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«The Survival of the Welsh Language»

Contents :


Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI
10Part VII



Part IX

Welsh language guide

List of used sources


It is the eighth wonder of Wales that is the most wondrous of them all,
the survival of the Welsh language in the face of almost impossible

Sometime in the seventh century, a Welsh Bishop heard an Englishman’s
voice on the bank of the River Severn and was filled with foreboding at
the sound.. He recorded his unsettling experience thus: “For the kinsman
of yonder strange-tongued man whose voice I heard across the river. . .
will obtain possession of this place, and it will be theirs, and they
will hold it in ownership.”

The bishop was wrong. More than twelve centuries have passed since the
strange tongue of the Saxon was heard on the borders of Wales, centuries
during which the ancient tongue of the Bishop and his fellow Britons had
every opportunity to become extinct and yet which has stubbornly refused
to die. The survival of the native language is truly one of the great
wonders of Wales, to be appreciated and marvelled at far more than any
physical feature or man-made object, and far more than the so-called
seven wonders of Wales.

It is a something of a shock when visitors travel from England west into
Wales, for, almost without warning, he may find himself in areas where
not only the dialects become incomprehensible, but where even the
language itself has changed. The roadside signs “Croeso i Gymru”
(accompanied by the red dragon, the ancient badge of Wales) let it be
known that one is now entering a new territory, inhabited by a different
people, for the translation is “Welcome to Wales” written in one of the
oldest surviving vernaculars in Europe. For amusement with the language,
after getting used to names such as Pontcysyllte, Pen y Mynydd , or
Glynceiriog, one can take a little detour off the main route through
Anglesey to Ireland and visit the village with its much-photographed
sign announcing the now-closed railway station:


To account for the abrupt linguistic change from English into Welsh, one
must journey far, far back into history.

Part I

It was about 1000 BC that the Celtic languages arrived in Britain,
probably introduced by small groups of migrants who became culturally
dominant in their new homelands, and whose culture formed part of a
great unified Celtic “empire” encompassing many different peoples all
over Northern Europe. The Greeks called these people, with their
organized culture and developed social structure Keltoi, the Romans
called them Celtai.

In spite of the fact that they were perhaps the most powerful people in
much of Europe in 300 BC, with lands stretching from Anatolia in the
East to Ireland in the West, the Celts were unable to prevent inter
tribal warfare; their total lack of political unity, despite their
fierceness in battle, ultimately led to their defeat and subjugation by
the much-better disciplined armies of Rome. The Celtic languages on
Continental Europe eventually gave way to those stemming from Latin.

The Celts had been in Britain a long time before the first Roman
invasion of the British Isles under Julius Caesar in 55 BC which did not
lead to any significant occupation. The Roman commander, and later
Emperor, had some interesting, if biased comments concerning the native
inhabitants. “All the Britons,” he wrote, “paint themselves with woad,
which gives their skin a bluish color and makes them look very dreadful
in battle” (De Bello Gallico). It was not until a hundred years later,
following an expedition ordered by the Emperor Claudius, that a
permanent Roman settlement of the grain-rich eastern territories of
Britain begun in earnest.

From their bases in what is now Kent, the Roman armies began a long,
arduous and perilous series of battles with the native Celtic tribes,
first victorious, next vanquished, but as on the Continent, superior
military discipline and leadership, along with a carefully organized
system of forts connected by straight roads, led to the triumph of Roman
arms. In the western peninsular, in what is now Wales, the Romans were
awestruck by their first sight of the druids (the religious leaders and
teachers of the British). The historian Tacitus described them as being
“ranged in order, with their hands uplifted, invoking the gods and
pouring forth horrible imprecations” (Annales)

The terror was only short-lived; Roman arms easily defeated the native
tribesmen, and it was not long before a great number of large,
prosperous villas were established all over Britain, but especially in
the Southeast and Southwest. Despite defeats in pitched battles, the
people of mountainous Wales and Scotland were not as easily settled;
their scattered settlements remained “the frontier” — lands where
military garrisons were strategically placed to guard the Northern and
Western extremities of the Empire. The fierce resistance of the tribes
in Cambria meant that two out of the three Roman legions in Britain were
stationed on the Welsh borders. Two impressive Roman fortifications
remain to be seen in Wales: Isca Silurium (Caerleon) with its fine
amphitheatre, in Monmouthshire; and Segontium, (Caernarfon), in Gwynedd.

In Britain, at least for a few hundred years after the Roman victories
on mainland Europe, the Celts held on to much of their customs and
especially to their distinctive language, which has miraculously
survived until today as Welsh. The language of most of Britain was
derived from a branch of Celtic known as Brythonic: it later gave rise
to Welsh, Cornish and Breton (these differ from the Celtic languages
derived from Goidelic; namely, Irish, Scots, and Manx Gaelic).
Accompanying these languages were the Celtic religions, particularly
that of the Druids, the guardians of traditions and learning.

Though the Celtic tongue survived as the medium of everyday speech,
Latin being used mainly administrative purposes, many loan words entered
the native vocabulary, and these are still found in modern-day Welsh,
though many of these have entered at various times since the end of the
Roman occupation. Today’s visitors to Wales who know some Latin are
surprised to find hundreds of place names containing Pont (bridge),
while ffenest (window), pysgod (fish), milltir (mile), melys (sweet or
honey) cyllell (knife), ceffyl (horse), perygl (danger), eglwys
(church), pared (wall or partition), tarw (bull) and many others attest
to Roman or Latin influence.

When the city of Rome fell to the invading Goths under Alaric, Roman
Britain, which had experienced hundreds of years of comparative peace
and prosperity, was left to its own defences under its local
Romano-British leaders, one of whom may have been a tribal chieftain
named Arthur. It quickly crumbled under the onslaught of Germanic tribes
(usually collectively referred to as Anglo-Saxons) themselves under
attack from tribes to the east and wishing to settle in the sparsely
populated, but agriculturally rich lands across the narrow channel that
separated them.

More than two hundred years of fighting between the native Celts, as
brave as ever but comparatively disorganized, and the ever-increasing
numbers of Germanic tribesmen eventually resulted in Britain sorting
itself out into three distinct areas: the Britonic West, the Teutonic
East, and the Gaelic North. It was these areas that later came to be
identified as Wales, England, and Scotland, all with their very separate
cultural and linguistic characteristics (Ireland, of course, remained
Gaelic: many of its peoples migrated to Scotland, taking their language
with them to replace the native Pictish).

