Serious about Language in Wales

Sign2Bala, Gwynedd, Wales

The Welsh are serious about their language.  As I wrote in ‘Croeso i Gymru: Welcome to Wales’, Clive and I were aware that in recent years, the government initiated programs to reverse the declining use of written and spoken Welsh.

We were still surprised at how much Welsh we saw and heard on this trip.  According to Wikipedia, the 2004 Welsh Language Use Survey reported 21.7% of the population of Wales were Welsh speakers, up from 18.5% in 1991. Since 2000, teaching of Welsh to students up to age 16 is mandatory in all schools.

Many of those who speak Welsh as a first language live in the north and west of the country, where we’re spending our time.

In Bala, in the Gwynedd region, we were surprised at how much spoken Welsh we heard. We bought a tourist map (in English) at the local bookshop, Awen Meirion, but virtually all the llyfrau (books) and other maps (mapiau) were in Welsh.


Sign4It Goes Deeper

I found an online reference to a novel based on Welsh history, ‘Tongue Tied’, by Peter Griffiths. Among other themes, according to the publisher, the book explores “the tension that arises at times between the majority of Welsh people who can’t speak Welsh and the minority who can; and the divisiveness of the language in these instances is compared, with sadness, to its crucial unifying role over the millennia.”

Our exposure to the Welsh language was largely limited to roadsigns and overheard conversations. In some cases, we could see the similarity between Welsh and English words; in others, they’re completely different.

We noticed, as often happens when you travel, that locals speaking Welsh to each other seemed to know instinctively we were visitors, and automatically spoke English to us.

Whether marvelling at the complexity of the language and wondering how difficult it would be to learn, or simply enjoying the sounds of children talking, we were impressed.

3 Responses

  1. Hi Carol,

    A most interesting post, and I also liked your attractive illustrations.

    Dialects (or languages) serve four functions: unify (the Hebrew language in Israel, for example); separate (province of Quebec in Canada with its large number of French speaking residents); confer prestige (admiring an individual one thinks is a fine speaker of standard English–whatever variety); and provide a geographic frame of reference (making it easy to figure out where one comes from.)

    Welsh is a Celtic language, one of the very large family of Indo-European languages. English is in that family too. The Celtic languages were pushed to the edges of what we call today the British Isles: Wales, Ireland, Scotland in the days well before English became dominant. Later on when England became dominant and after English kings spoke English again rather than French (those Norman French did have their way at the Battle of Hastings), England became the dominant language. England was not exactly sympathetic to people speaking other languages in any area under their control, and fought quite a few battles in the British Isles in which language was one of many issues.

    In recent years there has been renewed interest in folks learning how to speak their vernacular language. The BBC has a wonderful web site on which you can hear samples of many languages and dialects that are in danger of becoming extinct. Language death it is called.

    While there are over 45 countries in which English is the official or co-official language, many people in these countries feel that English was forced on them due to 19th century colonialism. In some countries such as Kenya political unrest has occurred over the feelings of many that English should be secondary to tribal languages and dialects that should be preserved.

    One of the great differences between the Germanic languages such as English and the Celtic languages such as Welsh are the consonant combinations. There are consonant combinations in Welsh that most English speakers can’t get their tongues around and are never found in English words. Nonetheless we are likely to find cognates in English and Welsh; these are “language cousins” in which we still find a kinship of shared word ancestry.

  2. Wow, Eleanor, after reading that I feel like I’m back at university! Then again, you are an English professor 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your expertise. I think you could have a great blog of your own.

  3. Aren’t languages fascinating? I wish my fascination with them would make them easier to learn to speak.

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