Language demise: signs of a goldan age

St. David’s Day gives those of us who adhere to the language an annual opportunity to review events pertinent to Wales, and survey the future prospects of Wales.    In Russia, Putin delivers an annual State of the Nation address. In America, Obama delivers his State of the Union speech.  But throughout the length and breadth of Wales, there have been in the past week scores of ‘state of the nation’ addresses. Wales, I would claim,  is far more democratic than both Russia and the USA, and of course our neighbours, although their custom of a cosy Christmas Day address by their queen has much to be commended. The democracy we see in Wales, I would claim, stems from our experience over the last five hundred years of self-organised societal patterns. Please accept this address as my humble contribution to this democratic Welsh custom.

I have in the best of Welsh traditions three ‘heads’ to this address: firstly our obsession with the demise of Wales, over the last eight hundred years.  Secondly, a view of some language changes which can be signs of language deterioration, and lastly an opinion on what needs to be done today.

Our national language, given at last official status by the latest Welsh Languae Act, is the topic of many of our state of the nation addresses. The perceived demise of our language has been a topic of concern for centuries, so much so that it has become an unofficial national pastime. We are duly, or sometimes unduly, concerned on two fronts: one is a vision of the end of Welsh civilisation, meaning the end of Welsh speaking society; the other is the deterioration of the Welsh language as it is spoken.

We are not alone in these concerns.  Other civilisations throughout history have concerned themselves with their own demise. Images created to depict this are part of accepted culture, such as the idea of Nero playing  his fiddle during the great fire of Rome, in 64 AD, although I suppose that playing a lyre would be more accurate a picture.  In Wales the story of the drowning of Cantre’r Gwaelod, in the wake of the carelessness of the drunken watchman, Seithennin, has recently been revived with the appearance of the submerged forest in Cardigan Bay.  Other disappeared civilizations intrigue us, be it Antlantis or the Mayans.  But none more so than the apopalyptic visions of so many USA films which foresee the end of American, and presumably Western, civilization.

When I had the pleasure of working in the Departments of Adult Continuing Education and Welsh at Swansea, I had the almost greater pleasure of attending conferences in various parts of Europe, including Gdansk, Kiel, Barcelona and Bilbao, where delegates were concerned with the disappearance of many of the world’s minority languages. In all parts of the world there are attempts at reversing the decline of minority languages, similar to what we see in Wales.  The effort of the Inuit to protect languages spoken by a few dozen  fascinate us. There are some 6,000, so we are told, minority language in the world, and of these, Welsh belongs to the more favoured. But don’t believe all you hear at conferences. In Barcelona, Professor Colin Williams of Cardiff, Steve Morris and I dared each other that in our addresses we would all refer to the success of Welsh medium social intercourse in Cwm Sianco. For us I suppose this was a humorous footnote to our attempts at analysing the language situation in Wales. Consider our surpise, then when the conference report appeared, which included an optimistic view of the attempts to revitalise the Welsh language in Cwm Sianco.

Emrys ap Iwan, the Welsh writer of the 19th century, was hugely aware of the phenomenon later named by socio-linguists as language death, and language suicide.  He wrote, or rather preached,

“the demise of a nation is the nearest disaster to the destruction of man-kind, and the destruction of a nation’s language is the nearest disaster to destroying the nation, as a nation ceases to exist in a  shorter or longer period of time after losing its language.”[i]

This premonition of the end of the Welsh language was a theme in Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd – a Week in the Wales of the Future – a time travel novel by Islwyn Ffowc Elis, the popular Welsh novelist. This was published in 1957, two years after Liverpool Corporation had decided to drown Cwm Tryweryn, near Bala. Towards the end of the novel, Islwyn Ffowc Elis portays a conversation with the last Welsh speaker, in Bala..

“She grasped the arms of the chair and sat up.  ‘Y nhw ddaru, a’u hen sŵn a’u coed a’u regileshions’ … ‘They did it, with their awful noise and trees and regulations.. they… but I don’t know you, do I” She sank back once again and her eyes clouded over.  ‘I don’t … know anything now…’

          “I got up and went out of the room.  I had seen with my own eyes the death of the Welsh language.”[ii]

This passage is extremely popular in Eisteddfodau, where audiences wallow self-pityingly at the thought of language death.

But the actual drowning of Cwm Tryweryn by Liverpool Corporation, and the creation of Llyn Celyn, which opened in 1965, gave Wales a concrete and powerful symbol of  injustice, linked to a real destruction of a Welsh speaking society. The name Tryweryn as well as becoming a battle cry in the national awakening of the latter half of the twentieth century, also became a symbol of the end of Welsh civilization.