From the momentous year 616, the date of their defeat at the hands of
the Saxons in the Battle of Chester, the Welsh people in Wales were on
their own. Separated from their fellow Celts in Cornwall and Cumbria,
those who lived in the western peninsular gradually began to think of
themselves as a distinct nation in spite of the many different rival
kingdoms that developed within their borders such as Morgannwg, Powys,
Brycheinion, Dyfed and Gwynedd. It is also from this period that we can
speak of the Welsh language, as distinct from the older Brythonic.

In a poem dated 633, the word Cymry appears, referring to the country;
and it was not too long before the Britons came to be known as the
Cymry, by which term they are known today. At this point, we should
point out that the word Welsh (from Wealas) is a later word used by the
Saxon invaders of the British Isles perhaps to denote people they
considered “foreign” or at least to denote people who had been
Romanized. It originally had signified a Germanic neighbor, but
eventually came to be used for those people who spoke a different

The Welsh people themselves still prefer to call themselves Cymry, their
country Cymru, and their language Cymraeg. It is also from this time
that the Celtic word Llan appears, signifying a church settlement and
usually followed by the name of a saint, as in Llandewi (St. David) or
Llangurig (St. Curig), but sometimes by the name of a disciple of
Christ, such as Llanbedr (St. Peter) or even a holy personage such as
Llanfair (St. Mary).

Part II

It is in Wales, perhaps, that today’s cultural separation of the British
Isles remains strongest, certainly linguistically, and for that, we must
look to the mid 8th Century, when a long ditch was constructed, flanking
a high earthen rampart that divided the Celts of the West from the
Saxons to the East and which, even today, marks the boundary between
those who consider themselves Welsh from those who consider themselves
English. The boundary, known as “Offa’s Dyke,” in memory of its builder
Offa, the king of Mercia (the middle kingdom) runs from the northeast of
Wales to the southeast coast, a distance of 149 miles.

English-speaking peoples began to cross Offa’s Dyke in substantial
numbers when settlements were created by Edward 1st in his ambition to
unite the whole of the island of Britain under his kingship. After a
period of military conquest, the English king forced Welsh prince
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd to give up most of his lands, keeping only Gwynedd
west of the River Conwy.

Edward then followed up his successes by building English strongholds
around the perimeter of what remained of Llewelyn’s possessions, and
strong, easily defended castles were erected at Flint, Rhuddlan,
Aberystwyth, and Builth., garrisoned by large detachments of English
immigrants and soldiers. Some of these towns have remained stubbornly
English ever since. Urban settlement, in any case, was entirely foreign
to the Celtic way of life.

In 1294, the Statute of Rhuddlan confirmed Edward’s plans regarding the
governing of Wales. The statute created the counties of Anglesey,
Caernarfon, and Merioneth, to be governed by the Justice of North Wales;
Flint, to be placed under the Justice of Chester; and the counties of
Carmarthen and Cardigan were left under the Justice of South Wales.

In the year 1300, the situation seemed permanently established, when
“King Edward of England made Lord Edward his son [born at Caernarfon
Castle], Prince of Wales and Count of Chester,” and ever since that date
these titles have been automatically conferred upon the first-born son
of the English monarch. The Welsh people were not consulted in the
matter, although an obviously biased entry in Historia Anglicana for the
year 1300 reads:

In this year King Edward of England made Lord Edward, his son and heir,
Prince of Wales and Count of Chester. When the Welsh heard this, they
were overjoyed, thinking him their lawful master, for he was born in
their lands.

Following his successes in Wales, signified by the Statute of Rhuddlan,
sometimes referred to as The Statute of Wales, Edward embarked on yet
another massive castle-building program, creating such world-heritage
sites of today as Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech, and Beaumaris in addition
to the earlier not so-well known (or well-visited) structures at Flint
and Rhuddlan. Below their huge, forbidding castle walls, additional
English boroughs were created, and English traders were invited to
settle, often to the exclusion of the native Welsh, who must have looked
on in awe and despair from their lonely hills at the site of so much
building activity. Their ancestors must have felt the same sense of
dismay as they watched the Roman invaders build their heavily defended
forts in strategic points on their lands.

The Welsh were forbidden to inhabit such “boroughs” or to carry arms
within their boundaries (even today, there are laws remaining on the
statute books of Chester, a border town, that proscribe the activities
of the Welsh within the city walls). With the help of the architect
Master James of St. George, and with what must have seemed like
limitless resources in manpower and materials, Edward showed his
determination to place a stranglehold on the Welsh. Occasional
rebellions were easily crushed; it was not until the death of Edward III
and the arrival of Owain Glyndwr (Shakespeare’s Owen Glendower), that
the people of Wales felt confident enough to challenge their English

Owain Glyndwr was Lord of Glyndyfrdwy (the Valley of the Dee). He seized
his opportunity in 1400 after being crowned Prince of Wales by a small
group of supporters and defying Henry IV’s many attempts to dislodge
him. The ancient words of Geraldus Cambrensis could have served to
inspire his followers:

The English fight for power; the Welsh for liberty; the one to procure
gain, the other to avoid loss. The English hirelings for money; the
Welsh patriots for their country

The comet that appeared in 1402 was seen by the Welsh as a sign of their
forthcoming deliverance from bondage as well as one that proclaimed the
appearance of Owain. His magnetic personality electrified and galvanized
the people of Wales, strengthening their armies and inspiring their
confidence. Even the weather was favorable.

The Welsh leader’s early successes released the long-suppressed feelings
of thousands of Welshmen who eagerly flocked to his support from all
parts of England and the Continent. Before long, it seemed as if the
long-awaited dream of independence was fast becoming a reality: three
royal expeditions against Glyndwr failed: he held Harlech and
Aberystwyth, had extended his influence as far as Glamorgan and Gwent,
was receiving support from Ireland and Scotland; and had formed an
alliance with France. Following his recognition by the leading Welsh
bishops, he summoned a parliament at Machynlleth, in mid-Wales, where he
was crowned as Prince of Wales.

