About the History of the Welsh Language
in Past, Present and Future

1.        Introduction  2

2.     About the History of the Welsh Language. 2

3.     About the Present and Future of the Welsh Language. 5

4.     Nant Gwrtheyrn. 6

5.     A Brief Welsh Language Guide  7

6.     Finish. 8

7.     Appendix. 9

7.1.            Welsh Language Guide  9

7.1.1.                The Vowels  9

7.1.2.                The Diphthongs  9

7.1.3.                The Consonants  9

7.2.            Practice  10

7.3.            Common Welsh Greetings. 10

 


1.   Introduction

As I arrived at Bangor, Wales, I entered a part of Great Britain which for a foreign visitor is completely different from England. As I heard people talking the first time it was not only an incomprehensible English dialect, more than that it seemed to be a completely different kind of language.

The signs in the streets, at the malls or public buildings were written in two languages. The first one was Welsh and the second one was English.

Then I saw words like Pontcysyllte, Pen y Mynydd or Glyneirigog. These expressions which probably are for every not Welsh speaking traveller unpronounceable words mean the names of Welsh towns.

To get an idea of the Welsh language look at the following English words written by using the Welsh alphabet[1].

“Gwd lwc. Ai hop ddat yw can ryd ddys and ddat yt meiks sens tw yw.”

If you want to know the meaning, study the “Welsh language Guide” in the appendix.

The subject of this essay will be the Welsh language. Wales is a country where culture is very important and culture usually depends on its language. Through the centuries the English influence in language was about to replace the Welsh one.

So the important questions are:

At first I will look at the history of the Welsh language. Then I will have a look at the present and future of this language. Finally I will give you some reasons why it is important to speak Welsh in today’s Wales.

 

2.   About the History of the Welsh Language

The Welsh language is one of the oldest still living languages in the world.

The language developed form the Celtic language.

The Celts came to England and Wales from the European continent between 500-100 BC[2]. There were different Celtic tribes, but they all had the same culture and language. At first in Britain everyone spoke Brythonic, which is a Celtic dialect. Because of great distances, mountains and rivers the Celtic language split. There were different Celtic dialects in Ireland, Britain and the continent.

There are still lots of Brythonic town names in today’s England, e.g. London and Dover. Both towns were built at a stretch of water and the Brythonic word for water is “do” [3].

In 55 BC the Roman conquest of Britain began[4]. In these days two cultures, both with their own language, existed in Britain. Though the Roman culture influenced the British one, it did not replace it. The Brythonic got Latin loan words, which still exist in the living languages that have developed from the Brythonic. Many of these words are about new Roman technological inventions, e.g. great bridges and windows[5].

Slowly the Brythonic began to split into Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Probably the most important was the Welsh language. The last syllable of the Brythonic words was dropped and a few letters changed into others, e.g. the Brythonic “I” turned into the Welsh ”Y” [6]. At the beginning of this time Welsh was only spoken in few parts of the country, but soon it expended and replaced the Brythonic.

In about 400 AD the Romans had left Britain and the Saxons, a Germanic tribe, came to Britain[7]. They conquered today’s England. Then the Welsh language was only spoken in the west of Britain. The Saxons used their own language, which became the English language. The English word “Welsh” developed from the word “Wealas” [8]. This was the expression the Welsh were called by the Saxons. It means foreigner. The Welsh, however, called themselves Cymru, because of the Cymren who were the native inhabitants of Wales.

Several dialects of the Welsh language arose during these days. Today there are still two important ones left. One is spoken in the north, the other in the south of Wales. There are only a few words that are different, e.g. the words for “bread” and “now”. But usually a southern and a northern Welsh speaker are able to comprehend each other.

Beside that, there are also Irish and English loan words in the Welsh language.

 

Between 927-1536 AD[9] the Saxons and Normans tried to conquer Wales to unite the whole island under one kingdom. But this did not influence the Welsh language much.

Parts of Wales’ coastal areas got under the command of the English government. English people settling in those areas considered the Welsh as barbarians.

But they were not barbarians. The Welsh people had always raised their poetry. In Wales there had been many singers. They were popular with the ordinary people and there were special laws which only applied to them. There were great celebrations, where singers, poets and narrators performed their arts. One of these was revived in 1860 and is today still celebrated in Wales. It is called “Eisteddfod” [10].

