mean by country.

There is a geographical entity, essentially the hilly bits between the rivers Dee and Severn. There is also an administrative entity which is in British English terms a country, but not a state; some people have been known to describe its governance as giving it the status of an internal colony of the United Kingdom. There is also a people, who to the extent that they identify themselves as Welsh, are what some people would call a nation. There never has been a single state, in the modern sense of the nation-state, exactly coinciding either with the geographical or with the cultural Wales.

Perhaps a better question, one which is famously asked by the late Gwyn Alf Williams in the title of a book, is:

When was Wales?

The culture of the Celts seems to have come to Gaul and Britain and Ireland from across central Europe, somewhere between the Germanic peoples in the north, the Slavs in the East and the Italic and Hellenic peoples in the South. Those Celtic peoples who were part of the Roman empire at its greatest extent spoke p-Celtic languages, those most closely related to Welsh. In this sense the Welsh were the ones who inherited post-Roman Britain as the Empire retreated, encompassing most of the island of Britain south of the Antonine Wall (which is in the central belt of modern Scotland).

Over a relatively few centuries successive invasions from Scandinavia and northern Europe colonised what is now England, driving the British Celts westwards and dividing them into several distinct communities: among them Cumbrians, Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons who are believed not to be the original people of Gaul but island Celts who later recolonised the continent. There is no clear agreement about whether this driving westward was a process of migration, or simply an assimilation of the existing people into the encroaching cultures.

By the turn of the millennium the government of Wales was along essentially similar lines to that of Anglo-Saxon and Danish England; a number of dynastic principalities ruled at various times areas amounting to perhaps a quarter of the modern Wales each, from time to time making alliances both with each other and with English rulers. Many of the linguistic frontiers of modern Wales can be traced to the extent of Anglo-Saxon conquests at this time.

Anglo-Saxon England fell to the Normans shortly after the millennium, although Wales proved quite difficult to take and hold, and indeed by the twelfth century much of it was back under Welsh rulers. There was an uneasy century or so during which various treaties existed between the Welsh and the English crowns, and during which the lordships of the Marches (the border provinces) were important. By the late thirteenth century most of Wales was ruled either by the princes of Gwynedd or by lords who owed allegiance to them, rather than to the English crown. Gwynedd had strong ties with the French at this time.

The year 1282 marks the death of the last crowned prince of Gwynedd, and the conquest of Wales is usually thought of as being completed in the summer of 1283, although its administration was left in the hands of what were essentially Marcher lords rather than its being brought under an administration uniform with that of England.

The only time after this that Wales stood as a recognisably separate political entity from England was in the decade and more at the very beginning of the fifteenth century during which Owain Glyndw^r held the country in rebellion against the English crown. One of the consequences of the failure of this rebellion was the imposition of legislation which for several centuries denied access to all administrative posts to the Welsh.

Wales was finally absorbed into the English state under Henry VIII, by the deceit of an Act which asserted that Wales had always been a part of England, and which was passed only by an English parliament and Crown. In this respect the Union differs from that with Scotland, and subsequently with Ireland, and the nature of the union is also much closer to absorption.

The administrative boundaries created by that act (and which remained unchanged until 1974) were just boundaries between English counties, and there was no sense in which the Welsh counties were different from the English ones. This act which was the first to refer to the Welsh language: the people of the same dominion have and do daily use a speche nothing like ne consonaunt to the naturall mother tonge used within this Realme, and laid down that English should be the only language of the courts in Wales, and that the use of Welsh would debar one from administrative office. Its explicit intention was: utterly to extirpe alle and singular the sinister usages and customs of Wales. These provision were symbolically repealed by the 1993 Welsh Language Act.

Forgive me if, in the context of a history of the Welsh language I omit a few centuries of the politics of Wales during which there really was not all that much to be said about Wales which could not be said about other parts of what was then England. Britain was invented (and the name resurrected) with the coronation of James I and VI as king of Great Britain and in no time at all, or so it seems, the British Empire came about. The Welsh were, if anything, disproportionately significant in the development of what it came to be.

The modern Welsh consciousness dates perhaps from not much earlier than the nineteenth century, the era of a romantic Wales, when Carnhuanawc wrote his magisterially bizarre history of the Welsh since the dawn of history, when Augusta Hall was Lady Llanofer and discovered overnight that her Welsh-speaking tenants were profoundly cultured and literary people unlike the English peasants. This is the time that saw for the first time in Britain the raising of the red flag by a rebellious mob in Merthyr, and the suppression of that rebellion by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the smashing of toll gates by the hordes of Rebecca, but which sees at the same time the invention of that notorious long name for Llanfair Pwll, the invention of the association between Beddgelert and the legend of Gelert, and is probably when Tourist Wales acquired its Seven Wonders.

