Welsh, what does that word mean? For many this word will evoke chapels, tea, coal mining and rugby, things associated with Wales, a small country tucked away in the west of the United Kingdom in North West Europe.
But how many people outside of Wales are aware that Welsh is a language completely distinct and separate from its neighbour English? A casual bystander from other parts of the world, or even England, may be forgiven for this oversight. According to the 2011 census only 18.9% of Wales’s population is now able to speak Welsh, in contrast to a vast majority in the mid nineteenth century.
So, what is happening to Welsh? Is it continuing to decline as a part of the overall trend of the past two centuries, or is it beginning to soar as many Welsh nationalists hope and predict? Let us examine the facts in order to gain a better understanding of the situation in which Welsh finds itself.
The biggest hope for Welsh language supporters is the part of Wales that is traditionally very Welsh speaking (to all extents and purposes English has emerged as the primary community language in most other parts of Wales). This is known in Welsh as the Y Fro Gymraeg, or as it’s often known in English, the Welsh speaking heartland. This area is composed of the counties of Gwynedd, Anglesey, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. Throughout most of the 20th century Welsh dominated here; however, in recent years, there have been some signals that English is beginning to encroach even here. Latest census figures from 2011 in comparison to 2001 show worrying signs: in Gywnedd, the proportion of Welsh speakers fell from 69% to 65.4%, in Anglesey, from 60% to 57%, in Ceredigion from 52% to 47%, in Carmarthenshire from 50% to 44%. It is often argued that the reason for this decline is the in migration of English speakers, a point that will be returned to later.
To those who argue that Welsh medium education is increasing, especially in the Y Fro Gymraeg, this is something that cannot be denied. More and more children ARE being educated through the medium of Welsh, and this is a positive sign in regards to more and more people being able to understand, speak, read and write in Welsh, more than can be said 20 years ago. Question is though, are children in Welsh medium schools using Welsh in their social life, outside of the classroom. Some recent informal surveys suggest that this isn’t the case. Even in Gwynedd, where all state primaries teach via the medium of Welsh, a recent report suggested that 34% of primary school pupils in that county communicate in the playground in English nearly all the time, or most of the time. So, if this trend continues, a very large proportion of young people growing up in Gwynedd will end up speaking English in social situations.
This leads us onto migration. The big problem for the Welsh speaking heartland is that its combined population is only around 450,000, compared to just over 2 and a half million in other parts of Wales, and an English population of 53 million. As pointed out by many, lots of young Welsh speakers leave Y Fro Gymraeg in search of better opportunities elsewhere in Wales, or in England. Also, if only a small number of the primarily English speakers from other parts of Wales and England move into Y Fro Gymraeg to replace these outward migrants then a minority of young adults will build up who prefer to use English! Coupled with the intense pressure from English that comes through media and entertainment, along with the considerable minority of those growing up in places like Gywnedd using English, there is a recipe for a divided society in which Welsh is probably still just about the majority language among young adults, but with a sizeable English speaking minority. It is important to remember the benchmark of 70% that the Welsh assembly set as a healthy percentage of Welsh speakers within a community.
So, what will happen, will the young English speakers moving into these areas learn Welsh in the future? As many people may have noticed, most adults don’t tend to be great at learning languages, especially if they don’t have to. As virtually everyone in the Welsh heartlands who speaks Welsh can speak English well, there’s always the chance that just a few non English speakers will cause a general conversation to switch to English. So, how are you going to operate business, community activities from a Welsh speaking point of view? Is a man trying to sell his goods to his customers going to insist on speaking Welsh to his customer, even if they don’t understand him?
So, the waters of a future welsh heartland becomes muddied. What will culturally result from the interaction of Welsh speaking adults and English speaking adults in these areas, what happens if a welsh speaking adult forms a relationship with someone who prefers English? How will the children of this mixed English-Welsh community interact, what language will they choose to speak to each other? This is bearing in mind the study already mentioned about the use of welsh outside of the classroom.
These are difficult questions which underline that the threat to Welsh’s status as a living language in its heartlands is a serious one – that a possibility exists that the last phase of English’s progression across the British Isles will be completed. As a side note, it may surprise readers to know that 1500 years ago languages very similar to Welsh (Celtic) were spoken across all of England itself, before Anglo Saxons from the European continent settled in the East of England, gradually displacing the native British culture and continually pushing it further west into the British Isles. For example in the middle ages the majority of Cornwall’s inhabitants spoke Cornish as their first language.
So, reviewing the evidence, what is Welsh’s fate? Will it survive as a community language – an everyday language where you go into a shop and speak it? I don’t think anyone can sum this up with certainty, but what can be said, is that if current economic, migration and social trends continue, Welsh will have its work cut out resisting the remorseless advance of English.
Thank you, and diolch.