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History of the Welsh language facts for kids

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The history of the Welsh language spans over 1400 years, encompassing the stages of the language known as Primitive Welsh, Old Welsh, Middle Welsh, and Modern Welsh.

Welsh Language Act 1993 S4C Welsh Bible Middle Welsh language Old Welsh


Welsh evolved from British, the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Britons. Alternatively classified as Insular Celtic or P-Celtic, it probably arrived in Britain during the Bronze Age or Iron Age and was probably spoken throughout the island south of the Firth of Forth. During the Early Middle Ages the British language began to fragment due to increased dialect differentiation, evolving into Welsh and the other Brythonic languages (Breton, Cornish, and the extinct Cumbric). It is not clear when Welsh became distinct.

Kenneth H. Jackson suggested that the evolution in syllabic structure and sound pattern was complete by around 550, and labeled the period between then and about 800 "Primitive Welsh". This Primitive Welsh may have been spoken in both Wales and the Hen Ogledd ("Old North"), the Brythonic-speaking areas of what is now northern England and southern Scotland, and therefore been the ancestor of Cumbric as well as Welsh. Jackson, however, believed that the two varieties were already distinct by that time. The earliest Welsh poetry – that attributed to the Cynfeirdd or "Early Poets" – is generally considered to date to the Primitive Welsh period. However, much of this poetry was supposedly composed in the Hen Ogledd, raising further questions about the dating of the material and language in which it was originally composed.

Old Welsh

The next main period, somewhat better attested, is Old Welsh ([Hen Gymraeg] Error: {{Lang}}: text has italic markup (help), 9th to 11th centuries); poetry from both Wales and Scotland has been preserved in this form of the language. As Germanic and Gaelic colonisation of Great Britain proceeded, the Brythonic speakers in Wales were split off from those in northern England, speaking Cumbric, and those in the south-west, speaking what would become Cornish, and so the languages diverged. The Book of Aneirin (Canu Aneirin, c. AD 600) and the Poetry, or Book, of Taliesin (Canu Taliesin) belong to this era, though both also include some poems originally written in Primitive Welsh.

Middle Welsh

Middle Welsh ([Cymraeg Canol] Error: {{Lang}}: text has italic markup (help)) is the label attached to the Welsh of the 12th to 14th centuries, of which much more remains than for any earlier period. This is the language of nearly all surviving early manuscripts of the Mabinogion, although the tales themselves are certainly much older. It is also the language of the existing Welsh law manuscripts. Middle Welsh is reasonably intelligible, albeit with some work, to a modern-day Welsh speaker.

The famous cleric Gerald of Wales tells a story of King Henry II of England. During one of the King's many raids in the 12th century, Henry asked an old man of Pencader, Carmarthenshire, whether he thought the Welsh language had any chance:

My Lord king, this nation may now be harassed, weakened and decimated by your soldiery, as it has so often been by others in former times; but it will never be totally destroyed by the wrath of man, unless at the same time it is punished by the wrath of God. Whatever else may come to pass, I do not think that on the Day of Direst Judgement any race other than the Welsh, or any other language, will give answer to the Supreme Judge of all for this small corner of the earth.

Modern Welsh

Early Modern Welsh

Modern Welsh can be divided into two periods. The first, Early Modern Welsh ran from the early 15th century to roughly the end of the 16th century.

Late Modern Welsh

Late Modern Welsh began with the publication of William Morgan's translation of the Bible in 1588. Like its English counterpart, the King James Version, this proved to have a strong stabilizing effect on the language, and indeed the language today still bears the same Late Modern label as Morgan's language. Of course, many changes have occurred since then.

19th century

The language enjoyed a further boost in the 19th century, with the publication of some of the first complete and concise Welsh dictionaries. Early work by Welsh lexicographic pioneers such as Daniel Silvan Evans ensured that the language was documented as accurately as possible. Modern dictionaries such as the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (the University of Wales Dictionary), are direct descendants of these dictionaries.

In spite of this boost, the use of Welsh was actively discouraged at school under the Welsh Not policy. A stick or plaque was given to any child heard speaking Welsh during school, to be handed on to whoever next spoke the language.

The influx of English workers during the Industrial Revolution in Wales from about 1800 led to a substantial dilution of the Welsh-speaking population of Wales. English migrants seldom learnt Welsh and their Welsh colleagues tended to speak English in mixed Welsh–English contexts. So bilingualism became almost universal. The legal status of Welsh was inferior to that of English, and so English gradually came to prevail, except in the most rural areas, particularly in north west and mid Wales. An important exception, however, was in the non-conformist churches, which were strongly associated with the Welsh language.

20th century

By the 20th century, the numbers of Welsh speakers were shrinking at a rate which suggested that the language would be extinct within a few generations.