This was also the era of industrialisation and a growth in the population, especially in the South. There were influences from the rise of Irish national consciousness, there were the improved communications within the country, and especially with other countries in the Empire, there was the political identity of the massed working population of the industrial areas, and there was the rise of non-Conformism. The last was particularly significant for the Welsh language, and the existence of vernacular Sunday Schools is often given much of the credit for the relative strength of Welsh over the other Celtic languages in the twentieth century.

One of the prominent symbols of Victorian Wales was the establishment of the National Eisteddfod as an annual national event, an idea which rose in the 1860s and which came to fruition in 1881. This is a cultural festival, based around competition, and claiming some tenuous sort of descent from the bardic institutions of earlier times and in particular a national Eisteddfod in the twelfth century. The National Eisteddfod has become one of the pillars of the Welsh language culture in the twentieth century, although it only became formally a Welsh-language institution in 1952. It is by now a peripatetic festival of the Welsh culture on an unique scale, held in the week of the first Monday of each August and alternating between sites in the North and the South.

Cymru Fydd (Young Wales) was founded in London in 1886, on the model of Young Ireland, with later unsuccessful suggestions that it should become a national (meaning Welsh) political party. Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales, often referred to by the English `the Welsh nationalist party', originally known as Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru, the Welsh National Party), did not in fact come into being until 1925. It won its first seat in the Westminster parliament in 1966, and at the time of writing represents four seats in the north and west of Wales, which is the area where the language is strongest. It has some presence in local government elsewhere in Wales, but most parliamentary constituencies in Wales are represented by the (British) Labour Party.

Since 1965 the government of Wales had been mediated by an institution called the Welsh Office, created by the first, rather brief and even more insecure Wilson Labour Government. The Welsh Office (Swyddfa Gymreig) is a department of state in the government of the United Kingdom, represented in the Cabinet by a single minister who has within his department responsibility for several areas of government in Wales which in England are administered by other departments of state. Although early Secretaries of State were members of parliament for constituencies in Wales, successive Conservative governments in the 1980s were unable to find such members for this office. One of the consequences of those arrangements is that much of the government of Wales (to a much greater extent than in England) is carried out by unelected bodies appointed by the Secretary of State, and not therefore answerable to any Welsh electors. Following a skin-of-the-teeth endorsment of its proposals in a Referendum in September 1997, the Labour government established an elected National Assembly for Wales which under the Government of Wales Act 1998 assumed in July 1999 most of the powers of oversight of the Welsh Office, and has secondary legislative powers. The office of the Secretary of State continues to be the mechanism for carrying primary legislation relevant to Wales through parliament in Westmister, which retains those powers of primary legislation.

Inspired by a speech on the Future Of The Welsh Language given by John Saunders Lewis and broadcast by the BBC in 1962, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) was set up during a summer-school of Plaid Cymru, as one of the first single-issue pressure groups in Britain. The political party distanced itself deliberately from the Society both because the language is not central to the Party's campaign, and because of the Society's policy of non-violent civil disobedience. The Society campaigns using non-violent means of civil disobedience for changes in the status of Welsh and in state provision for such things as education. It led the campaign for the first Welsh Language Act and is held to be responsible for many of the symbols which have made the existence of the Welsh language more a natural part of public life in the last half of the twentieth century.

In the reign of Henry VI English, as opposed to Norman French, became a language in which it was possible to conduct business and to make legally binding contracts in England. The corresponding provision for Welsh was the Welsh Language Act of 1967 which permitted the use of Welsh in courts, giving the right to trial in Welsh or interpretation where appropriate, made contracts drawn in the Welsh language equally enforceable with those drawn in English, and permitted various other interactions with Government such as company registration and television and driving licencing to be made in Welsh. It was part of a tide of change in Welsh-speaking Wales which until the fifties had seen nothing strange in groups of Welsh speakers turning to using the English language amongst themselves for official purposes such as keeping minutes. A further act passed in 1993 made the ambiguous step of giving people in Wales the right to deal in Welsh with public bodies, but with the proviso that this was only enforceable where it was reasonable, a condition which it did not define.

The History of Welsh

How old is Welsh? Where did it come from?

Welsh is an Indo-European language, so is presumably descended like most (but not all) languages in modern Western Europe from something first spoken on the steppes of central Asia. Its immediate decent is from the Brythonic language or languages of Roman Britain. Conventionally one speaks of Early Welsh as being the development of that Brythonic precursor around the time when Britain fell to the Scandinavians, and Old Welsh as being the language of Wales between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Manuscripts of the laws of Hywel Dda and of early poetry date from this period; some of the earliest Welsh documents are of poems (and a famous nursery-rhyme) from the culture of the Hen Ogledd, the `Old North' (of what is now England and southern Scotland). Cymraeg Canol, Mediaeval Welsh, covers the period from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. Most extant manuscripts of the Mabinogi and such are from this period, although the stories are older.