Tryweryn was the subject of one of Dafydd Iwan’s popular songs, and for Gerallt Lloyd Owen, the eminent chaired poet, the drowning of Tryweryn was a metaphor for the obliteration of Welsh speaking communities of rural Wales through population change:

Fesul tŷ nid fesul ton

Y daw’r môr dros dir Meirion.[iii]

House by house, not wave by wave

Will the sea come over the land or Meirionydd.

And then, of course, Saunders Lewis, famously dismissed by Swansea University, in his 1962 radio talk, prophesied that Welsh would disappear by the beginning of the 21st century:

“I foresee that Welsh as a living language will cease to exist around the beginnning of the twenty first century, if present trends continue, given that there will be people on the Island of Britain at that time.”[iv]

We do so enjoy envisaging the death of Wales. We can all be prophets.

But the idea of the end of Wales goes back a long time. Wales itself was thought to have come to an end with the death of Llywelyn in 1282.  The lament by Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Goch on the death of the last Prince of Wales depicts a land hit by rain, wind and floods, an apocalyptic vision on the death of the prince.  The weather was similar this year’s winter weather.  Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Goch wrote:

Poni  welwch-chwi hynt y gwynt a’r glaw?

Poni welwch-chwi’r deri’n ymdaraw?

Poni welwch-chwi’r môr yn merwinaw’r tir?

Poni welwch-chwi’r gwir yn ymgweiriaw?

Poni welwch-chwi’r haul yn hwyliaw’r awyr?

Poni welwch-chwi’r sŷr wedi r’syrthiaw?[v]

This has been ably translated by Joseph Clancy:

See you not the rush of wind and rain?

See you not the oaks lash each other?

See you not the ocean scourging the shore?

See you not the truth is portending?

See you not the sun hurtling the sky?

See you not that the stars have fallen?

The world of Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch, the Wales of independent princes, was at an end. Were Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Goch alive today, eight centuries later, he would probably have linked the January storms and the encroaching sea with the recently published language census results, whose stark message was the disappearance of Welsh speaking parts of Wales.   What is remarkable, however, is that we are here, some 750 years later, still able to discuss the future of the Welsh language. And our weather, I hopefully suppose, is fitting, if not for anything else,  for Swans.

After the death of Llywelyn the Last, however,  instead of facing linguistic death, Welsh found itself a golden age: the age of the new poets, the poets of the gentry, the greatest of whom, Dafydd ap Gwilym gave Welsh literature a new brilliance, full of humour and romance.

Not that all was well, of course.  Political events soon took over and the Machiavellian-like wish of the partly Welsh Tudor dynasty to establish a unified state, both politically and linguistically, led to the passing of the Laws in Wales Act of England and Wales in 1535/6 Act. In this the intention was:

 utterly to extirpe all and singuler the sinister usages and customes differinge frome the same [this Realm] and to bring his said Subjects of this his Realm, and of his said Dominion of Wales to an amicable concord and unitie[vi]

Professor Glanmor Williams has argued that the Act was mainly concerned with the legal status of English, rather than the general use of Welsh in society, but its effect was to anglicize the Welsh gentry, and to ban Welsh from the processes of law and government in Wales. The argument that the parliament of the day, by passing, within a few years, laws to translate the Prayer Book and Bible into Welsh, was favourable towards Welsh does not hold.  Unity of religion was the aim. The Act of 1563 for the translation of the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible provided for the English version to be used simultaneously, and this was repeated in the Act of Uniformity, 1662:

            “such, [persons]  as do not understand the said language, may by conferring both tongues together, the sooner attain to the knowledge of the English tongue”[vii]

From now one the Welsh language faced dual paths: the paths called by today’s sociolinguists as ‘High’ and ‘Low’.  The ‘High prestige’ path involves the official use of a language, in education, literature, law and government, while the ‘Low prestige’ path, the infinitely more important one, involves the use of a language on a familial and societal level. 

For centuries, the ‘High prestige’ path was shared by two languages: while an English only legal system was established, the Welsh language flourished as the language of literature and religion. In the nineteenth century, education and the press provided Welsh with a flourishing ‘High’ status.

At the same time, the ‘sinister usages and customs of Wales’, if this phrase refers to the common use of Welsh and to a Welsh way of life, did not surrender so easily. A largely monoglot Welsh populace survived until the nineteenth century, and one of its achievements was establishing a Welsh speaking industrial community in south Wales in that century, as ably demonstrated by Brinley Thomas.