The Welsh did not write down their lyrics. They taught them verbal. This might be influenced by Celtic druids. So the lyric is very important for the Welsh language. Because of its pronunciation the Welsh language fits for lyrics very well[11].

In 1282 Edward I conquered Wales and made it English. The Welsh language was no longer allowed in towns. But even this measure had no effect on the Welsh language, lyrics and poetries. Presenting their art to the people for a small fee travelling singers held the Welsh language and traditions alive.

Then there were several natural catastrophes, diseases, famines and much poverty in Wales. That cost the lives of every fourth Welsh speaker[12]. The Welsh language lost credit and the English had got more and more rights from the law.

In 1536 a Welsh man became king of England. As Henry VII ascended the English throne every Welsh man was happy and thought he would be looking forward to a better future. But in fact the new king did not change much. The “Acts of Union” united England and Wales completely under one government[13].

The years passed and Henry VIII followed on the throne. In 1563 he created a law, by which the Welsh language was forbidden[14]. Henry VIII had got good reasons for the way he decided. This law should make the communication between England and Wales easier and it should allow the comprehension of the judges’ decisions. There had no longer been need to translate the laws and much more. However, this law caused big troubles to the Welshmen, though they should be helped by it. Even most of the Welsh lawyers were not able to speak English and many Welsh did not know the crimes they were accused of.

The Welsh language became a second-class language. Important Welsh men did no longer use their language because they did not want to be second-class people. They wanted the same rights as the English and they did everything to become English. Lots of Welsh poetry was burned. And with the poetry the Celtic culture got lost piece by piece. The Welsh language seemed to die out.

But the progress of the Welsh in learning English was very slow. And the government feared another danger. Elisabeth I did not want the Welsh to stay Catholics like the Irish. So, in 1567 she gave the Welshmen the New Testament written down through the medium of Welsh. In 1588 the whole Holy Bible followed in a Welsh translation placed next to the English text[15].

For her government a state with one religion was more important than a state with one language.

Religion was always very important for the Welsh people. Because of this bible the Welsh people was the first people whose ordinary men, women and children were able to read. There even were schools, where everybody could learn to read in six weeks. This was great progress in this century.

Today’s scientists are not quite sure, whether only the religion helped the Welsh language to survive. Another reason was the invention of the printing press[16] in 1718. Now many magazines and papers were issued through the medium of Welsh. There were mainly magazines about politics and religion. But there were also papers about hobbies, free time and especially gardening.

During the industrial revolution the Welsh poetry was completely unimportant, until a celebration was organized like the ones, which were celebrated by the old Celtic druids. It became a great success.

In the first half of the 19th century coal was found in the south of Wales[17]. The coalmines created many new workplaces, and workers from all over the world, especially from England came to Wales. This was a bad strike against the Welsh language. Most of the Welsh spoke English, but only a few of the immigrants spoke Welsh. So in the south of Wales English was the main spoken language.

During this time Wales became multicultural and multilingual[18]. But the workplaces in the coalmines did not only attract foreigners. They also attracted people from the north of Wales and so the Welsh language survived in the south.

Because of the new trains and railways the Welsh could travel and visit other parts of Wales. But with the trains there also arrived new Englishmen in Wales. Soon more than 60% of Welsh inhabitants were not able to speak Welsh. They could not read or pronounce Welsh town-, street- and place-names. At the end of the 19th century quite everyone in the south of Wales spoke English[19].

Again the Welsh language was forbidden, but this time only at school. Children in North and South Wales who spoke Welsh at school had to stand in a corner wearing a small piece of wood with the letters “W N” until an other pupil spoke Welsh. This measure was called the “Welsh Not” [20].

English was about to become the world’s language. It seemed that there was no more need to learn Welsh and that those who spoke English had better chances in their lives.

The Welsh saw that there were more and more parts in their daily life, where they had to use English, mainly at work. But fortunately there remained parts where they could talk through the medium of Welsh, e.g. at home.

By the invention of the radio and the movies the spoken English language replaced the Welsh and English became the main language of Wales. In 1927 only one Irish radio broadcast in Welsh[21]. A little time there had not been any more Welsh magazines or papers.