The cywyddau of Dafydd ap Gwilym are examples of Early Modern Welsh, which covers the development over a period from about the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, and a flowering of the arts of language through the medium of Welsh. The publication of the Bible in Welsh in 1588 established a standard of language which governs the subsequent development of Late Modern Welsh, essentially unchanged as far as the present century.

The language of the Bible did much to establish a standard nationwide language, admittedly one more nearly like the speech of the North and North-West. Despite the influence of publication and in the twentieth century of broadcasting, there remain substantial differences of dialect between parts of Wales. The principal identifiable dialects are y Wyndodeg (Vendotian, of the North-West), y Bowyseg (Powysian, of North-East and mid Wales), y Ddyfydeg (Demetian, of the South-West), and the rarely appreciated Gwenhwyseg (of Gwent and Morgannwg in the South-East).

To what other languages is it related?

The closest relatives of Welsh are the other p-Celtic languages, of which the other modern representatives are Cornish and Breton, which are also descendants of Brythonic. Cumbrian, if it was indeed a distinct language, would also have been p-Celtic, and there was also a p-Celtic language indigenous to the continent, known as Gaulish, which is long extinct.

The next nearest relatives are the family of q-Celtic languages, of which modern representatives are the Gaelic languages of Ireland, Man and Western and Highland Scotland. The distinction between the p- and q- languages reflects the modification of certain initial consonants which are harder in the q-family than the p-family. (For example, Irish crann and Welsh pren, meaning tree; Irish capall, horse, is related to Welsh ebol, foal.)

Can Welsh speakers understand Gaelic?

By and large, no. In fact even the p-Celtic languages are not really mutually intelligible. A Welsh speaker especially if he is familiar with some of the archaic vocabulary of his own language can expect to read but perhaps not fully understand Cornish, but has difficulty understanding spoken Cornish. Breton is accessible to Welsh speakers who have French for its differently borrowed words and sounds, and again especially to those familiar with archaic Welsh. It is certainly much easier for a Welsh speaker to learn Breton than it would be for a French speaker to do so. It is relatively easy for Welsh and Breton and Cornish speakers, even if they have none of the languages in common, to make themselves understood to each other with a bit of effort.

The same is not really true in my experience with Welsh and Gaelic speakers (but then I have known difficulty in understanding Irish speakers of Welsh). There is some common vocabulary, although it is well disguised by different orthography and different pronunciation, and there seem to be sufficiently similar structures in the grammar that learning a Gaelic language should be easier for a Welsh speaker, or vice versa, than it might otherwise be.

The Current and Future Status of Welsh

Is Welsh a dying language?

The conventional answer to this question in the first half of the twentieth century would certainly be yes. The proportion of Welsh speakers in Wales has fallen consistently since there have been any sort of reliable statistics. Over the twentieth century the total number of speakers of Welsh has remained pretty much constant in the face of a sharp rise in the population.

There is perhaps less of an obvious consensus on the answer at the end of the century, although the long term prospects must be pretty bleak for any particular language with a small community of speakers, and particularly one like Welsh which both is devoid of great concentrations of speakers, and is surrounded by the particularly aggressive culture of the American and English speaking world.

How many people speak Welsh?

(I do not have the statistics to hand; I am going to fill this in later.)

Ah, now. There is a question to keep one awake at nights. It really rather depends what one means by speaking Welsh.

The most consistently reliable statistics are those derived from the decennial United Kingdom National Census, which in Wales asks people whether they speak Welsh. This reports a figure of a few hundred thousand (in a population which is rapidly approaching three million) but is widely held to underestimate the figure for several reasons.

The principal reason is a reluctance of many people to admit to speaking Welsh, especially those who have an education in English and only informal knowledge of Welsh, and those especially in the South who speak dialects other than the esteemed North-Western dialect. These are people who are afraid that if they admit to the Welsh they will start to receive incomprehensible formal documents from the Government in Welsh rather than in the English to which they are accustomed. There is also a lack of self-esteem inherent in not having a formal knowledge of the language, though the lack of Welsh education, which makes some people deny their Welsh because they are being asked an official question, one which they treat almost as if it were the threat of an examination. Other reasons include the arbitrariness of the administrative border, which means that the question is asked in the largely English speaking town of Wrexham in Clwyd in North Wales, but not in the essentially Welsh market town of Oswestry nearby but just across the border in England.