A crucial element was the establishment of Welsh speaking institutions, which included cultural societies, a Welsh press and publishing industry, and a voluntary Welsh education system. But the main Welsh language institution were the chapels, which were the centre of a vigorous social life. The enormity of this effort has received scant attention by some of our leading historians and socio-linguists.  Just a dozen pages are given to nonconformity and the Welsh language in the 19th century in the 2,500 pages of the otherwise thorough Social History of the Welsh Language edited by Geraint Jenkins and Mari Williams.[viii]

Of course, this effort was not government led or government sponsored or supported.  The thousands of Welsh chapels were democratic – designed, paid for, and organised by the workers, y werin.  This was a cultural revolution organised by the Welsh people themselves.

In Swansea we have the cathedral of nonconformity, at Tabernacl, Morriston.  Morriston was an example of 18th century town planning, designed by a minister, the Reverend Williams Edwards, who designed the bridges at Pontypridd and over the river Tawe. Tabernacl was designed by John Humphrey, a deacon at Mynydd-bach.  More than fifty Welsh chapels were built or rebuilt in Swansea during the hundred years before the building of Tabernacl.[ix]

This nation-wide building of chapels, the social centres of their day, secured a place for Welsh in both ‘high’ and ‘low’ prestige realms: as a language of religion and reading, and as the language of social gatherings.  The chapels were largely responsible for making the werin literate, and in the wake of this, Welsh publishing experienced its golden age in the 19th century.

You may be aware how Dai Smith, in Wales! Wales?[x] largely dismissed this massive popular and democratic effort.  Professor Geraint Jenkins referred to his chip-on-shoulder history as a ‘studied neglect of the contribution of Welsh-speakers to life in the valleys’.  I was pleased, I suppose, to see that his book is now on sale at Amazon for one penny, so I finally bought it.

Many regard the second half of the nineteenth century as the turning point for both the Low and the High prestige language paths. A partly self-imposed English medium schooling system was augmented by English only state organised education following the diatribe of the Blue Books of 1847, and the Education Act of 1870, desperately weakening the position of Welsh on the ‘High’ path. Simultaneously, there were large population changes in the coal fields, with incomers who could at first be culturally and linguistically accommodated, but whose increasing numbers presented a challenge that could not be met linguistically. The result was that the language of communities, and then homes, changed. English, as the language of world-wide commerce and political influence, was quickly establishing itself as the main high and low prestige language in Wales.

Generally languages and the frontiers of nations tend to coincide. There is always some linguistic border overlap, but where there is no political or cultural recognition of a minority language, there will be  language conflict, and where there is a struggle for language rights and language supremacy,  political upheavals can occur.  We are now witnessing such a process in the Ukraine. 

What are today in Europe called indigenous minority languages exist in nations or states which consist mainly of speakers of other languages.  Many of these minority or lesser used languages have survived because they have been the language of a comparatively remote population, either in mountainous areas or protected by seas.  As such, many or Europe’s minority languages are found  in the most picturesque parts of the continent, which are today the destination of mass tourism.  The Alpine area can boast the Romansh, Ladin and Arpitan languages, and Europe’s coastal regions abound with lesser languages, which include Friesian, Breton, Cornish, Manx, Basque, Galician and Catalan, although Catalans would claim that their language is spoken by more people than many of Europes’ greater languages.

None of these language receive the full protection that can be afforded by a state.  So it is with Welsh. Our mountains and seas have provided the Welsh language some protection from our powerful linguisic neighbour, enough protection, it seems, to have survived against all odds. Suzanne Romaine, the eminent sociolinguist,  has described the Welsh, with others such as the Basques,  as a people finding themselves “living in nations they had no say in creating and are controlled by groups who do not represent their interests”. [xi]

In terms of sociolinguistic argument, any language needs to be used freely in sufficient domains for its speakers to be able to use it coherently.  These domains, or spheres of life,  can include Low prestige language interaction on a community level, in the family, or at work, and also the use of language for more High prestige purposes, in education, the media and government.  These days such domains can include the electronic social media which are less geographically confined. With ever more fluid patterns of living, electronic media are increasing in their provision of a sphere for linguistic social intercourse, especially in Cwm Sianco.

It is the availability of language domains that can give a society or a country a situation of stable diglossia: the use of two languages.   There can be an interminable mix of Low or High prestige domains, but each language needs a sufficient command of one or the other or both.

 In all attempts at language survival, however, Joshua Fishman has stressed that “without intergenerational mother tongue transmission… no language maintenance is possible.  That which is not transmitted cannot be maintained.”[xii]

In such manner we arrive at some essentials for language survival, but at the same time we are warned by the general trend observed again by Suzanne Romaine:

“Language shift generally involves bilingualism.. as a stage on the way to eventual monolingualism in a new language.  Typically a community which was once monolingual becomes bilingual as a result of contact with another (usually socially more powerful) group and becomes transitionally bilingual in the new language until their own language is given up altogether.”[xiii]

Include in this mix the necessity to distinguish between bilingualism,which refers to individual language skills, and diglossia, the use of two languages by a community.    When the Government of Wales calls for a bilingual Wales, we are not sure whether this means that all individuals should be bilingual, or whether adequate measures will be taken to ensure that individuals can have sufficient use of their preferred language in various Low or High domains.  We are still waiting for an explanation, but possibly because no-one has insisted on an answer.