According to the 1911 census, out of a population of just under 2.5 million, 43.5% of those aged three years and upwards in Wales and Monmouthshire spoke Welsh (8.5% monoglot Welsh speakers, 35% bilingual in English and Welsh). This was a decrease from the 1891 census with 49.9% speaking Welsh out of a population of 1.5 million (15.1% monoglot, 34.8% bilingual). The distribution of those speaking the language however was unevenly distributed with five counties remaining overwhelmingly and predominantly Welsh speaking:

  • Anglesey: 88.7% spoke Welsh while 61.0% spoke English
  • Cardiganshire: 89.6% spoke Welsh while 64.1% could speak English
  • Caernarfonshire: 85.6% spoke Welsh while 62.2% could speak English
  • Carmarthenshire: 84.9% spoke Welsh while 77.8% could speak English
  • Merionethshire: 90.3% spoke Welsh while 61.3% could speak English

Outside these five counties, a further two areas were noted as having a majority who spoke Welsh, those being:

1921 Census and the founding of Plaid Cymru

The 1921 census recorded that of the population of Wales (including Monmouthshire,) 38.7% of the population could speak Welsh while 6.6% of the overall population were Welsh monoglots. In the five predominantly Welsh speaking counties, Welsh was spoken by more than 75% of the population, and was more widely understood than English:

  • Anglesey: 87.8% could speak Welsh while 67.9% could speak English
  • Cardiganshire: 86.8 could speak Welsh, 72.4% could speak English
  • Carmarthenshire: 84.5% could speak Welsh while 83.1% could speak English
  • Merioneth: 84.3% could speak Welsh while 69.5% could speak English
  • Carnarvonshire: 76.5% could speak Welsh while 73.3% could speak English

Denbighshire was the only other county where a majority could still speak Welsh, here, 51.0% could speak Welsh and 94.0% could speak English. As for larger urban areas, Aberdare was the only one where a majority could still speak Welsh, here 59.0% could speak Welsh while 95.4% could speak English. In Cardiff, Wales' capital, 5.2% of people could speak Welsh, while 99.7% of people could speak English. At a district level, Llanfyrnach rural district in Pembrokeshire had the highest percentage of Welsh speakers; at 97.5%, while Penllyn rural district in Merioneth had the highest percentage of Welsh monoglots; at 57.3%. Bethesda urban district in Carnarvonshire was the most Welsh speaking urban district in Wales; 96.6% of the district's population could speak Welsh.

Plaid Cymru, The Party of Wales was founded at a 1925 National Eisteddfod meeting, held in Pwllheli, Gwynedd with the primary aim of promoting the Welsh language.

Tân yn Llŷn 1936

Concern for the Welsh language was ignited in 1936 when the UK government decided to build an RAF training camp and aerodrome at Penyberth on the Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynedd. The events surrounding the protest became known as Tân yn Llŷn (Fire in Llŷn). The UK government had settled on Llŷn as the location for this military site after plans for similar bases in Northumberland and Dorset had met with protests.

However, UK Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin refused to hear the case against basing this RAF establishment in Wales, despite a deputation claiming to represent half a million Welsh protesters. The opposition against 'British' military usage of this site in Wales was summed up by Saunders Lewis when he wrote that the UK government was intent upon turning one of the 'essential homes of Welsh culture, idiom, and literature' into a place for promoting a barbaric method of warfare.

On 8 September 1936 the building was arsoned, and Welsh nationalists Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J. Williams claimed responsibility. The trial at Caernarfon failed to reach a verdict and the case was sent to the Old Bailey in London. The "Three" were sentenced to nine months imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs, and on their release they were greeted as heroes by a crowd of 15,000 people at a pavilion in Caernarfon.

Broadcasting in Welsh and 1931 census

With the advent of broadcasting in Wales, Plaid Cymru protested against the lack of Welsh-language programmes in Wales and launched a campaign to withhold licence fees. Pressure was successful, and by the mid-1930s more Welsh-language programming was broadcast, with the formal establishment of a Welsh regional broadcasting channel by 1937. However, no dedicated Welsh-language television channel would be established until 1982.

According to the 1931 census, out of a population of just over 2.5 million, the percentage of Welsh speakers in Wales had dropped to 36.8%, with Anglesey recording the highest concentration of speakers at 87.4%, followed by Cardigan at 87.1%, Merionethshire at 86.1%, and Carmarthen at 82.3%. Caernarfon listed 79.2%. Radnorshire and Monmouthshire ranked lowest with a concentration of Welsh speakers less than 6% of the population.

Welsh courts act 1942

Following the arrests of D.J Williams, Saunders Lewis and Lewis Valantine for the "tân yn llŷn" in 1936 all three were tried on charges of arson in Caernarfon crown court where their pleads were deemed invalid as they all pleaded in Welsh. Following the jury's indecision on the matter it was decided that the case should be moved to the Old Bailey causing outrage though Wales which along with the lack of status for the Welsh language in the legal system sparked action. At Cardiff Eisteddfod in 1939 a petition was launched by Undeb Cymdeithasau Cymru (The union of Welsh societies) calling for recognition of the Welsh language in the courts. Their presentation of the petition to parliament in 1941 lead to the passing of the Welsh courts act of 1942 and thus the validation of pleas in the Welsh language.