It didn’t seem too ambitious for Owain to believe that with suitable
allies, he could help bring about the dethronement of the English king;
thus he entered into a tripartite alliance with the Earl of
Northumberland and Henry Mortimer (who married Owain’s daughter Caitrin)
to divide up England and Wales between them. After all, Henry IV’s crown
was seen by many Englishmen as having been falsely obtained, and they
welcomed armed rebellion against their ruler. Hoping that The Welsh
Church be made completely independent from Canterbury, and that
appointments to benefices in Wales be given only to those who could
speak Welsh, Glyndwr was ready to implement his wish to set up two
universities in Wales to train native civil servants and clergymen.

Then the dream died.

Part III

Owain’s parliament was the very last to meet on Welsh soil; the last
occasion that the Welsh people had the power of acting independently of
English rule. From such a promising beginning to a national revolt came
a disappointing conclusion, even more upsetting because of the speed at
which Welsh hopes crumbled with the failure of the Tripartite Indenture.
Henry Percy (Hotspur) was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and the
increasing boldness and military skills of Henry’s son, the English
prince of Wales and later Henry V, began to turn the tide against
Glyndwr. Like so many of his predecessors, Glyndwr was betrayed at home.
It is not too comforting for Welsh people of today to read that one of
the staunchest allies of the English king and enemy of Glyndwr was a man
of Brecon, Dafydd Gam (later killed at Agincourt, fighting for the

A sixth expedition into Wales undertaken by Prince Henry retook much of
the land captured by Owain, including many strategic castles. The
boroughs with their large populations of “settlers,” had remained
thoroughly English in any case, and by the end of 1409, the Welsh
rebellion had dwindled down to a series of guerilla raids led by the
mysterious figure of Owain, whose wife and two daughters had been
captured at Harlech and taken to London as prisoners. Owain himself went
into the mountains, becoming an outlaw. He may have suffered an early
death. for nothing is known of him either by the Welsh or the English.
He simply vanished from sight. According to an anonymous writer in
1415,” Very many say that he [Owain Glyndwr] died; the seers say that he
did not” (Annals of Owain Glyndwr). There has been much speculation as
to his fate and much guessing as to where he ended his final days and
was laid to rest.

There is an expression coined in the nineteenth century that describes a
Welshman who pretends to have forgotten his Welsh or who affects the
loss of his national identity in order to succeed in English society or
who wishes to be thought well of among his friends. Such a man is known
as Dic Sion Dafydd, (a term used in a satirical 19th century poem). The
term was unknown In fifteenth century Wales, but, owing to the harsh
penal legislation imposed upon them, following the abortive rebellion,
it became necessary for many Welshmen to petition Parliament to be “made
English” so that they could enjoy privileges restricted to Englishmen.
These included the right to buy and hold land according to English law.

Such petitions may have been distasteful to the patriotic Welsh, but for
the ambitious and socially mobile gentry rapidly emerging in Wales and
on the Marches, they were a necessary step for any chance of
advancement. In the military. At the same time, Welsh mercenaries, no
longer fighting under Glyndwr for an independent Wales, were highly
sought after by the new king Henry V for his campaigns in France. The
skills of the Welsh archers in such battles as Crecy and Agincourt is

Such examples of allegiance to their commander, the English sovereign,
went a long way in dispelling any latent thoughts of independence and
helped paved the way for the overwhelming Welsh allegiance to the Tudors
(themselves of Welsh descent) and to general acquiescence to the Acts of
Union. The year 1536 produced no great trauma for the Welsh; all the
ingredients for its acceptance had been put in place long before.

The so-called Act of Union of that year, and its corrected version of
1543 seemed inevitable. More than one historian has pointed out that
union with England had really been achieved by the Statute of Rhuddlan
in 1284. Those historians who praise the Acts state that the Welsh
people had now achieved full equality before the law with their English
counterparts. It opened opportunities for individual advancement in all
walks of life, and Welshmen flocked to London to take full advantage of
their chances.

The real purpose was to incorporate, finally and for all time, the
principality of Wales into the kingdom of England. A major part of this
decision was to abolish any legal distinction between the people on
either side of the new border. From henceforth, English law would be the
only law recognized by the courts of Wales. In addition, for the placing
of the administration of Wales in the hands of the Welsh gentry, it was
necessary to create a Welsh ruling class not only fluent in English, but
who would use it in all legal and civil matters.

Thus inevitably, the Welsh ruling class would be divorced from the
language of their country; as pointed out earlier, their eyes were
focused on what London or other large cities of England had to offer,
not upon what remained as crumbs to be scavenged in Wales itself,
without a government of its own, without a capital city, and without
even a town large enough to attract an opportunistic urban middle class,
and saddled with a language described by Parliament as “nothing like nor
consonant to the natural mother tongue used within this realm.”

From 1536 on, English was to be the only language of the courts of
Wales, and those using the Welsh language were not to receive public
office in the territories of the king.

Part IV

It was the arrival of the Welsh Bible, however, that brought the
language back to a respected position.

In 1588, the translation of the whole Bible itself, the climax of the
whole movement, made Welsh the language of public worship and thus much
more than a generally despised peasant tongue. Perhaps it is to this
that much of the present-day strength of the Welsh language is owed,
compared to Irish (which did not get its own Bible until 1690) and Scots
Gaelic (which had to wait until 1801).

The Welsh Bible, a magnificent achievement, was completed after eight
years by William Morgan and a group of fellow scholars. In 1620 Dr John
Davies of Mallwyd and Richard Parry, Bishop of St. Asaph, produced a
revision of William Morgan’s Bible. Most of the nearly one thousand
copies of.the earlier book had been lost or worn out, and this revised
and corrected edition is the version that countless generations of Welsh
people have been thoroughly immersed ever since, it has been as much a
part of their lives as the Authorized Version has been to the
English-speaking peoples or Luther’s Bible to the Germans.

In 1630, the Welsh Bible, in a smaller version (Y Beibl Bach), was
introduced into homes in Wales and as the only book affordable to many
families, became the one book from which the majority of the people
could learn to read and write. Other, poorer families, unable to afford
the Bible, were able to share its contents in meetings held at the homes
of neighbors or in their churches or chapels. Later on, countless
generations of children were taught its contents in Sunday School. It is
in this way, therefore, that we can say the Welsh Bible “saved” the
language from possible extinction.

It has been touch and go all the way since, however, with determined
efforts coming from both sides of Offa’s Dyke to stamp out the language
for ever. Yet every time the funeral bells have tolled, the language has
miraculously revived itself.