We are today still witnessing a continuing struggle between both languages on both the high and low prestige paths. If we look back at the last fifty years or so, we have seen some kind of a revolution in high level domains.

Much of it started with the sacrificial efforts of Trevor and Eileen Beasley of Llangennech who lost most of their property after they refused to pay their local rates until the invoices were issued in Welsh.

Then there followed the 1962 St David’s Day radio talk by Saunders Lewis, who maintained that a law-breaking revolution was needed so that Welsh would become the language of administration in Welsh speaking Wales.  Previously Saunders Lewis had helped to establish the Welsh National Party with the aim of saving the Welsh language, by coercing the use of Welsh, particularly in education.

In a short time, Welsh was seen on all road signs, where there was no Welsh previously.  This came about largely due to a law-breaking campaign by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg. Dare I say, in my college days, a paint brush and a set of bolt cutters were just as essential as lecture notes?  The first Welsh Language Act of 1967 gave Welsh speakers some rights in legal proceedings, and allowed Government Ministers to provide Welsh versions of forms. It repealed the Wales and Berwick Act 1746, which had decreed that ‘England’ could include ‘Wales’.

It was not until the passing of the second Welsh Language Act, 1993, that the language sections of the 1536 Act were repealed, and Welsh was now to be treated on and equal basis with English in public life. A moot point was that the Act included a phrase ‘so far as is reasonably practical’. As we know with politicians, what is practical for some is not at all practical for others.

There followed an upsurge of the use of Welsh visually.  A thousand forms were produced in Welsh or bilingually.  For the first time, Directors of Education had to respond to letters by writing in Welsh rather than in English, or in John Beale’s case in Swansea, rather than discard them to the nearest bin.  Banks issued bilingual cheques, police issued bilingual warrants, and the DVLA gave bilingual vehicle licences, a technical feat which had at one time been proclaimed to be beyond its competence. Some shops began using Welsh and bilingual signs, and most dramatically, Gwynedd County Council used Welsh as the first language of administration.  These attempts were crowned by the establishment of a Welsh language television service after the life-threatening campaign by Gwynfor Evans.

All this was gain, of course. The face of Wales changed, and the country appeared to be bilingual.  But another story was developing under this largely outward appearance of bilingualism.

There have been words of warning regarding most of these gains. Joshua Fishman, the leading socio-linguist, has seriously questioned three aspects of the type of gains seen in Wales.

Firstly, regarding the Welsh television service, he notes: “a dozen years of experience with TV in Welsh fully corroborates the view that the time that is bought with TV is expensively bought indeed, given that is has no intergenerational transmission payoff thereafter.”[xiv]

(‘Intergenerational transmission’ simply means speaking Welsh to children at home.)

Secondly, for the kind of school based language maintenance that we have in Wales, he states that there is a danger that we have a “cycle of running harder and harder in order to finally end up, at best, in the same, or nearly in the same place, generation after generation.”[xv]

For those of us involved in education, this is a timely warning, but the message is one that must be heeded by those outside the world of education, as schools cannot be expected to be the answer to all or any of societies’ ills.

Lastly, he scathingly criticizes the kind of gains through the campaigning of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, the gains involving use of Welsh in the higher echelons of officialdom, including high publicity campaigns:

“It is definitely more exciting and more newsworthy to work on the more modern and ‘flashy’ side …, on the side that deals primarily with the written, formal language and with interactions that are status stressing… these steps are hollow victories and must ultimately crumble unless they rest upon the strong base of informal, intimate spoken language in daily family, neighborly and community interaction.”[xvi]

What have we therefore achieved in the last fifty years of campaigning for the Welsh language? Have we been running hard up a cul-de-sac?

It is possible to take issue with Joshua Fishman regarding some of his assumptions.  One can easily argue that a national Welsh television service has been instrumental in ensuring a vigorous and modern vehicle for a living culture. Although one cannot make an undisputed link between the television service and the transmission of languages in Wales’ homes, the presence of Welsh in our homes would be greatly diminished without it, and certainly the relating of our people’s story, be it retelling of history or culture, or the creation of contemporary stories, is essential to a shared common national existence.

