“For all practical purposes Welsh is a dead language.”
This quote appeared in the Times newspaper, a reputable source of information. You may well believe it to be the case. After all, it’s common knowledge that the Welsh language is either dead, or dying.
Now consider the fact that the above quote was written in 1866.
Yes, 1866 – that’s 145 years ago!
To paraphrase and misquote Mark Twain (I’m sure he won’t mind): “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
But the danger facing the Welsh language isn’t a total myth. UNESCO considers the language to be ‘vulnerable’. It is indeed endangered, mostly because of the situation in which it finds itself – sharing a small island with the birthplace of the present global lingua franca, English.
And at first glance the statistics do suggest a steep decline. At the turn of the 19th century pretty much everyone in Wales spoke Welsh. By the start of the 20th century, as a result of the mass movement of people caused by the industrial revolution, around 50% of the population spoke the language. Now about 20% do.
However what these figures don’t take into account is the numbers of people speaking the language. It’s worth remembering that because of the huge rise in population in Wales over the last two centuries, the numbers of Welsh speakers hasn’t fallen that dramatically even as the percentage relative to the rest of the population has declined.
Despite the supposed ‘death’ of the language alluded to in the Times above, there were just over a million Welsh speakers in Wales at the turn on the 20th century – more than ever before in the history of the language. As the historian Ieuan Gwynedd Jones (1992: 56) states: “One simple but very important fact is that there were more people who could speak Welsh in 1901 than in 1801.”
In the present day there are some 600,000 Welsh speakers. So even as the percentage of Welsh speakers relative to the rest of the population has fallen, there are still more actual speakers of Welsh today than at almost any point in the 2000 year plus history of the language.
For the first time in centuries, the Welsh language is being promoted rather than actively discouraged. The most recent 2011 census showed that 42.2% of people between 10-14 years of age in Wales could speak Welsh. That’s a higher percentage of people of that age than could speak it during the 1911 census (39.7%) – over 100 years ago.
This has given rise to hopes that the percentage of speakers has at least stabilised, and could yet rise quickly in future.
The challenge for the language now is to ensure that all these young people – almost half their population – who do speak Welsh, keep hold of the language after leaving high school. It’s a matter of making it relevant to their lives. The Welsh language cannot be allowed to become a set of dusty china that is taken out on important occasions only. Lots of people being able to speak it isn’t enough – it needs to continue to be a living, community language.
In summary, then, if the Welsh language is ‘dead’, then, it’s ‘dead’ in the same way Welsh rugby was ‘dead’ after the 2007 Rugby World Cup – i.e. in a bit of a wobbly patch, but with the right people in charge, great things could yet happen.
Over 145 years since the Times declared it dead – this language isn’t going anywhere!
Ifan Morgan Jones