The percentage number of Welsh speakers decreased, because the number of the English speaking Welsh men grew fast.

There were people born and grown up in Wales speaking the Welsh language. These people were Welsh. But now there existed another group of Welsh people, born and grown up in Wales, too, but they could not speak any Welsh. Both groups were Welsh, had the Welsh culture but different languages.

The coalmines who attracted many foreigners became a danger for the Welsh language but for Wales and its inhabitants they brought progress. Now there were many Welsh men who had well-paid work and lots of them spoke the Welsh language. These people and every one else living in Wales led quite a good life until in 1930 an economical crises caused high unemployment[22].

 

During the World Wars the Welsh people had to suffer like anyone else in Great Britain. Thousands of Welsh soldiers died in the north of France. About 50 per cent of these soldiers were Welsh speaking.

Hard times followed and Welsh parents had other things to do than teaching Welsh to their children.

As the times got better, tourists from all over the world came to Wales. They brought the English language even in the small villages and inaccessible areas which had not been in touch with the English before. Even these areas with high numbers of Welsh speaking inhabitants now became English-speaking areas.

“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 the fifty years despite the large increasing population[23]”.

This situation began to change in 1962 when a new movement began. More and more younger Welsh, many of them students, made great efforts to save the Welsh language. They were successful, because in 1967 the Welsh language was given “equal validity” with English. In 1973 this became a law in the “Welsh Language Act” [24].

 

3.   About the Present and Future of the Welsh Language

Today the government wants Wales to become a bilingual country. That means that all Welshmen should learn Welsh and English. But there are much more people living in Wales who speak English than those who speak Welsh. My host family told me that now pupils at many schools have to learn both languages. But unfortunately, those who learn Welsh as their second language cannot speak it as fluently as those who learn English as the second one. I have heard that Welsh as second language (like every other foreign language) is only taught two hours a week. This is less than the three, four or even five hours a week that foreign languages are taught in Germany.

 

Since 1967 beside English Welsh is official language. So Wales is a country with two languages. But even today there are too many adult Welsh people who cannot speak through the medium of Welsh. This also causes problems to the economy. It is to be feared that big companies will not expend to Wales, if there is an historical, but “world-wide unimportant” language spoken. Microsoft Word for example has no Welsh spelling and grammar test.

 

In 2001 only about 20 per cent of the Welsh population were able to speak the Welsh language[25]. The director of Nant Gwrtheyrn[26] told me “that the number of the Welsh speakers is like a parable and that the lowest part is passed”. He said that there are now sufficient needs and opportunities to speak or hear through the medium of Welsh. He also told me that now there are many places were interested people can learn Welsh.

Children are going to learn Welsh at school. In 1990/91 the Welsh school system was completely reformed by a law that is called “National Curriculum”[27]. By that the number of Welsh speaking pupils has increased. About twelve per cent learn Welsh as the first language, about 68 per cent learn it as the second language. But there are still about 20 per cent who do not learn Welsh at all.

 

I was able to visit a project of the government in which the Welsh language was taught to a group of twelve pupils at the age of about eleven. These pupils had not learned Welsh at home or at primary school. They were too young to visit an evening course.

This project was a six-week-lasting try. The lessons were taught bilingually. The aim of this project was to teach those pupils the basics of the Welsh language during these six weeks. But the Welsh language was not the only subject taught there. Every other subject had to be taught, so that the pupils could return into their old classes after this project had finished.

The leading teacher was confident that this try would end successfully.

In the case of success, next school year more of these classes will be founded. Then there will be courses for pupils of every age. There will be 16 pupils and three teachers per class.

 

Evening courses are offered for adults.

Mr Aled Jones-Griffith, director of Nant Gwrtheyrn, told me that today there are mainly three reasons for adults to learn the Welsh language.

·        The first reason is that the learners want to fit into their environment. These are often people who have moved from a place where the English or another language is dominating to a place where their new neighbours speak Welsh. These people learn the Welsh language voluntarily.

·        The second group of adults are those who think that they will have a better chance to get a job if they are able to speak the Welsh language. Some of them are volunteers others are not.

·        The third group are adults who were told by their bosses that they are going to lose their jobs, if they do not learn the Welsh language.