One can also argue that the proliferation of Welsh and bilingual signs have allowed the language a widespread acceptance in all parts of Wales, considerably wider than was envisaged by Saunders Lewis, who thought that this could only be achieved in the more Welsh speaking parts of Wales.  Similarly the creation of new Welsh speakers in schools is an essential ingredient in ensuring another generation of Welsh speakers.

I could mention my own story, as a person whose square miles is from the Uplands to Cwmdonkin Park.  I had the good fortune to be educated at Lon-las Welsh school, in Llwynbrwydrau, Llansamlet.  During the 1950s, around 150 pupils in Swansea were educated at primary level during one year through the medium of Welsh.  That one school has become ten, and around 4,000 pupils in Swansea, during one year, receive Welsh medium education at primary and secondary level. Without this revolution, the Welsh language in Swansea would be facing extinction, and so it would be in all towns from Swansea to Monmouth. 

The growth of Welsh medium schools, following the 1945 Education Act which allowed a measure of parental choice, has transformed the fate of the Welsh language. Education Authorities have often reacted with deliberate reluctance and hesitation but it was not possible to resist parental demand.  More recently the Welsh Language Board and now the Welsh Government have set growth targets for local authorities, and there is a more general acceptance of Welsh medium education, especially as it has been found that the Labour Party in south Wales has not suffered in its wake.

But we should not dismiss Fishman’s claims as being without basis.  What use can be made of the Welsh language by pupils in their acquired language?  How many of the pupils have an opportunity to use Welsh at home, and how many are likely to set up Welsh-speaking homes themselves?  The world of work is still largely dominated by English as are most centres of social intercourse.

The areas of Wales where over 80% speak Welsh have all but disappeared.  Although it is claimed that around 21% of the people of Wales speak Welsh, only around 7% of Wales’ children are brought up in Welsh speaking homes. Intergenerational transmission of Welsh, the corner stone of any attempt at language maintenance, is being seriously eroded, and Welsh is becoming more and more dependent on the state education system.

But the demise of the language is not yet upon us. It is spoken by around half a million people in Wales, and one can possibly add another hundred thousand or more in England. This is more than double the number who spoke Welsh in the time of Owain Glyn-dŵr.

Another change has concerned Welsh people of all ages: the changes that have taken place in the language itself.  These are often seen as signs of language deterioration, of a language’s failure to withstand the influence of a powerful neighbour. Contact between two languages  create language change, with the dominant language influencing, or over-influencing the receding language. English has been the dominant language in many parts of the world. Australian Aboriginal,  native American and many African languages have been threatened by extinction due to the influence of English and the introduction of a new political and social order. 

Language change can be seen as a sign of language displacement, and eventually language death, be that through language murder or language suicide or both.  It can start with borrowings from the dominant language.

But what if this borrowing is in fact a strength?  That we have no surviving Welsh words for ‘arm’ or ‘body’ or ‘leg’ is of no concern today.  But can you imagine a mother criticizing her child for using the Roman words ‘bracchium’, ‘corpus’ and coxa’ when he should have used the proper Brythonic words? 

What then of our safely guarded and minutely regulated mutations?  We must mutate after a feminine noun.  The mind boggles slightly.  So many youngsters do not mutate. But go back to Brythonic times and there was no such rule: there was consonant change after words ending in a vowel. So what is grammar?  Is it so unchangeable?

Neither is it a concern that we have lost the intricacies of verb endings, noun cases and the  sentence constructions of Middle Welsh.

Henry Lewis, who held the chair of Welsh at The University College of Wales, Swansea, said in his volume Datblygiad yr Iaith Gymraeg,  – the Development of the Welsh Language – that “Welsh is full of what could be called ‘disgraceful mistakes’, because it is a living language which has insisted on growing in its own way.”[xvii] In this, Welsh is no different to any other language.

The difference today is that these linguistic changes are occurring at a swifter pace than ever before, and also under heavier influence of Anglo-americanisms.

But if there were in the Wales of the 14th century any language purists, as there are so many in the 21st century, many would have been horrified by Dafydd ap Gwilym’s use of English words and anglicisms.  One who was aware of this was Pennar Davies, Davies Aberpennar in 1948,  who imagined a conversation between Keidrych Rhys, the Anglo-Welsh litterateur and Dafydd ap Gwilym. Wales, the magazine edited by Keirych Rhys, published in 1948, an imagined a conversation with Dafydd ap Gwilym, a radio script by Pennar Davies, of 1947. Pennar Davies, the Welsh litterateur and theologian, born in a poor English speaking miner’s home in Mountain Ash, is himself a personification of language change :