For the continued survival of the language, however, there had to be a
groundwork laid in the field of general education among the masses.
There were still too many people in Wales who could not read or write.
As so often in Welsh history, help came from outside the country itself.

In 1674, a charitable organization, the Welsh Trust, was set up in
London by Thomas Gouge to establish English schools in Wales and to
publish books “in Welsh.” Over 500 books were printed in 1718 and 1721
at Trefhedyn and Carmarthen respectively. Many of these were
translations of popular English works, Protestant tracts that encouraged
private worship and prayers, but along with the six major editions of
the Bible that appeared during the same period, they had the unpredicted
effect of ensuring the survival of the language in an age where many
scholars were predicting its rapid demise. Of equal importance were the
cheap catechisms and prayer books.highly prized by rural families who
read them (along with the Beibl Cymraegd) in family groups during the
long, dark winter nights.

So successful were educators, benefactors and itinerant teachers that
perhaps as many as one third or more of the population of Wales could
read their scriptures by the time of Griffith Jones’ death in 1761.
Jones had realized that preaching alone was insufficient to ensure his
people’s salvation: they needed to read the scriptures for themselves.
Though not intended by such as Jones (the rector of Llanddowror and
therefore not a Nonconformist minister), his writings created a
substantial Welsh reading public primed and ready to receive the appeal
of the ever-growing Methodists, whose ability in such preachers as Hywel
Harris was matched by their eloquence in the pulpit, and who obviously
filled a great need among the masses.

One influential convert was Thomas Charles who joined in 1784, and who
set up the successful Sunday School movement in North Wales that had
such a profound and lasting influence on the language and culture of
that region. Another preacher of great influence was Daniel Rowland, who
had converted in 1737 after hearing a sermon by Griffith Jones. With
Hywel Harris, he assumed the leadership of the Methodist Revival.
Rowland’s enthusiasm along with that of his colleagues, attracted
thousands of converts, and though their initial intention was to work
within the framework of the established church, opposition from their
Bishops, all of whom had little real interest in Wales and knew nothing
of its language and culture, led finally to the schism of 1811 when an
independent union was founded.

This was the Calvinistic Methodist Church (today known as the
Presbyterian Church of Wales). Providing the excitement and fervor that
the established church had been lacking for so long, it did much to pave
the way for the rapid growth of the other non-conformist sects such as
the Baptists and Independents. The movement also was responsible for
producing two names that are outstanding in the cultural history of
Wales: William Williams and Ann Griffiths (dealt with at length in my
History of Wales).

Part V

The result of the coming of heavy industry to south Wales in the 19th
century could not have been foreseen, especially its twofold effect on
the language and social life of the area. First, with so many Welsh
speakers moving into the area in search of jobs, bringing their language
(and their chapels) with them, a Welsh culture survived in many fields
of valley activity.

Such a heavy toll came to so many areas of the southern valleys. In the
counties of Glamorgan and Monmouth, the long, verdant valleys quickly
filled up with factories, mills, coal mines, iron smelting works (and
later, steel works), roads, railways, canals, and above all, people.
Houses began to spread along the narrow hillsides, filling every
available space upon which a house could be set, small houses, crammed
together in row after row, street after street, town after town all
strung together on the valley floor. Houses separated only spasmodically
by the grocery store, the somber, grey chapel, or the public house.
Above them all loomed the blackened hillsides and the slag heaps of
waste coal or industrial refuse. And all this brought about by the
discovery of coal.

In the southern valleys, an Anglo-Welsh character came into being; one
that came to dominate the political, social and literary life of Wales,
and it was here also that a new and particular kind of Welshness was
forged, symbolized by the cloth-capped, heavy drinking, strike-prone,
English-speaking, rugby fanatic of the Valleys..To such a character, and
to a certain extent, to the majority of the three large urban areas of
Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, the people of the West and North, the
Bible-toting, chapel-going, teetotal, parsimonious, and above all
Welsh-speaking were totally alien beings who might have come from
another planet. The repercussions are felt strongly today as only one in
five of the inhabitants of Wales use Welsh as a language of everyday

In other areas, the Welsh language had been in decline for over 100
years. In Flintshire, so near to the large urban areas of Merseyside and
Cheshire there had long been deliberate attempts to stamp out the Welsh

Other areas did not suffer the loss of the language.

Some of the letters published in The Cambrian in the mid 19th Century
show an attitude of many Englishmen towards the Welsh language that has
persisted until today. In one of them, the writer was amused by the
proposal to have the infant Prince of Wales (eldest son of Queen
Victoria), instructed in the Welsh language. He wrote that the prince,
by trying to pronounce the Welsh “ll” or “ch” would be perceived as
having spasmodic affections of the bronchial tubes “that would lead to
quinsy or some terrible disease of the lungs and jugulum and would alarm

Part VI

By the middle of the 19th century, Victoria’s views notwithstanding, the
tide was running heavily against Welsh. In 1842, a Royal Commission,
looking into the state of education in Wales, noted that some Welsh boys
employed at mines in Breconshire were learning to read English at Sunday
School, but that they could speak only Welsh. This was intolerable to
the commissioners.

It was demanded in Parliament that an inquiry be conducted into the
means afforded to the laboring classes of Wales to acquire a knowledge
of the English tongue. The report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for
South Wales in 1844 lamented the fact that “The people’s ignorance of
the English language practically prevents the working of the laws and
institutions and impedes the administration of justice.” It didn’t seem
to occur to the commissioners that it was their own ignorance of the
language that was obstructing justice!

The report led to another Royal Commission, conducted in 1847, which was
to have a lasting effect on the cultural and political life of Wales.
The report, in three volumes bound in blue covers, has become known as
Brad y Llyfrau Gleision (The Treachery of the Blue Books, for the three
young and inexperienced lawyers who conducted the report had no
understanding of the Welsh language, nor, it seems, did they understand
non-conformity in religious matters.

Bright, intelligent and well-read Welsh-speaking children were unable to
understand the questions put to them in English, and the surveyors
pig-headedly assumed that this was due to their ignorance. Their report
lamented what they considered to be the sad state of education in Wales,
the too-few schools, their deplorable condition, the unqualified
teachers, the lack of supplies and suitable English texts, and the
irregular attendance of the children. All these were attributed, along
with dirtiness, laziness, ignorance, superstition, promiscuity and
immorality: to Nonconformity, but in particular to the Welsh language.

