A Brief History of the Welsh Language
Welsh, very much a living language, is spoken by 20% of the population, concentrated mainly in the west of Wales. The concern for its survival ignites much passion and political activity. Its survival is remarkable, given its culturally powerful neighbour.
Welsh developed from older Celtic languages in the 6th century and 90% of the population spoke Welsh as recently as 1850. There were two main reasons for its rapid decline, firstly, the industrial revolution with its mass immigration and secondly, the active and often forcible discouragement of its use.
Photo: Lake near the Mountain Centre with Pen y Fan in the background - actually 1 photo but looks like 2 photos joined together!
As far back as Henry VIII's Act of Union in 1536, which fixed English sovereignty over Wales, the use of Welsh for legal, administrative and business purposes was largely prohibited. Right up until the early part of the 20th century, Welsh was actively discouraged in education and government. The population colluded; English was seen as a route to well paid white collar jobs.
By the 1960s only 20% of the population spoke Welsh, its demise seemed inevitable. Against all the odds it then stabilised. Political campaigns for independence had been developing and the survival of the language became a central focus.
Saunders Lewis' 1962 radio broadcast "Tynged Yr Iaith" (The Fate of the Welsh Language) was a rallying call and resulted in the formation of "Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Cymraig" (The Welsh Language Society). This started a direct action campaign based on low grade civil disobedience eg. daubing monoglot English road signs and "sit ins" in government buildings. Eventually, in 1992, the Welsh Language Bill gave Welsh equal status with English in all public bodies.
Today all Welsh school children study Welsh up to 16 years. Welsh language comprehensive schools are multiplying. There is a Welsh language TV channel and a thriving cultural scene, including a vibrant youth culture. However, despite this dramatic reversal in the language's fortunes, its future remains in the balance. The next census is awaited by many with bated breath.
© Sian Harris, 2001
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