KEIDRYCH RHYS: I'm Keidrych Rhys. Heard about me? Editor of Wales. Why do I speak English? Well, most Welsh people do. I could speak Welsh if I chose, as well as any of them. But everybody in Wales with any sense knows that we have to fight the battle for Wales today through the medium of English. Lots of Welsh people don't understand the language of Dafydd Ap Gwilym, I'm afraid.
DAFYDD AP GWILYM: The language of whom?
KEIDRYCH RHYS: Dafydd ap Gwilym, you know - the famous medieval Welsh poet.
KEIDRYCH RHYS: What You, You are Dafydd ap Gwilym? Well.,. this is one of the big moments of my life. Put it there, Dafydd old chap. You and I have a lot in common.
DAFYDD AP GWILYM: Glad to hear it. But I'm perturbed to hear that Wales is losing her language - my language, the language that tripped so blithely from the cherry lips of Morfudd and Dyddgu, the language that rolled sonorously from the tongues of princes and bards, the language that the wit of poets could fashion into innumerable shapes of beauty and grace. Surely Wales is not going to forget that language. That would be a base betrayal

KEIDRYCH Rhys: Well, lots of Welsh people are forgetting it. And some of those who speak it put half-a-dozen English words into every sentence.

DAFYDD AP GWILYM: Ah, that touches me on a sore point, Keidrych. I’m afraid I was rather fond of adorning my verse with borrowed words. Some people didn’t like it at all. Corrupting the language of Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr – that’s what they called it. But I meant no harm. Tell me – am I to blame for the spread of these foreign words? You say that you are a Welsh poet. Do you introduce many English words into your poetry?

KEIDRYCH Rhys: I use English words only, Dafydd.

DAFYDD AP GWILYM: English words only? (Disgusted.) English words only

KEIDRYCH Rhys: Well, we must move with the times, you know.[xviii]

Dafydd ap Gwilym lived in a period of social and cultural change.  This conversation between Dafydd and Keidrych encapsulates many elements of language change that have become the field of work of recent socio-linguists. They would refer to his frequent use of English words as code switching. Dafydd’s work, of course, reflects the influence of French travelling minstrels, and of the Anglo-French towns which were developing around the castles built by Edward II during the military conquest of Wales. Seen from today’s perspective, these new influences offered a remarkable gain, rather than a loss, to Welsh literature. 

The bards of the princes, whose tenure came to an end with the death of Llywelyn, had developed an intricate poetic idiom, steeped in tradition, largely unintelligible, one would presume, to Welsh peasantry, who developed their own, separate, more lyrical writing, which is still accessible today.

Dare I suggest that today’s literary Welsh class has constructed a Welsh idiom which is far removed from the language spoken by most Welsh speakers, just as these bards did eight centuries ago.  One of the signs of a language in danger is that its written form becomes far removed from the spoken tongue.  This is true of the Welsh used today in government and administrative documents.

A volume on household tips, Llyfr Pawb ar Bob Peth – Everyone’s Book and Everything – published in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, deliberately states in its preface that the language used is “slangy, as is used and understood by ordinary people, rather a refined and accurate language, because clarity is more important in our view”.[xix]

It would not be amiss for Wales’ officialdom to take heed of this kind of advice. Sometimes the translations of forms are bad and sometimes unintelligible.  But when the translations can be deemed to be good, they can also provide difficulties for two reasons: firstly they use terminology which is not readily known; secondly the linguistic register of the translation is far more formal than that used by ordinary Welsh speakers.  The services are thus quite useless for most Welsh speakers.

This causes lack of confidence in using the language in dealings with officialdom of all kinds.   The legal and administrative spheres have been English only for so long, and when very formal registers of Welsh are used in translations which are often too literal, one can understand why Welsh speakers regularly avoid using Welsh forms. 

When I received my first pension statement, the Welsh phraseology was so complicated that I could not make head or tail of the message.  I telephoned Porthmadog, the Welsh language taxation centre for an explanation.  They did not explain the form, just said that I did not have to do anything.  The only part of the form I could understand was that after deductions, the extra amount I would be receiving was nil.

What we now find is that bodies which provide bilingual services reveal that a dismally small proportion of Welsh people use their Welsh language services.  This I suggest is almost wholly due kind of procedure I have described. 

We then find that the spoken services provided in Welsh can be far from satisfactory.  We are used to bilingual telephone answers, a polite ‘bore da’, only for the speaker on the other side of the phone not to be able to proceed further in Welsh.  An experience of mine was when I was suffering from severe toothache, on a weekend, two days before taking my faithful band of followers on an educational literary trip to Gdansk in Poland.  After an agonizing night, I telephone the NHS Welsh language service at 6 a.m., to be told in English, ‘all our Welsh speakers are busy’. The English conversation that ensued advised me to brush my teeth and use aspirin and ibuprofen every two or three hours.  Thank goodness I had paid my dues to Denplan, for I found a good dentist in Mumbles.