A conversely over-estimated figure is suggested by a survey conducted by S4C, the terrestrial television channel which broadcasts Welsh-language programmes in Wales, who were interested in as large a figure as possible in order to attract advertising revenue. Asking much more inclusive questions about understanding Welsh they estimated much nearer to a million speakers across the whole of the United Kingdom, with a small majority in Wales and only very little less than that in England, mainly in the large cities, and only a few thousand in the central belt of Scotland.

The most convenient source of statistics to hand is a survey published by the Welsh Office, Arolwg Cymdeithasol Cymru 1992: adroddiad ar y Gymraeg published about March 1995. It showed that 21.5% of the population of Wales (590800 people) speak Welsh; this divides into 32.4% of 3-15 year olds, 17.8% of 16-29s, 16.7% of 30-44s, 18.7% of 45-64s and 24.2% of over 65s. 55.3% of them (326600, 12% of the population) are first-language speakers, meaning someone who spoke more Welsh than English as a child at home. 13.4% of the population of Wales claims to be fluent in Welsh, and 66.1% claim no knowledge of Welsh at all.

More detailed analysis of anonymised samples of data from the 1991 Census has been published. There is an article by John Aichison and Harold Carter in Planet in autumn 1995 which contains several interesting statistics: for example that 28% of the sample of Welsh speakers they studied lived either alone, or in families where they were the only Welsh speaker. Even more worrying for the future development of the language is that 70% of the Welsh-speaking households that they studied were childless (although in 41% of the households in which a child spoke Welsh there was at least one other Welsh speaker).

As a first language? As their only language?

There are almost certainly no monoglot Welsh speakers, at least not over the age of about four or five, although there would still have been many in the middle of the twentieth century. The question by now must be how many speakers are thoroughly bilingual, as opposed to having Welsh as a second language. Most Welsh speaking people probably know of many individuals who give a much better account of themselves in Welsh than in English, but they must be relatively few.

One consequence of this is that it is very unusual for a Welsh speaker to meet someone with whom Welsh is the only common language: most commonly this would be a Welsh Welsh speaker, who probably has no Spanish, and a Patagonian Welsh speaker who quite likely has little or no English. When speaking Welsh one can normally assume that one's audience also speaks English, and this shows in the development of the language.

Where do most Welsh speakers live?

The only areas where substantial proportions of the population speak Welsh are in the West and North-West of Wales. Maps showing areas where given proportions of the population speak the language (I may scan some, if I get permission) show a decline and a retreat towards the North-West over the twentieth century and particularly over the second half of the century. The population of Wales is still rising at the end of the century, despite deaths in excess of births, and despite a large emigration particularly of educated, and so disproportionately Welsh-speaking, youth.

However, the largest numbers of Welsh speakers are misleadingly in the populous but apparently very English cities of the South and particularly of the western valleys of South Wales. The 1981 Census showed several towns with tens of thousands of speakers in South Wales, and only Bangor and Caernarfon approach this in the North. Where the ten or twenty thousand speakers in Cardiff are hiding, nobody is quite sure.

What is being done to preserve the language over the last 20 years or so?

I shall get around to this bit, which still needs planning. It will begin with a denunciation of the word preserve for a living language must change, and only the dead can be preserved. I much prefer use, but if you insist I will settle for sustain, or in extremis save.

The change in attitude in the fifties and sixties, esteem. A word about the Eisteddfod and Urdd Gobaith Cymru, neither of them any longer what they were founded to be, and a good thing too.

Something must be said about the Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin, Welsh schools and the Welsh speaking children of Anglophone parents. Cymraeg Byw, I suppose, although it isn't plainly a Good Thing.

There is much to be said about publication, the Cyngor Llyfrau and the other subsidy of the Arts. Papurau Bro.

Recordiau Sain picking up a dying trade, and the industry that followed them. The growth of Radio Cymru and other broadcasters, from when it was just Bore Da and Rhaglen Hywel Gwynfryn, Eic Davies and Byd y Bêl, and the co-existence of Clwb Rygbi and Talwrn y Beirdd. The coming of S4C and similar activities. (The BBC's main evening news broadcast for S4C is now published in Real Video, and the latest bulletin from Radio Cymru in Real Audio.) There is a Welsh language section in the BBC web, from which you can find a Welsh-language edition of their online news service.

Something about adult education, about CyD, about Nant Gwrtheyrn, various broadcast education and that sort of thing. Something about the sequence of bodies which preceded the Board, about Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, Cefn and other odd institutions.

Cymdeithasau Tai, business initiatives, Arianrhod and Menter a Busnes.

But above all the most important thing that can be done to sustain the language is to speak, read, and write it.