The Welsh Language Isn't Dead, But Your Opinion of It Is
As I love to tell people after a few Strongbow Dark Fruits, continued false claims of the Welsh language being "pointless" or "extinct" are just an extension of English teachers and tyrants quite literally beating it out of us in the past.
Photo: Keith Morris News / Alamy Stock Photo
The Welsh language isn't dead, but growing up in an English-speaking town and going to an English-speaking school in Wales can make you feel like it is. Although Welsh was made a compulsory subject up to GCSE level in 1999, the overwhelming sentiment was that it was useless. Why bother learning to speak a language that's not even the first language throughout most of its country of origin?
Despite this commonly held teenage attitude, recent reports state that 25 percent of the population currently speak Welsh fluently; Welsh language and bilingual dramas are pulling in huge audiences on English language channels; and Cardiff-born experimental pop artist Gwenno – who has released albums in both Welsh and Cornish – was shortlisted for this year's Mercury Prize. So why is the news on Welsh language largely negative, with employers and journalists regularly declaring the language dead?
For years, I assumed the loss of the Welsh language was due to migration. English, Irish and even Europeans moved en masse to my town of Mountain Ash, and those like it, to get work in the coal mines. The truth is a lot less about a glorious melting pot of culture and more about the forced suppression of the original Welsh culture found in our mining towns and beyond. The loss of the Welsh language is, as I like to yell about to people when I'm pissed, primarily due to the English quite literally beating it out of us.
In 1847, a parliamentary review declared the Welsh people, the Welsh language and, in particular, Welsh education to be "poor" and "immoral", starting a change in attitudes as to whether the Welsh language should be taught or even spoken in Welsh schools. While myself and the cast of The Valleys can corroborate on Welsh people being immoral, the idea that speaking Welsh is ignorant is one that hurt the working classes who could speak only Welsh.
From this report, now known as The Treachery of the Blue Books, Welsh schools were made to not only teach English, but to only teach in English. Interestingly, this was never actually made law, but was considered "proper" by the incredibly moral Victorians – which was as good as being law at the time.
The propriety of Welsh as a language had been up in the air for centuries already at this point. Welsh was robbed of its status as a language 300 years prior, when, in 1567, Henry the Vlll's "Act of Union" removed its title of being a language.
As I love to discuss over pints of Strongbow Dark Fruits, the way English teachers and tyrants stomped out the Welsh language was by punishing children in schools who spoke it. One particularly barbaric way of doing so was the use of the Welsh Not, a piece of engraved wood passed onto any student caught speaking Welsh. In a horrible version of tag, whoever was left with the Not by the end of the day would be punished by their school teacher. As you can imagine, in the 18th and 19th centuries that punishment was a lot more painful than skipping out on lunch.
Eventually, different types of schools were formed entirely in Wales and exist to this day. In my home county of Rhondda Cynon Taff, parents decide whether they wish to send their kids to a Welsh-speaking or English-speaking school. Depending on the difference, all lessons are taught in the first language of the children attending – be that Welsh or English.
With my Horrible Histories lesson on Welsh oppression complete, it’s important to point out that these types of aggressions against Welsh language are still occurring in the mainstream. Colonial culture critic Katie Hopkins was recently seen scaring the residents of Cardiff by trying to claim that Wales is "at war over a dead language". Pop culture claims of the Welsh language being "pointless" or "extinct" implies to young people that speaking Welsh is "uncool" – probably the most condemning sentence for any counterculture trying to survive or revive itself.
This dismissal of Welsh is one that has even found its way into the Welsh-speaking schools trying to save the language. As Tori West, editor of Bricks Magazine, who hails from Caerphilly, tells me, "I went to an all Welsh-speaking school, but if I spoke it I was branded as a 'goody-two-shoes' by the popular kids, as they thought it was cooler to speak English. In my teens that really discouraged me to speak the language."
I myself remember laughing at my ex-girlfriend's insistence at using Welsh on the regular, even when her teachers weren't making her. The legacy of the Welsh Not carries on.
As an adult who has moved past the peer pressure and immaturities of high school politics, Tori is now incredibly thankful for her fluency in Welsh. "Nowadays, with people choosing to speak it, I feel like we’re embracing our national identity," she says. "We’re sticking our fingers up to the middle-class that tried to take it from us; we’re reclaiming our power." This empowerment being given to my bilingual peers is a sore point, but again, only because of the "middle class" who took it from me. By being educated on the cruel culture-robbing enacted on Wales for centuries, the passion to keep the language alive burns stronger.
For reassurance that the lacklustre attitude towards lessons in Cymraeg at my English-speaking school wasn't just an issue among me and my peers, I spoke to Harriet PD, a women's officer for Labour from Merthyr Tydfil. "At GCSE, Welsh language class became a doss class, where we would mess around a lot, because people's ignorance towards why they would want to learn or use the language was incredibly potent," Harriet laments. "At times I had this attitude, and now I deeply regret it. I am now trying to re-learn Welsh in later life."
Both Harriet and Tori find their Welsh identity something to be proud of, an emblem of themselves and their culture, and both find speaking Welsh to be integral to that. This is in part due to the history of hatred towards the language, but also fuelled by a desire to help keep the language alive – especially in families and communities where it is used as a first language. The debate of Welsh being dead should never have begun when, unlike languages such as Latin, the dialect is still used as a mode of communication and is the first tongue of many.
"It's easy [if you're from South Wales] to think that [speaking] Welsh isn't an important part of cultural life," says Harriet, about the difference between north and south Welsh culture, "but many families speak Welsh to one another and feel slighted by the easy ignorance towards the language. I make conscious efforts to realise that the Welsh language, to many, is an incredibly important part of their lives."
If Welsh is to be taken more seriously as a subject in English-speaking areas, the history of Welsh needs to be taught alongside it. Nothing riles up a Valleys kid more than beating England in the Six Nations, so let's beat them at the murder of our language too. The life left in speaking Welsh might have diminished, and it's only one group of people who can bring it back – ieuenctid Cymreig.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.