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Ivan Berecka

Professor Antonia Primorac


Aspects of British Culture
23 May, 2014
The Status and Importance of the Welsh Language from the Middle of the 19th Century
to the Beginning of the 21st Century
-an Overview
The Welsh language (Cymraeg) is one of the oldest living languages in Europe. A
version of Welsh was spoken in Britain around 55 BC at the time of Roman invasions, and it is
spoken today by about half a million people in Wales alone (Storry and Childs 221). It is a Celtic
language, related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, but more specifically it belongs to the Brittonic
branch of the Celtic family. Many consider it one of the most poetic languages in the Indo-
European family, if not the world, and J. R. R. Tolkien even made use of some phonetic
peculiarities of Welsh in the construction of the Elvish languages for his fantasy series The Lord
of the Rings (Collier, Tolkien and Welsh). Compared to Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and other non-
English languages of the British Isles, such as Manx or Cornish, Welsh has enjoyed a fair
amount of success in recent years (Storry and Childs 222). However, the revitalization of the
language is an ongoing process, and the struggle towards the ultimate goal of creating a truly
bilingual society of Welsh and English speakers remains fraught with difficulties. This essay sets
out to give a brief overview of the major obstacles the Welsh language has faced since the late
19
th
century in order to attain equal status in relation to English, to examine the reasons why
language preservation and language teaching are important to begin with, and to point out
potential difficulties which may arise in light of global economic developments in the 21
st

century.
Education in Wales has been bilingual since the 1970s (Storry and Childs 50). A hundred
years earlier, teachers were prohibited from using Welsh in schools by the Elementary Education
Act of 1870, also called Forster's Education Act, drafted by William Forster, a Liberal MP
(Storry and Childs 221). This document affected the education of children ages 5 to 13 in
England and Wales. Consequently, the Welsh language became increasingly stigmatized,
especially in cities, which led to the ruralization of the language, a phenomenon still felt today.
Prior to this, in 1847, a public inquiry into the state of education in Wales was conducted, which
produced controversial results (Welsh and 19
th
Century Education). The inquiry was carried
out by three Englishmen who spoke no Welsh, and were significantly biased in favor of the
Anglican clergy. Their report described education in Wales as inadequate, making note of the
fact that many teachers taught only in English in otherwise exclusively Welsh-speaking
communities. However, the three English commissioners placed the blame for substandard
education and illiteracy on the Welsh population, who were deemed lazy, ignorant, and immoral.
This is a clear indicator of the influence of Anglican clergymen in the matter, who took to
slanderous accusations as a reaction to Nonconformism in Wales (The Blue Books of 1847).
The report, which later became known as the Treachery of the Blue Books (it was compiled in
three blue-covered volumes), has been named one of the most important Welsh historical
documents by Saunders Lewis, a Welsh poet, historian, and political activist (Lewis, Fate of the
Language).
In the aftermath of the Treachery of the Blue Books, the defamation of the Welsh
language reached new heights, in the form of the so-called Welsh Not, a kind of punishment
used in elementary schools to repress the usage of Welsh (Welsh and 19
th
Century Education).
A child overheard speaking the language would be given a piece of wood inscribed with the
words Welsh Not, or the initials W. N., which would usually be worn around the neck. The
child could pass the Not onto other transgressors, and the child found wearing the Not at the
end of the school day would receive physical punishment. What's most disturbing about the
practice is that it allegedly persisted in some schools well into the 1930s and 1940s (A Bevy of
Maidens).