There is at present a probability that unused Welsh forms and documents will become even more common.  The Welsh Language Commissioner has the role of regulating the use of Welsh by public bodies.  If that role will concentrate on ensuring Welsh forms and documents, rather than empowering Welsh speakers, the language and its speakers will gain very little.  So many policies, in the wake of the language’s historical lack of status, are walking up the already mentioned linguistic cul-de-sac.

Another worry is the often heard criticism of the standard of language used on television and radio, and also by school pupils. It may be true that much of the Welsh heard today cuts across established rules of grammar.  Sentence constructions are simplified, some English constructions are imitated.  Sociolinguists can consider these changes as a further sign of language death or language demise. There is lexical loss, as an increasing use is made of English words in Welsh sentences.  There can also be a loss of language registers, for example using the familiar ‘ti’ – ‘thou’ – with people in authority. Loss of syntax is another occurrence, such as the perpetual use of periphrastic forms of verbs, with a loss of the passive voice or even the past tense. Speakers of the language become what is called semi-speakers.  This is all part of a process of language death and language displacement, where the dominant language displaces the minority one.

But when the fluent educated minority criticizes the standard of Welsh used by the semi-speakers, they further erode their linguistic confidence, leading to a rejection of minority language use.

Swansea’s international footballer, John Hartson, is often heard on S4C, speaking what many would consider to be a form of Welsh suffering from some of the above characteristics.  But he uses his Welsh with a measure of confidence and pride.  One learner of Welsh told me that hearing John Hartson speak his imperfect Welsh on the media gave him more confidence than anyone else to venture using the language.  Criticizing the standard of Welsh used by individuals is a certain way of promoting language suicide.

There is no easy answer to this.  Far more important than producing Welsh forms and documents fit only for a filing cabinet, is providing adequate opportunities to use Welsh in the community, in the home, at work and at leisure.  This is also far more challenging. It involves changes of language use at an inter personal level, as well as changing the linguistic mechanics of various domains.

 Professor Colin Williams of Cardiff wrote at the turn of this century, “The chief challenge facing language policy-makers is providing an appropriate community and national infrastructure wherein a genuine language choice may be exercised… it involves investment, training, encouragement and political conviction.”[xx]

If we now consider what is needed to revitalize Welsh, the first necessity is to rid ourselves of the cultural death-wish of the last eight hundred years.  Islwyn Ffowc Elis has said that the very essence of Welshness consists of a perpetual survival struggle. This is not equivalent to an expectation of language and community death.

The amount of local and voluntary Welsh language activities is remarkable. Welsh is used by a plethora of societies on a local level. There are around 50 local Welsh monthly papers, and vigorous youth movement. We have a resurgence in Welsh writing and publishing, and expanding Welsh medium education, and a vibrant Welsh music and media scene. Perhaps more importantly Welsh is still the predominant language of many communities, especially in west and north Wales.  On a recent visit to Crymych rugby club I was told that all 11 rugby teams in that part of Pembrokeshire are trained though the medium of Welsh.

But other forces are at work, particularly demographic ones.  There is a continuous flow of young people from the Welsh speaking areas of north and West Wales to Cardiff and other parts of Wales and England, as their follow work opportunities.  Their place is often taken by people from many parts of the UK, so much so that Wales today has more residents born outside the country than any other country in Europe, apart from Luxembourg.  Lack of work in Welsh speaking parts of Wales, and lack of affordable housing has weakened the viability of many Welsh speaking communities.

The language does now need government support, and that support should be based on acknowledged principles of language planning, rather than on reacting to high prestige demands of various Welsh language campaign groups.  The high status gains made by Welsh in the last fifty years have to some extent been made in unproductive domains, and the necessary attention to the language of home and community and work has been neglected.

At present government support for the language is provided by various agencies. One is the Language Commissioner who has the role of regulating language use by various public bodies. The department of the Minister for Welsh language and culture gives grants to various societies and establishments in Wales.  The education department of the government asks local authorities to provide Welsh medium education strategic plans. But much of this is at the periphery of what is needed.

To create vibrant Welsh communities, action needs to be taken in the fields of economic planning and housing.  The creation of growth centres in Welsh speaking areas is needed to ensure a stable and growing Welsh speaking population.  Institutions which use a substantial amount of Welsh could be relocated from Cardiff to Welsh speaking areas, so that they become attractive for young people. Unfortunately, the government departments which have responsibility in these fields give scant attention to Welsh in their deliberations. Local Councils are now preparing large scale housing developments, but then again the Welsh language is allowed little consideration in these plans.

