Wales, although part of the UK, really is a separate country; with its own language and history. What future has the Welsh language in the 21st century, one might ask.
The Principality of Wales, although an integral part of the United Kingdom, is also a country in its own right, with a language, culture and history quite separate from that of England. Wales came under English jurisdiction in 1536, in the reign of Henry VIII; this effectively meant that the native Welsh population were, in the main, subordinate to the English elite.
Despite this, the Welsh people stubbornly continued to speak their own language, write their own poetry in the unique cynghanedd (chained metre) style and generally pursued their ancient way of life in a parallel cultural existence to that of their English overlords. In addition, the majority of the native Welsh population were members of non-conformist chapels, unlike the English, who were mainly traditional church goers.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the English government adopted a policy of actively discouraging the use of the Welsh language as a medium for education. This policy was a consequence of Brad y Llyfrau Gleision; The Treason of the Blue Books; a report on Wales, and specifically Welsh education, written by three men who were neither educationalists, nor Welsh speaking. The report came out strongly against the Welsh language and recommended that all Welsh children should be educated in English.
In fact, this report was as much a response to civil disobedience in Wales; the Rebecca Riots, a protest against road tax and toll gates; as to social and educational standards. It instigated the use of the Welsh Not, a board with “WN” printed on it, worn around the necks of children heard to be speaking Welsh throughout the school day. The child who was wearing the Welsh Not at the end of the day’s lessons would be beaten, to discourage all children from speaking Welsh.
The Welsh Not fell out of favour in the early twentieth century however, and a movement developed intent on reviving the Welsh language. The Urdd Gobaith Cymru was founded in 1922, with the aim of supporting and protecting the Welsh language in a Christian culture and environment. The Urdd’s motto is “I Gymru, I’n Cyd Ddyn, I Grist “, that is, “To Wales, To our fellow Men, To Christ”.)
Welsh medium primary schools began to spring up, in response to public demand, but despite this, in 1962 the Welsh writer and scholar; Saunders Lewis, delivered a speech in which he foretold the demise of the Welsh language within fifty years, unless radical steps were taken to support it.
Next the Welsh Language Board was discontinued, to be replaced by a Welsh Assembly appointed Commissioner; who just happened to be Meri Huws, the Chair of the Welsh Language Board. When all the other Welsh quangos were abolished in 2006, the Welsh Language Board was allowed to continue its work, probably because of the uniquely politically sensitive nature of its role, but now, it too has become a victim of the purge of “Quasi Autonomous National Government Organisations”, following in the footsteps of the Welsh Development Agency, the Wales Tourist Board and a number of others.
Coincidentally, this was at the fifty year watershed described by Saunders Lewis in his speech, which lead to the establishment of the Welsh Language Society. The latest research seems to indicate that the number of fluent Welsh speakers is declining by about 3,000 per year; despite legislation, the growth of Welsh medium education, and what may be a vocal minority of fervent supporters.
The paradox of the Welsh language lies in the fact that these days there are probably no monoglot Welsh speakers in existence.
In a world where the mastery of the English language is increasingly desirable, Wales seems to be standing alone in an isolationist stance; turning its back on the English language and culture whenever it can.
While the country’s history makes this cultural attitude wholly comprehensible, it also creates a somewhat invidious situation, where generally speaking everyone wants to speak English except the Welsh, all of whom are brought up speaking English (because it’s the dominant cultural language) and all of whom are also forced to learn Welsh in school until the age of sixteen.
Defence of the Welsh language is deeply rooted in the Welsh psyche, is embedded in the words of the Welsh national anthem and is a fundamental part of Welsh identity. Yet the majority of Welsh people don’t speak Welsh.
The language issue is a huge, complex conundrum with no easy solution, yet it’s impossible not to feel that the disappearance of the Welsh Language Board is probably another nail in the coffin of Welsh as a living language.