Welsh remained highly stigmatized until the latter half of the 20th century, when Welsh
nationalism was on the rise, and speaking Welsh became a matter of national pride, a highly
prestigious attribute. People began to abandon anglicized names in favor of Welsh ones, and
spoke more often in Welsh, or at least deliberately spoke with a heavy accent (Storry and Childs
221). The 1960s saw the formation of such campaign groups as the Welsh Language Society
(Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg), who define their cause in terms of a wider world-wide struggle
for minority rights and freedoms (What is Cymdeithas yr Iaith?). Throughout the 1960s and
1970s, Welsh cultural identity amounted to linguistic identity, and to the sum of numerous local
cultures, as people tended to feel much more strongly about their home village, town, or county,
than about the country as a whole, and cultural institutions which could instill a sense of shared
identity on a national level had not yet been formed or were very young (Osmond 111). For
instance, the Welsh Office was established as late as 1965. Campaign groups and nationalist
movements such as the Sons of Glyndr (Meibion Glyndr) used this state of cultural diffusion
to rally members in the fight against English government. In the 1980s the Sons of Glyndr even
took responsibility for setting fire to holiday homes owned by wealthy English people (Thirty
years since the first Welsh holiday home arson).
However, language in Wales was, and still is, a dividing issue, and the efforts of
nationalist groups to preserve and promote their ideas of what it meant to be Welsh only served
to diminish the chances of Wales achieving a greater degree of autonomy. They fought for an
identity which had not yet been fully formed. As Leo Abse, a member of Parliament at the time,
declared: Our allegiance was to the locality and to the world, and nationalist flag-waving,
Russian, Welsh, or English, was anathema to those of us shaped in such a society (qtd. in
Osmond 112).
Another relevant factor was the geographical distribution of the language. There are still
significant differences between North and South Wales, as there were then. While northern and
northwestern counties, particularly Gwynedd county, are referred to as the Welsh-speaking
heartland (Y Fro Gymraeg), Welsh is still a foreign language to most citizens in the urban centers
of South Wales such as Swansea and Cardiff (Storry and Childs 222).
All of these circumstances led up to the 1979 referendum which was to address the
question of devolution, and determine the political orientation of Wales, toward or away from
Westminster. Naturally, a cultural multiplicity ungoverned by any unifying institutions made
devolution an unfavorable strategy, since British rule was perceived as the connective tissue in
the cultural as well as economic domain, and self-government seemed to be a slippery slope to
separatism (Osmond 111). Neil Kinnock, a Welsh Labour MP opposed to devolution, writes in
1979 that the matter of proving ones nationality and pride is a matter of hearts and minds, not
bricks, committees, and bureaucrats (qtd. in Osmond 112). However, the most fervent hearts
and adamant minds often get nothing accomplished without the guidance of rationally organized
decision-making, just as institutions and committees are useless without the living energy and
passion of their people. In any case, Wales was apparently not ready for the costs or
responsibilities of nationhood (Kinnock, qtd. in Osmond 111), which is to say the formation and
maintenance of autonomous political, economic, and cultural identity. The referendum showed a
4:1 opposition to devolution.
The political mood would soon change. By 1997, a new generation unburdened by
memories of the Second World War had become able to vote. These young voters were largely
responsible for disentangling the Welsh language from its political past, and transforming it into
a building block of personal cultural identity, unassociated with nationalism and less politically
charged (Osmond 113). The Conservative administration in Wales between 1979 and 1997
supported the preservation and development of the language: the first Welsh-language television
channel, S4C, was launched in 1982, and the Welsh Language Board was established in 1993
(Osmond 115). The governmental support for Welsh raised it to a sufficient degree of stability,
where it was no longer such a political football, as former Secretary of State for Wales, Ron
Davies puts it (qtd. in Osmond 115).
The advent of a new politically active generation coupled with Conservative support of
the Welsh language, conspired with a burgeoning Welsh economy which was beginning to steer
away from the rest of Britain and towards the European and global markets (Osmond 115).
These developments resulted in a shift in attitude towards the prospect of forming a Welsh
Assembly, an autonomous government body which was to take over the responsibilities of the
Welsh Office. The referendum of 1997 showed that 50.3% of voters supported this idea, and the
Assembly was established the following year.