 

4.   Nant Gwrtheyrn

The Welsh government started lots of projects and plans to increase the number of the Welsh speakers. But one of the most successful projects was not initialized by the Welsh government itself, but by a private Welshman.

Dr Carl Iwan Clowes founded “Nant Gwrtheyrn” in 1978. He bought an old miners’ village that had been deserted for a long time. “26 houses without any windows, floors or electricity, no water, or sewerage system”[28]. And “there was no easy road access either.”[29] But there was and there still is a beautiful landscape.

Dr Clowes had the dream of a Welsh country, where the Welsh language is dominating. But in these times only a few of the Welsh adults talked through the medium of Welsh.

He had to restore the village and its chapel. Then investors who had the money needed, were to be found. A great number of companies on national level showed their interest and plenty of money was sponsored. Dr Clowes’ project also created many new workplaces in an area with great unemployment.

The first course held in the “Nant” was in 1982. The lessons were accompanied by the loud noise and smell of a diesel generator that produced electricity and heated the few already restored houses[30].

Now 25 years later this is the opportunity for people who want to learn the Welsh language in a very intensively way and a short time. Up to 65 people can live in 26 houses. The Nant has its own library, living rooms, classrooms and a restaurant.

The main aim of “Nant Gwrtheyrn” was and still is teaching the Welsh language to adults. But there are also other courses offered, e.g. about the Welsh culture.

In the chapel it is even possible to marry.

During these 25 years over 25,000 people have come to Nant Gwertheyrn to learn the Welsh language or to improve their Welsh. The “Nant” is the only “school” in Wales and probably in the whole world where you can stay while learning the Welsh language.

 

5.   A Brief Welsh Language Guide

The spelling of the Welsh language follows rules. There is only a little number of exceptions. So people who know the rules can read and pronounce the Welsh language without many difficulties. There are not as many inconsistencies and exceptions as in the English language. For example in Welsh words every letter is pronounced.[31]

 

The Welsh language uses its own alphabet. It consists of 28 letters:

“A;B;C;Ch;D;Dd;E;F;Ff;G;Ng;H;U;L;Ll;M;N;O;P;Ph;R;Rh;S;T;Th;U;W;Y”

Eight of them are double letters.

 

There are seven vowels:

“A;E;I;U;O;W;Y”

 

There are also some letters which appear in the English alphabet but not in the Welsh one:

“J;K;Q;V;X;Z“

These letters are used in English words if there is need as in John or zoo.

Further information about the spelling of the Welsh letters and examples of often used Welsh expressions look up in the appendix.

 

6.   Finish

In this essay I have tried to give a short overview of the development of the Welsh history and language. The roots can be followed from 500 BC.

As we see, the Welsh language has passed a very difficult time in the last centuries. Wars, catastrophes, the Saxon’s influence and later English language have nearly killed one of the oldest languages in the world. Without its own Welsh language, the Welsh identity and culture would have died.

But fortunately during the last years the leading Welsh politicians and artists made great efforts to change this situation. The British government has no longer refused these movements. Lots of things are done to increase the popularity of the Welsh language.

For people who want to live and work in Wales it gets more and more important to learn and speak the Welsh language. Welsh speakers have better chances to get a job and to get along in society easier.

Talks to my host family and finally my stay at the “Nant” have convinced me that there is a big chance for the Welsh language to survive.


7.   Appendix

7.1.        Welsh Language Guide[32]

7.1.1.   The Vowels

“A” as in man

“O” as in lot or moe.

“E” as in bet or echo.
”U” as in pita:

“I” as in pin or queen
”W” as in Zoo or bus.

“Y” has two distinct sounds: the final sound in happy or the vowel sound in myrrh
All the vowels can be lengthened by the addition of a circumflex (ä), known in Welsh as "to bach" (little roof).

 

7.1.2.   The Diphthongs

“Ae”, “Ai” and “Au” are pronounced as English eye.

“Eu” and “Ei” are pronounced the same way as the English ay in pray.

“Ew” is more difficult to describe. It might be pronounced 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).

“I'w” and “Y'w” sound almost identical to the English "Ee-you." or "Yew" or "You".

“Oe” is similar to the English Oy or Oi.