One result, of course, of the publication of such “facts” led to so many
of its speakers being made to feel ashamed and embarrassed. The effects
of the controversy thus stirred up has lasted up until today; it
certainly did much ot bolster the position of those who agreed with much
of the report and who saw the language as the biggest drawback to the
people of Wales. One drastic remedy, the imposition of English-only
Board Schools did much to further has ten the decline of Welsh over a
great part of the country. In these schools, as in Flintshire a half
century earlier, the “Welsh Not” rule was imposed with severe penalties
for speaking Welsh, including the wearing of a wooden board, the old
“Welsh lump” around one’s neck.

In Caernarfon, Gwynedd, an area still predominantly Welsh-speaking in
the 1990’s, there is a high school named after Sir Hugh Owen, a pioneer
in education in Wales. Owen’s untiring efforts to secure a university
for Wales led to a commission to promote the idea in 1854, the
university itself to be established through voluntary contributions.
Owen’s pleas to the government for financial help were unheeded, and it
was public subscription that brought to fruition the old dream of Owain
Glyndwr. In 1872 Aberystwyth University opened its doors to twenty-six
students in a very impressive building on the seafront designed as a
hotel, but which was fortunately vacant at the time. For the first few
years of its existence, the college depended greatly on voluntary
contributions from the nonconformist chapels, but it attracted many who
would come to have profound influence on the culture of their nation. In
so many areas it provided the foundations that led to the national
revival of Wales in the late 1890’s.

The work of Owen M. Edwards, in a period of language decline, was
crucial in this renaissance. A native of Llanuwchllyn on the shores of
Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake), Oxford University lecturer and later Chief
inspector of Schools of the newly-created Welsh Board of Education,
Edwards did much to popularize the use of Welsh as an everyday language.
Alarmed by the decline in the language, he published a great number of
Welsh books and magazines, with particular interest in works for
children. In 1898 he founded Urdd y Delyn, a forerunner of Urdd Gobaith
Cymru, the largest youth organization in Wales and one that still
conducts its activities through the medium of Welsh.

Despite the success of organizations such as Urdd, one problem has
remained for the survival of Welsh ever since the Acts of Union in the
middle 1500’s. The Welsh language has considered to be a great hindrance
to one’s feeling of Britishness. Even before the First World War, when
British soldiers from all parts of the kingdom marched off under the
Union Jack to fight the Boers in South Africa, the feeling took hold
that “…side by side with the honourable contribution which the Welsh
could make to the British Empire, the Welsh language could be considered
an irrelevance…”

This idea was implanted even more firmly in the Welsh mind by the
intention of the leaders of the Welsh-speaking community to show that
the peculiarities of Welsh culture were not a threat to the unity and
tranquility of the kingdom of Britain. When ideas of a separate
government for the Welsh people began to take hold in the late 19th
century, once again, the idea of a British national identity found
itself overwhelming the purely local, isolated, and all too often
ridiculed, aspirations of those who wished for a Welsh nationhood.

In mainly English-speaking South Wales in particular, feelings on the
matter were sharply expressed. At a crucial meeting in Newport,
Monmouthshire, in January 1898 it was firmly stated (by Robert Byrd)
that there were thousands of true Liberals who would never submit “to
the domination of Welsh ideas.” With few exceptions, this seems to sum
up the attitude of most Welsh politicians of the next one hundred years.
There were too many in Wales whose close ties with English interests
made the idea of home rule repugnant and one to be fought against at all

Welsh-speaking Lloyd George, future Prime Minister, who was howled down
at the meeting, questioned if the mass of the Welsh nation was willing
to be dominated by a coalition of English capitalists who had made their
fortunes in Wales. Yet even his motives were held with suspicion as
being entirely self-serving. And, as a fluent Welsh speaker, he was
mistrusted by many in the audience who looked with suspicion upon those
who could speak a language that they could not.

In 1881, the Aberdare Commission’s report showed that provisions for
intermediate and higher education in Wales lagged behind those in the
other parts of Britain; it suggested that there should be two new Welsh
universities, Cardiff and Bangor. It was found, however, that there was
a lack of adequately trained students for these new colleges and thus,
in 1899 the Welsh Intermediate Act came into being that gave the new
county councils the power to raise a levy (to be matched by the
Government) for the provision of secondary schools.In 1896 came the
Central Welsh Board to oversee these schools.

The result was that thousands of Welsh children from all levels of
society were able to continue their education at a secondary level.
Another result, however, was the continued decline of the status
accorded the Welsh language, for the new secondary schools were
thoroughly English, only very few even bothering to offer Welsh lessons.
An educated class of Welsh people was thus created that fostered the
cultural traditions of their country in the language of England.

Part VII

In the meantime, in an age where radio and movies began to play
important roles in the regular everyday life of the people of Wales, the
language continued its precipitous decline. North Wales got its news
from and followed the events in Liverpool; South Wales was more tied to
happenings in Bristol or even London. Links between the two areas of
Wales were practically non-existent; roads and rails went West to East,
not North to South, and the flow of ideas and language went in the same
directions. Any sense of a national Welsh identity was disappearing
rapidly along with the language.

In an attempt to stop the rot, a new party came into being in 1925,
Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru (The National Party of Wales) that was fiercely
devoted to purely Welsh causes such as preservation of the language and
culture. In 1926, Saunders Lewis took over the presidency, but the party
received very little general support and, in some areas of Wales, was
the object of ridicule. It was to take forty years before Plaid Cymru
was taken seriously and gained its first seat in Parliament. Much had
been happening until then to further erode Welsh as a common language
and the idea of the Welsh as a common, united people worthy of their own
government as part of a greater Britain.

The views of Henderson and Lewis, as imaginative and forward-looking as
they were, did not appeal to the majority of the Welsh people’ at the
time, those who thought the politician and the poet were those of a very
small minority indeed. In the meantime, the process of anglicization
continued unabated; more people living in Wales considered themselves
Anglo-Welsh than Welsh. Much of the blame (or for some,the praise), can
be placed on the educational system that, even before the outset of the
Second World War was geared to producing loyal Britons.