Shortly thereafter, in 2003, the Assembly government released a national action plan for
a bilingual Wales entitled Iaith Pawb, or Everyones Language, with the goal of achieving a
sharp increase in young speakers by 2010, and eventually creating a truly bilingual Wales,
defined as a country where people can choose to live their lives through the medium of either or
both Welsh and English and where the presence of the two languages is a source of pride and
strength to us all (Iaith Pawb) This mission statement reveals just how much the attitude
towards Welsh-English compatibility has changed. There is no longer such a need for the
cohesive role of the Crown, or for a unitary state with a monolithic British culture, which is itself
a myth. In this period of devolution, people are looking to create a union state (Osmond 113),
comprised of equal nations embracing each other's differences and cherishing diversity for its
inherent developmental potential, but also valuing it for its own sake, as an aesthetic ideal which
seems to permeate, if not govern, the natural world, biological processes, and human societies.
What is needed for this project is an approach which is national in scope, but sufficiently
flexible to address local differences and differences between age groups (Iaith Pawb). An
approach which would promote economic growth as well, and help generate business and
tourism. The regional disparity in the number of Welsh speakers along the North-South axis
remains, but in a genuinely bilingual society it would no longer be such a prominent issue.
Furthermore, at the time of the release of the Iaith Pawb action plan, Welsh had already
exhibited a slow but steady increase in young speakers ages 3 to 15 (Storry and Childs 221), a
trend which is still ongoing and deserving of attention and careful maintenance. Most of all,
however, the action plan stresses its foundation in the inherent right of any individual to use the
language of their choice, and the responsibility of the government to ensure that right.
Regarding the issue of individual rights, special attention needs to be given to the rights
of children. Any child needs to be able to state their opinions and have them taken into account,
to have access to information and the opportunities to share it, and to learn and practice their own
culture, language, and religion, especially if those practices are not shared by the majority
population of a given community (Convention on the Rights of the Child). These rights can
only be secured by quality education in both English and Welsh, and seeing to this demand is a
matter of duty. The Iaith Pawb action plan was efficient in reeling in more and more funding for
Welsh-medium education over the years. The 2009-2010 report shows that 47% of the workforce
can speak Welsh, and it is being used in the European Union as well. However, one difficulty
which still remains is the inadequacy of Welsh courses in otherwise English-medium schools.
The reasons for teaching Welsh in schools, rather than just leaving it up to parents to pass
on their knowledge, are many. Some have already been pointed out, such as the inherent value of
diversity and the potential for change and growth which it entails, as well as the ideological
reasons connected to the preservation of human cultural rights. Another point to consider is the
fact that linguistic and cultural awareness and sensitivity are essential to economic growth, to
trade and tourism in particular (Baker 422). The development of cultural sensitivity is also a
form of cognitive and social development in general. The barriers faced by children and young
people speaking Welsh in their day-to-day lives are very often related to self-confidence issues
and a need to belong to a peer group (Encouraging Bilingual (Welsh/English) Participation),
which is why communication skills need to be promoted and worked on at all levels of
education. Yet another benefit of speaking more than one language is the widening and
enrichment of employment opportunities (Baker 411). Finally, to take a more theoretical
approach to the matter, any natural language is simultaneously a symbolic framework and
symbolic tool, on a par with art or science, which provides its user with an entirely unique way
of perceiving, knowing, and understanding the world. A variety of languages means a variety of
vantage points on reality.
As Wales continues to participate in the Europan market and the global economy, the
sense of belonging to the locality and the world reemerges. Only this time locality means the
entire country of Wales, and not particular villages or towns. An allegiance to Britain is
seemingly nowhere to be found. It would appear that the Welsh language is no longer threatened
by British English to the east, but by the overwhelming dominance of American English coming
from the west. As Wales carves out a piece of the global economy for itself, so it will have to
once more preserve the integrity of the Welsh language. Only it must be taken into consideration
that the downfall of a language can be brought about just as easily by inflexibly rejecting change,
as it can by neglecting the language and allowing it to be watered down and to fade out of use.












Works Cited
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Osmond, John. Welsh politics in the new millennium. Institute of Welsh Affairs, 1999.
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th
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What is Cymdeithas yr Iaith?. Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, n.p., n.d. Web. 23May, 2014.