We need to make Welsh a language that is used freely at work. Gwynedd is the only county council in Wales which does this, and there is no reason why Carmarthen, Ceredigion, Ynys Môn and some others shouldn’t follow suit. And a national plan is needed to teach Welsh to adults so that more can use the language at work, especially in posts where contact with the public is needed, in local government, the health service and in the retail industry. It is a matter of concern that after a recent review of the Welsh for Adults service, the Government decided to cut funding in this field.

Action and activity on a community level is crucial for the survival of Welsh.  That is why the Mentrau Iaith, which support and encourage society based activities, have an important role to play.  A necessity in the anglicized parts of Wales is the establishment of Welsh social, cultural and learning centres, as we have in Tŷ Tawe in Swansea. Such a centre exists in Merthyr Tydfil, and recently a similar initiative started in Wrexham.  Steve Morris of the Welsh Department and I recently produced a report on the value of such centres for Welsh learners.[xxi]  The ones in existence have been established and maintained by volunteers. It should be the responsibility of local authorities to provide Welsh medium youth clubs and Welsh medium social centres and activities, so that Welsh can be as easily used as English in the popular domains for young people and learners.

Dealing with the language of the home is more difficult.  Parents’ confidence in using Welsh needs to be boosted, and people generally should be aware of the advantages of bilingualism. We must hope that by increasing the use of Welsh in communities, at work and in various activities, more and more people will realise that they would gain by making Welsh the language of the home.

But how can all this activity be instigated and co-ordinated?  I don’t think that the present structures of the civil service and national and local government are adequate for the task.  An overarching Language Authority for Wales is needed, which would have influence in language planning in the fields of economic planning and housing, social use and in the domains of education, culture, leisure and work. It would guide government departments to act positively and creatively.

But in the meantime those of us who are concerned with the language must continue in our efforts to ensure that Welsh is spoken as well as seen, that it is heard in more and more spheres, and that its youth culture is as vibrant as possible. We are not a majority now, but a minority culture and language can provide us with roots and identity in our ever more globalized and mobile world.

And it is just as well for us to remember, that when Welsh people along the centuries thought that their world or the language was coming to an end, it was a sure sign that a golden age was about to start.

[i] Emrys ap Iwan, Homiliau, Gee a’i Fab, Dinbych, 207, 50.

[ii] Islwyn Ffowc Elis, Wythnos yng nghymru Fydd, Gwasg Gomer, 1957, 214.

[iii] Gerallt Lloyd Owen, Cilmeri a Cherddi eraill, Gwasg Gwynedd, 1991, 48.

[iv] Saunders Lewis, Tynged yr Iaith, BBC, London, 1962, 5.

[v] Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Goch, ‘Marwnad Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’, in Thomas Parry, The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse,  Oxford University Press, 1962, 47.

[vi]  The Statues of the Realm: Printed by Command of His Majest King George the Third, Volume 3, Dawsons, Pall Mall, 1819, 563

[vii] Dvaid Charles Dougles, ed., English Historical Documents, 1660-1714, Taylor & Francis Ltd., 1995, 382.

[viii] Geraint H. Jenkins, ed, Gwnewch Bopeth yn Gymraeg, Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1999, and four other volumes.

[ix] See Trebor Lloyd Evans, Y Cathedral Anghydffurfiol Cymraeg, , Gwasg John Penry, Swansea, 1972, and Heini Gruffudd, ‘Iaith Gudd y Mwyafrif’ in Hywel Teifi Edwards, ed, Cwm Tawe, Gomer, Llandysul, 1993, 105-142.

[x] Dai Smith, Wales! Wales?, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1984.

[xi] Suzanne Romaine, Language in Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, 34.

[xii] Joshua Fishman, Reversing Language Shift, Multilingual Matters, Clevedon, 1991, 131.

[xiii] Romaine, idem, 51.

[xiv] Idem, 175.

[xv] Idem, 369.

[xvi] Idem, 110.

[xvii] Henry Lewis, Datblygiad yr Iaith Gymraeg, Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, Caerdydd, 1931, 46.

[xviii]  Davies Aberpennar, ‘Imaginary Conversation, Keidrych Rhys and Dafyd ap Gwilym’, Wales, 29, May, 1948, 525.

[xix] Thomas Thomas, Llyfr Pawb ar bob-peth, Hughes and Son, Wrexham, n.d., (1870?) vi.

[xx] Colin H. Williams, ‘Community Empowerment through Language Planning Intervention’, in Colin H. Williams (ed.), Language Revitalization, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2000, 244.

[xxi] Heini Gruffudd and Steve Morris, Canolfannau Cymraeg and Social Networks of Adult Learners of Welsh, South West Wales Welsh for Adults Centre / Academi Hywel Teifi, 2012.