When World War ll finally arrived, there was much more unanimity of
support throughout Britain than there had been for the First World War.
And there was less trauma inflicted upon the people of Wales, for this
was a crusade against Fascism and Nazism and Hitler that almost everyone
could subscribe to. It was also a fight to preserve the Empire. The
heavy bombing meant a large exodus of children from the targeted larger
English cities into the more rural areas. In Wales, thousands of
refugees learned Welsh, but in many areas their English language
overwhelmed the local speech.or tipped the scales against its survival.

To counter the linguistic threat to the Welsh culture at Aberystwyth, a
private Welsh-medium school was established.by Ifan ab Owen Edwards, the
son of the famous educator. Apart from this little school, however, it
wasn’t until Llanelli Welsh School began in 1947 that the idea of
teaching children through the medium of Welsh began to take hold in
earnest. Other schools followed, so that by 1970, even Cardiff had its
Ysgol Dewi Sant (St. David’s School) one of the largest primary schools
in Wales, teaching through the medium of Welsh. The increase in the
Welsh primary schools was accompanied by a demand for a Welsh secondary
education, and the first such schools opened in Flintshire, Ysgol Gyfun
Glan Clwyd and Ysgol Maes Garmon in areas in which the great majority of
the parents were monolingual English. The success of these schools were
followed by Ysgol Rhydfelen in Glamorganshire in 1962 and by many others
by the 1980’s.

It may have taken a long while, and for many, it might have been too
late, but the change in the attitude of the Welsh people toward their
language has been dramatic since 1962. Not only that, but great strides
have been made in convincing immigrants to Wales that their children
would not suffer the loss of their English language if they were to be
taught through the medium of Welsh, and that a bilingual education may
well be superior to one that confines them to a single language. Many a
non-Welsh speaking parent is now anxious to point with pride at the
achievement of their children in the Welsh language. It is no longer
fashionable in Wales to refer to the language as “dying,” and the
activities of the Eisteddfod as “the kicks of a dying nation,”
sentiments the author heard at Swansea in 1964. What caused the

One place we can start to look for the answer is the media, especially
public radio. Beginning in 1922, the BBC broadcasts in Wales were
eagerly awaited. Its voice, however, was one that gave prestige and
authority to its views, the voice of a public-school-educated
upper-class Englishman. In addition, the majority of broadcasts led a
majority of British people to believe that a BBC accent was not only
desirable, but was the correct one, and that their own accent, dialect,
or in the case of much of Wales, their language, was inferior. It was
Radio Eireann, the voice of the Irish Republic, that broadcast the only
regular Welsh language material, beginning in 1927.

At time, and for a long period afterward, incredible as it now seems,
the head of the BBC station in Cardiff ignored protests from devotees of
the Welsh language who wished to hear Welsh language programs. There
were then almost one million speakers of Welsh. But aided by such
attitudes of those in authority, a rapid decline was about to begin.
This was not inevitable. Perhaps the language would have even advanced,
given sufficient air time in the late 1920’s and early 30’s. The problem
was that most Welsh listeners enjoyed their English language programs;
it was only the few who realized that their enjoyment was coming at the
expense of their cherished, native tongue.


One who did take notice, and one who provided the second place to look
for the answer was Ifan ab Owen Edwards, whose father Owen M. Edwards
had founded Urdd y Delyn in 1898. The son, in his turn, established the
most influential of all youth movements in Wales, Urdd Gobaith Cymru in
1922; the movement has involved countless thousands of Welsh boys and
girls ever since, conducting their camps, sports activities, singing
festivals, eisteddfodau, etc. all through the medium of Welsh and
proving that the language was not one that should be confined to an
older, chapel-going, puritanical generation. Continued protests against
the policies of the BBC, unable and in most cases unwilling to cater to
the new, younger generation eventually led to the BBC studio at Bangor
broadcasting Welsh language programs. In 1935, and in July of 1937 the
Welsh Region of the BBC finally began to broadcast on a separate
wavelength. Radio Cymru, however, had to wait until 1977.

Another pivotal figure in the fight for survival of the Welsh language,
and one who made good use of the power of the radio broadcast was the
poet and dramatist Saunders Lewis. Like Ifan ab Owen Edwards, Lewis was
greatly concerned that, unless something was done, and done quickly, the
Welsh language as a living entity would disappear before the end of the
century. Lewis, a major Welsh poet and dramatist, generally considered
as the greatest literary figure in the Welsh language of this century,
was born in Cheshire into a Welsh family; he later became a lecturer at
the newly established University College, Swansea. Heavily influenced by
events in Ireland and the struggle for national identity in that country
that took place in the political sphere, he was one of the founders of
Plaid Cymru in 1925 at the Pwllheli National Eisteddfod, becoming its
president in 1926.

Lewis envisioned a new role for the people of Wales that would transform
their position as a member of the British Empire into one in which they
could see themselves as one of the nations that helped found European
civilization. As he viewed it:

What then is our nationalism?…To fight not for Welsh independence but
for the civilization of Wales. To claim for Wales not independence but
freedom. (Egwyddorion Cenedlaetholdeb, 1926)

Ten years later, with two companions, D.J. Williams and Lewis Valentine,
Lewis deliberately set a fire at Penyberth in the Llyn Peninsular, North
Wales, a site that the military wished to use for construction of a
bombing school. The three then turned themselves in to the authorities
and were duly indicted and summoned to appear in court. The failure of
the court to agree on a verdict at Caernarfon, a town sympathetic to
their cause, meant the removal of their trial to London, where they were
each sentenced to nine months imprisonment. Lewis was dismissed from his
teaching post at Swansea even before the arrival of the guilty verdict
at the Old Bailey.

Leading Welsh historians agree that The fire at Penyberth should be
regarded as a cause celebre in the struggle for Welsh identity; it
certainly had its impact on Welsh thinking, an impact that was not
wholly dampened by the onset of Word War ll which again focused the
people of Britain on their shared identity in the face of an enemy that
threatened their survival as a nation. The pacificism of Lewis was an
affront to many, even within Plaid Cymru who saw the need to defeat as
overriding any other concern.