The flooding of Tryweryn 1956

In 1956, a private bill sponsored by Liverpool City Council was brought before the UK parliament to develop a water reservoir from the Tryweryn Valley, in Meirionnydd in Gwynedd. The development would include the flooding of Capel Celyn (Holly Chapel), a Welsh-speaking community of historic significance. Despite universal and bi-partisan objections by Welsh politicians (35 out of 36 Welsh MPs opposed the bill, and one abstained) the bill was passed in 1957. The events surrounding the flooding highlighted the status of the language in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tynged yr Iaith and the 1961 census

In 1962 Saunders Lewis gave a radio speech entitled Tynged yr iaith (The Fate of the Language) in which he predicted the extinction of the Welsh language unless direct action was taken. Lewis was responding to the 1961 census, which showed a decrease in the number of Welsh speakers from 36% in 1931 to 26% in 1961, out of a population of about 2.5 million. Meirionnydd, Anglesey, Carmarthen, and Caernarfon averaged a 75% concentration of Welsh speakers, but the most significant decrease was in the counties of Glamorgan, Flint, and Pembroke.

Lewis' intent was to motivate Plaid Cymru to take more direct action to promote the language; however it led to the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) later that year at a Plaid Cymru summer school held in Pontardawe in Glamorgan.

Welsh Language Act 1967

With concern for the Welsh language mounting in the 1960s, the Welsh Language Act 1967 was passed, giving some legal protection for the use of Welsh in official government business. The Act was based on the Hughes Parry report, published in 1965, which advocated equal validity for Welsh in speech and in written documents, both in the courts and in public administration in Wales. However the Act did not include all the Hughes Parry report's recommendations. Prior to the Act, only the English language could be spoken at government and court proceedings.

Hunger strike for S4C

Following the defeat of the Welsh Assembly "Yes Campaign" in 1979, and believing Welsh nationalism was "in a paralysis of helplessness", the UK Conservative Home Secretary announced in September 1979 that the government would not honour its pledge to establish a Welsh-language television channel, much to widespread anger and resentment in Wales, wrote Dr. Davies.

In early 1980 over two thousand members of Plaid Cymru pledged to go to prison rather than pay the television licence fees, and by that spring Gwynfor Evans announced his intention to go on hunger strike if a Welsh-language television channel was not established. In early September 1980, Evans addressed thousands at a gathering in which "passions ran high", according to Dr. Davies. The government yielded by 17 September, and the Welsh Fourth Channel (S4C) was launched on 2 November 1982.

Welsh Language Act 1993

The Welsh Language Act 1993 put the Welsh language on an equal footing with the English language in Wales with regard to the public sector.

The Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 had made English the only language of the law courts and other aspects of public administration in Wales. Although the Welsh Language Act 1967 had given some rights to use Welsh in court, the Welsh Language Act 1993 was the first to put Welsh on an equal basis with English in public life.

The Act set up the Welsh Language Board, answerable to the Secretary of State for Wales, with the duty to promote the use of Welsh and to ensure compliance with the other provisions. Additionally, the Act gave Welsh speakers the right to speak Welsh in court proceedings under all circumstances. The previous Act had only given limited protection to the use of Welsh in court proceedings. The Act obliges all organisations in the public sector providing services to the public in Wales to treat Welsh and English on an equal basis; however it does not compel private businesses to provide services in Welsh: that would require a further Language Act.

Some of the powers given to the Secretary of State for Wales under this Act were later devolved to the National Assembly for Wales (Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru), but others have been retained by Westminster.

21st century

In a speech at the 2000 National Eisteddfod at Llanelli, Cynog Dafis, Plaid Cymru AM, called for a new Welsh-language movement with greater powers to lobby for the Welsh language at the Assembly, UK, and EU levels. Dafis felt the needs of the language were ignored during the first year of the Assembly, and that in order to ensure the dynamic growth of the Welsh language a properly resourced strategy was needed. In his speech Dafis encouraged other Welsh-language advocacy groups to work more closely together to create a more favourable climate in which the use of Welsh was "attractive, exciting, a source of pride and a sign of strength". Additionally, Dafis pointed towards efforts in areas such as Catalonia and the Basque country as successful examples to emulate.

Lord Elis-Thomas, former Plaid Cymru president, disagreed with Dafis' assessment, however. At the Urdd Eisteddfod, Lord Elis-Thomas said that there was no need for another Welsh language act, citing that there was "enough goodwill to safeguard the language's future". His comments prompted Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg and many others to call for his resignation as the Assembly's presiding officer.

2011 census

In the 2011 census it was recorded that the proportion of people able to speak Welsh had dropped from 20.8% to 19%. Despite an increase in the overall size of the Welsh population this still meant that the number of Welsh speakers in Wales dropped from 582,000 in 2001 to 562,000 in 2011. However this figure was still much higher than 508,000 or 18.7% of people who said they could speak Welsh in the 1991 census.

  • Ballinger, John, The Bible in Wales: A Study in the History of the Welsh People, London, Henry Sotheran & Co., 1906.

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