Anyone with a passing interest in rugby will probably have heard someone shouting the Welsh motto, “Cymru am byth,”—“Wales forever!”—at some point. It is also, for many, likely to be their first contact with the Welsh language, which is spoken by around 875,000 people and is classified by UNESCO as endangered. Considering its history and the fact that 99% of people in Wales speak English, it is a surprise it has survived at all. How has the Welsh language made it so far, and is it possible that it will thrive even more in the future?
The Welsh government recently set themselves an ambitious target: one million Welsh speakers by 2050. The last time there were more than one million Welsh speakers recorded was in the 1911 census, though the language had been in decline for some time before that.
The fact that there are now around 875,000 people—both inside and outside of Wales—who speak the language proves that there have been significant moves towards reviving it. The question remains though: with few, if not no, monoglot Welsh speakers remaining, will those speakers use the language, or will it languish like Irish, which has 1.7 million speakers in Ireland, but only 4% of those speakers use Irish in their daily life?
First, let’s see where Welsh came from—and why it has suffered so much.
Welsh: A Brief History
Welsh, as we know it today, developed originally from the language of the Britons, the people who lived in Britain from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages. The name ‘Welsh’ was actually a term used by Anglo-Saxons to mean ‘foreign’ or ‘foreign speech’ and has passed down into English; the Welsh call their own language Cymraeg.
As a language, Welsh passed through many different stages, with its current iteration being classed as Late Modern Welsh, which has existed since the sixteenth century. The timing of this matches up with when the Bible was first translated into Welsh (The New Testament in 1567; the whole Bible in 1588), which made the language much more accessible for people in everyday life.
Throughout this entire period, Welsh was spoken by people in Wales as their primary language—but this began to change around 1840. After the Chartist movement (working-class people fighting for political change) took hold in Wales, members of the English establishment believed that Welsh people were uneducated and this was the root cause of the unrest and instability. In 1847, the Brad y Llyfrau Gleision—The Treachery of the Blue Books—took place. This was a report, commissioned to judge the state of Welsh education, but the Commissioners also wrote about the Welsh language and what they considered to be the morals of the Welsh people—all of it bad.
This report was a turning point, not only showing how English people viewed the Welsh and their language, but also having a serious impact on how Welsh people felt about their own tongue. Schools began teaching entirely in English and the infamous ‘Welsh Not’ came into play—a piece of wood that would be passed from child to child heard speaking Welsh, until the student holding it at the end of the day (or lesson!) was punished, usually physically.
The fact, then, that the 1911 census showed Welsh was a minority language in Wales for the first time, was barely surprising.
How Has Welsh Survived?
Although the 1911 census report did spark an interest in helping Welsh survive, the second half of the twentieth century has so far proved the most influential for Welsh revival. However, this has come about because of a number of earlier efforts which have eventually built enough momentum that means having a goal of one million Welsh speakers is now perhaps not unreasonable.
Plaid Cymru, Wales’ national political party, was founded in 1925 with the explicit aim of keeping Wales Welsh-speaking and making Welsh the only official language of Wales. It was around this time that educational policy began to change too, with the first Welsh Primary School, Aberystwyth Welsh School (Ysgol Gymraeg Aberystwyth) being founded in 1939.
After this, things began to change at a slightly faster rate: the first Welsh-medium secondary school was established in 1956, the Welsh Language Society in 1962, and then the creation of the first (mostly) Welsh television channel, S4C, in 1982. (After the digital switchover, in 2010, S4C began to broadcast only in Welsh.)
These changes led to an increase in Welsh people taking up and speaking the language, as well as altering attitudes towards it. Ultimately, this led to the passing of the Welsh Language Act of 1993 and the Government of Wales Act of 1998.
The Welsh Language Act gave Welsh equal status to English within the public sector and cemented what decades and decades of work on reviving the Welsh language had been trying to achieve. However, the Welsh Language Act did not cover private sector companies, though some (mostly banks and railway companies) did still provide information in Welsh.
However, this was followed up by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure in 2011, which finally gave Welsh official status, meaning that some—although not all—private sector companies also have to provide information in Welsh. Local councils provide information in Welsh, most road signs are bilingual, using Welsh and English, and Welsh has to be learnt by all schoolchildren up to at least the age of 16.
What Does This Mean For the Future?
With Welsh being necessary or preferred for certain jobs in Wales and being taught to all children educated there, it seems likely that the number of speakers will not decrease by a huge amount—if at all!—any time soon.
What needs to be done now is to convince people who aren’t Welsh, or have no Welsh heritage, that they, too, should learn this fascinating Celtic language. If the Welsh government is to hit their one million speaker target by 2050, they need all the help they can get.
If all the native speakers of a language die without passing on their language, then even if that language has been preserved, there are still elements that are lost—the Welsh people have done their best to avoid this with their language, but you can help! Learn a little Welsh (try the uTalk app!) and see if you enjoy it. If you do, learn some more!
Who knows, maybe you could just be one of those one million speakers thirty-one years from now!