Part IX

The improvements in the road system meant that many areas in Wales were
easy to get to. Their beauty and tranquility became an irresistible
magnet to thousands ready to retire from the squalor and overcrowding of
the big industrial cities of northern and middle England. Welsh
communities, especially along the North Wales coast, found themselves
inundated with a flood of newcomers who were either too old to learn the
language or couldn’t be bothered. Many of the younger couples had no
idea that Wales had a language of its own, or when they did find out
were adamant that their children be educated through the medium of
English. Far more significant was the fact that it was far too easy to
get by perfectly well in Wales without knowing a word of its language.

The whole north Wales coast, known as “the Welsh Riviera” became first a
weekend playground for, and then an extension of, Merseyside. The
mid-Wales coast, similarly was transformed by a huge influx of people
from the Midlands. LIverpool accents were more common in Llandudno than
Welsh; Birmingham accents common in Borth, or even Aberystwyth. The
author vividly remembers visiting a pub in Bangor where every customer
but one could speak Welsh, but all of whom used English to defer to a
monolingual Englishman (who had been in the area forty years without
learning a single word of Welsh). The same situation was found
throughout much of North Wales.

The result of such massive invasions, often by retirees, certainly by
those with little incentive to learn Welsh was drastic. From almost a
million Welsh speakers in 1931, the number fell to just over 500,000 in
less than fifty years.despite the large increase in population.
Strongholds of the language and its attendant culture were crumbling
fast, and it seemed that nothing could be done to stem the tide. In 1957
occurred an event that exemplified the situation: the Liverpool
Corporation got the go-ahead from Parliament to drown a valley in
Meirionydd (Merionethshire) called Tryweryn, which housed a strong and
vibrant Welsh-speaking community. The removal of the people of Tryweryn
to make way for a source of water for an English city convinced many in
Wales that the nation was on its way to extinction. The survival of the
Welsh language seemed irreversibly doomed, and no-one seemed to care.

Then something happened; someone seemed to care after all. At
Pontarddulais in 1962, at the summer school of Plaid Cymru, a new
movement began. Mainly involving a younger active post-war Welsh
generation, many of them college students, the Cymdeithas yr Iaith
Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society) decided to take matters in their own
hands to try to halt the decline of the language by forcing the hand of
the government. Saviors to many, scoundrels and troublemakers to others,
frustrated members of the Society had been galvanized into action by a
talk given on the BBC by Saunders Lewis in February, 1962.

In his talk, entitled Tynged yr Iaith (Fate of the language) Lewis asked
his listeners to make it impossible for local or central government
business to be conducted without the use of the Welsh language. This was
the only way, he felt, to ensure its survival. Plaid Cymru could not
help, as it was a political party, so the banner was taken up by
Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg. At narrow Trefechan Bridge, Aberystwyth in
February, 1963, members of the society sat down in the road and stopped
all traffic trying to get into town over the bridge, or trying to leave
town on the same route.

Undeterred by prison sentences for disturbing the peace and for their
subsequent destruction of government property (mostly road signs), and
led by such activists as Fred Fransis, and folk-singer Dafydd Iwan, the
society began a serious campaign. In the face of much hostility from
passivist locals and prosecution from the authorities, Cymdeithas
pressed for the right to use Welsh on all government documents, from
Post Office forms to television licenses, from driving licenses to tax
forms. In particular, the society engaged in surreptitious night time
activities, removing English-only sign posts and directional
instructions from the highways or daubing them with green paint. All
over Wales, in early morning, motorists were faced with the green paint
and daubed slogan that mysteriously had appeared overnight. It became
frustrating and expensive for local authorities and the Ministry of
Transport to keep replacing road signs.

Eventually, in 1963, faced with an ever-growing campaign, increased
police and court costs, destruction of government property, and the
vociferous demands for action by an increasingly angry and frustrated
national movement, the central government decided to establish a
committee to look at the legal status of Welsh. Its report, issued two
years later, recommended that the language be given “equal validity”
with English, a diluted version of which was placed into the Welsh
Language Act of 1967.

There came about a new feeling in the land. The young people of Wales
were answering the call of Saunders Lewis; the older generation began to
reconsider their passiveness. Dafydd Iwan and many of his contemporaries
inaugurated a whole new movement in popular Welsh music, translating
English and American pops into Welsh, or writing stirring new lyrics and
music or protest. The popularity of mournful, funereal hymns sung by
male voice choirs found a competitor, the loud, heavy rhythms and
rebellious music of new bands. Groups such as Ar Log and Plethyn
rediscovered ancient Welsh folk music and brought it up to date. The
National Eisteddfod entered into the spirit, each year erecting a Roc
Pavilion, where such groups could attract the younger audiences. Wales
began to finally shake off the shrouds cast by the Methodist Revival of
over a century before.

Since the 1960’s, in the author’s birthplace Flint and in other towns in
Clwyd, attempts to reintroduce the Welsh language in the schools have
been warmly welcomed by many of the townsfolk, and a whole new
generation of children who can speak, read and write Welsh may help
ensure the future of the language (and ultimately, of Plaid Cymru) in
such heavily anglicized areas. Other areas, such as the Cardiff region
and the Valleys have already experienced some growth in the numbers of
those able to speak Welsh.

Factors for this increase include the rise of a Welsh bureaucracy;
further expansion of the Welsh-oriented mass media; the continued
activities of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, with its appeal to the young
generation; and the effects of the Welsh Language Act of 1967. Perhaps
most important is the subtle change in attitude towards the language
brought about by the advantages that can be gained by its speakers in
both social and economic fields. Of crucial importance in winning the
hearts and minds of the non-Welsh speakers who have young children has
been Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin (the Welsh Nursery School Movement)
founded in 1971.

In the anglicized areas of Wales, we may yet again read such sentiments
as that given by Sir Walter Scott, in a letter to his son, dated
December, 1820:

You hear the Welsh spoken much about you, and if you can pick it up
without interfering with more important labours, it will be worth while

In the late 1990’s, as we shall see, one of the more important labors of
many of the Welsh people has been to continue the fight to preserve
their language, and with it, much of the culture upon which it depends.
To preserve this language, the ancient, magnificent tongue of the
British people for so many, many centuries, will be indeed, a labor of
love to make up for so much past pain.