“Ow” is pronounced as in the English tow, or low.

“Wy” as in English wi in win or oo-ee.

“Ywy” is pronounced as in English Howie.

“Aw” as in the English cow.

 

7.1.3.   The Consonants

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.

“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.

“Dd” is pronounced like the English th in the words seethe or them.

“Th” is like the English th in words such as think, forth, thank.

“F” as in the English V.

“Ff” as in the English f

“G” always as in English goat, gore.

“Ng” as in English finger or Long Island. Ng usually occurs with an h following as a mutation of c.

“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  The nearest you can get to this sound in English is to pronounce it as an l with a th in front of it.

“Rh” sounds as if the h come before the r. There is a slight blowing out of air before the r is pronounced.

 

7.2.        Practice[33]

Read the following text that is written by using the Welsh alphabet:

“Gwd lwc. Ai hop ddat yw can ryd ddys and ddat yt meiks sens tw yw. Iff yw can ryd ddys, dden yw ar dwing ffaen and wil haf no problems at ol yn lyrnyng awr ffaen Welsh alffabet.”

“Good luck. I hope that you can read this, and that it makes sense to you. If you can read this, then you are doing fine and will have no problems at all in learning our fine Welsh alphabet.”

 

7.3.        Common Welsh Greetings[34]

Bore da

Good morning

Dydd da

Good day

Prynhawn da

Good afternoon

Noswaith da

Good evening

Nos da

Good night

Sut mac?

How are you?

Hwyl

Cheers

Diolch

Thanks

Diolch un fawr iawn

Thank you very much

Croeso

Welcome

Croeso l Gymru

Welome to Wales

Da

Good

Da iawn

Very good

 



[1] www.britannia.com/celtic/wales/language.html

[2] http://www.lpb.bwue.de/aktuell/due/34_97/

[3] Huw Edwards, The Story of Welsh with Huw Edwards, Cardiff CF52YQ

[4] www.britania.com/celtic/wales/eightwonder/

[5] Huw Edwards, The Story of Welsh with Huw Edwards, Cardiff CF52YQ

[6] Huw Edwards, The Story of Welsh with Huw Edwards, Cardiff CF52YQ

[7] www.britania.com/celtic/wales/eightwonder/

[8] Huw Edwards, The Story of Welsh with Huw Edwards, Cardiff CF52YQ

[9] http://www.lpb.bwue.de/aktuell/due/34_97/

[10] http://www.lpb.bwue.de/aktuell/due/34_97/

[11] Huw Edwards, The Story of Welsh with Huw Edwards, Cardiff CF52YQ

[12] Huw Edwards, The Story of Welsh with Huw Edwards, Cardiff CF52YQ

[13] http://www.lpb.bwue.de/aktuell/due/34_97/

[14] www.britania.com/celtic/wales/eightwonder/

[15] www.britania.com/celtic/wales/eightwonder/

[16] http://www.lpb.bwue.de/aktuell/due/34_97/

[17] http://www.lpb.bwue.de/aktuell/due/34_97/

[18] Huw Edwards, The Story of Welsh with Huw Edwards, Cardiff CF52YQ

[19] www.britania.com/celtic/wales/eightwonder/

[20] Huw Edwards, The Story of Welsh with Huw Edwards, Cardiff CF52YQ

[21] www.britania.com/celtic/wales/eightwonder/

[22] Huw Edwards, The Story of Welsh with Huw Edwards, Cardiff CF52YQ

[23] www.britania.com/celtic/wales/eightwonder/wonder9.html

[24] www.britania.com/celtic/wales/eightwonder/wonder9.html

[25] Cornelsen, What’s New, 14328 Berlin, issue spring/summer 2004.

[26] look at chapter 4

[27] http://www.lpb.bwue.de/aktuell/due/34_97/

[28] Nant Gwrtheyrn 25 mlynedd p2

[29] Nant Gwrtheyrn 25 mlynedd p2

[30] Nant Gwrtheyrn 25 mlynedd

[31] http://britannia.com/celtic/wales/language.html

[32] http://britannia.com/celtic/wales/language.html

[33] http://britannia.com/celtic/wales/language.html

[34] http://www.lpb.bwue.de/aktuell/due/34_97/