Supplement 1

Welsh Language Guide

The language of Wales, more properly called Cymraeg in preference to
Welsh (A Germanic word denoting “foreigner”), belongs to a branch of
Celtic, an Indo-European language. The Welsh themselves are descendants
of the Galatians, to whom Paul wrote his famous letter. Their language
is a distant cousin to Irish and Scots Gaelic and a close brother to
Breton. Welsh is still used by about half a million people within Wales
and possibly another few hundred thousand in England and other areas

In most heavily populated areas of Wales, such as the Southeast
(containing the large urban centers of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea),
the normal language of everyday life is English, but there are other
areas, notably in the Western and Northern regions, (Gwynedd and Dyfed
particularly) where the Welsh language remains strong and highly
visible. The Welsh word for their country is Cymru (Kumree), the land of
the Comrades; the people are known as Cymry (Kumree) and the language as
Cymraeg (Kumrige). Regional differences in spoken Welsh do not make
speakers in one area unintelligible to those in another (as is so often
claimed), standard Welsh is understood by Welsh speakers everywhere.

Despite its formidable appearance to the uninitiated, Welsh is a
language whose spelling is entirely regular and phonetic, so that once
you know the rules, you can learn to read it and pronounce it without
too much difficulty. For young children learning to read, Welsh provides
far fewer difficulties than does English, as the latter’s many
inconsistencies in spelling are not found in Welsh, in which all letters
are pronounced.

THE WELSH ALPHABET: (28 letters)

A, B ,C ,Ch, D, Dd, E, F, Ff, G, Ng, H, I, L

Ll, M, N, O, P, Ph, R, Rh, S, T, Th, U, W, Y

(Note that Welsh does not possess the letters J, K, Q, V, X or Z, though
you will often come across “borrowings” from English, such as John,
Jones, Jam and Jiwbil (Jubilee); Wrexham (Wrecsam); Zw (Zoo).

THE VOWELS: (A, E, I, U, O, W, Y)

A as in man. Welsh words: am, ac Pronounced the same as in English)

E as in bet or echo. Welsh words: gest (guest); enaid (enide)

I as in pin or queen. Welsh words: ni (nee); mi (me); lili (lily); min

U as in pita: Welsh words: ganu (ganee); cu (key); Cymru (Kumree); tu
(tee); un (een)

O as in lot or moe. Welsh words: o’r (0re); don (don); dod (dode); bob

W as in Zoo or bus. Welsh words: cwm (koom), bws (bus); yw (you); galw

Y has two distinct sounds: the final sound in happy or the vowel sound
in myrrh Welsh words: Y (uh); Yr (ur); yn (un); fry (vree); byd (beed)

All the vowels can be lengthened by the addition of a circumflex (ae),
known in Welsh as “to bach” (little roof). Welsh words: Taen (taan),
laen (laan)


Ae, Ai and Au are pronounced as English “eye”: ninnau (nineye); mae
(my); henaid (henide); main (mine); craig (crige)

Eu and Ei are pronounced the same way as the English ay in pray. Welsh
words: deisiau (dayshy), or in some dialects (deeshuh); deil (dale or
dile); teulu (taylee or tyelee)

Ew is more difficult to describe. It can be approximated as eh-oo or
perhaps as in the word mount. The nearest English sound is found in
English midland dialect words such as the Birmingham pronunciation of
“you” (yew). Welsh words: mewn (meh-oon or moun); tew (teh-oo)

I’w and Y’w sound almost identical to the English “Ee-you.” or “Yew” or
“You”: Welsh words: clyw (clee-oo); byw (bee-you or b’you); menyw
(menee-you or menyou)

Oe is similar to the English Oy or Oi. Welsh words: croeso (croyso);
troed (troid); oen (oin)

Ow is pronounced as in the English tow, or low: Welsh word: Rhown
(rhone); rho (hrow)

Wy as in English wi in win or oo-ee: Welsh words: Wy (oo-ee); wyn (win);
mwyn (mooin)

Ywy is pronounced as in English Howie. Welsh words: bywyd (bowid);
tywyll (towith)

Aw as in the English cow. Welsh words: mawr (mour); prynhawn (prinhown);
lawr (lour)


For the most part b, d, h, l, m, n, p, r, s, and t are pronounced the
same as their English equivalents (h is always pronounced, never
silent). Those that differ are as follows:

C always as in cat; never as in since. Welsh words: canu (Kanee); cwm
(come); cael (kile); and of course, Cymru (Kumree)

Ch as in the Scottish loch or the German ach or noch. The sound is never
as in church, but as in loch or Docherty. Welsh words: edrychwn (edrych
oon); uwch (youch ), chwi (Chee)

Dd is pronounced like the English th in the words seethe or them. Welsh
words: bydd (beethe); sydd (seethe); ddofon (thovon); ffyddlon (futh

Th is like the English th in words such as think, forth, thank. Welsh
words: gwaith (gwithe); byth (beeth)

F as in the English V. Welsh words: afon (avon); fi (vee); fydd
(veethe); hyfryd (huvrid); fawr (vowr), fach (vach)

Ff as in the English f. Welsh words: ffynnon (funon); ffyrdd (furth);
ffaith (fithe)

G always as in English goat, gore. Welsh words: ganu (ganee); ganaf
(ganav); angau (angeye); gem (game)

Ng as in English finger or Long Island. Ng usually occurs with an h
following as a mutation of c. Welsh words Yng Nghaerdydd (in Cardiff:
pronounced ung hire deethe) or Yng Nghymru (in Wales: pronounced ung

Ll is an aspirated L. That means you form your lips and tongue to
pronounce L, but then you blow air gently around the sides of the tongue
instead of saying anything. Got it? The nearest you can get to this
sound in English is to pronounce it as an l with a th in front of it.
Welsh words: llan (thlan); llawr (thlour); llwyd (thlooid)

Rh sounds as if the h come before the r. There is a slight blowing out
of air before the r is pronounces. Welsh words: rhengau (hrengye); rhag
(hrag); rhy (hree)

The most common expressions that Welsh-Americans come across are Cymanfa
Ganu (Kumanva Ganee); Eisteddfod (Aye-steth-vod); and Noson Lawen
(Nosson Lowen)

While preparing the essay the following publications and resources were

Publications by Professor R. Rees Davies, M.A., D.Phil. All Souls
College, Oxford:

The Age of Conquest. Wales 1063-1415, Oxford, 1991

The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr (Oxford, 1995)

The Matter of Britain and the Matter of England, Oxford, 1996

Internet resources:

HYPERLINK “http://www.bbc.co.uk/history” www.bbc.co.uk/history




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