Is the Welsh language dead?

Consider this quote:

“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

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13 thoughts on “Is the Welsh language dead?

  1. Yes, like you said…with the right people in charge. That is the problem. Currently those in charge are not doing enough. The Welsh language is not being adequately promoted. In my opinion there is not enough support for the Welsh speakers in Wales, and those fighting for the Welsh language. One even wonders whether they themselves are truly committed to the fight to keep the Welsh language. The Welsh Assembly government have to date inspired nothing more than a culture of funding for Wales. That is what we have become. Poor old Wales needs funding and everyone who is supposed to be working for Wales appears obsessed with it. The fact is people are just greedy and selfish – and of course corrupt. The funding that was made available for Wales and the Welsh language was spent translating everything and the costs that come along with that were too great and made no sense. That money was not spent strategically although with perspective and considering whether the money actually went I am sure one will see the real strategy. Anyway, it appears as if the budget was there just to be spent, and for departments were creative in how they spent it.,but in terms of promoting this dying language – it had a blast of promotion at the start of the Millennium but that was it. I remember a Barclays Bank report that discussed the Welsh language and how all those surveyed and considered to be up in arms about wanting and needing the ATM’s to have the option of carrying out their transaction in Welsh. The investigation alongside that survey showed that all using the ATM’s and those Welsh speakers also filling out the paperwork, conducted their business English. That in itself makes a mockery of the Welsh language.

  2. Not too long ago, both Irish and Scottish Gaelic was in serious decline and nearly went extinct.Thanks to the department of education stepping in in the UK and Ireland, making Gaelic study mandatory all through grade school, both dialects are making a huge come back and something like 90% of Scots and Irish under 20, according to one source I read, are speaking Gaelic over English to their peers. When I was in Ireland last summer it definitely seemed true since everyone in our generation was speaking Gaelic.

  3. What an absolutely load of ‘cachy!!!’ I’ve never been prouder of being a Welsh speaker…or indeed the impact having a Welsh medium play group (Cylch Cylch Meithrin Llanilltud Fawr & (Ysgol Gymraeg Dewi Sant) as a primary school

    Welsh AND English speaking parents are benefiting from their children not only learning their national language…but broadening their minds to further learning and a wider range of job prospects in the future! I wholeheartedly disagree that ‘the Welsh language is dead’!!!

    • @delirioustudios – interesting comment. Out of curiosity, could you tell me how you got on at school/university? And how successful you are career/business wise? In my experience, people who fail to understand why a language is important tend to fail to understand many other things too.

      • Sorry it is a while since this was written, but I have just stumbled upon this article and thought, as I agree with deliriousstudios, I would respond.

        I am 29 and from Pembrokeshire (born and raised), now living in Cardiff. I have a first class BA (Hons.) (Economics) (1st class) and MBA (distinction) from Cardiff University. I have a well paid job in financial services. I therefore do not believe I am a failure who cannot understand such things.

        My problem with Welsh is that it is heavily forced upon people who have much greater concerns in life. It is a minority pursuit that is forced to override – and often impede – the majority. S4C is obscenely expensive and – check the viewing figures – literally no one watches it. With Welsh going first on signs etc, roads and documents are made hideously complicated and often dangerous.

        Welsh is rammed down peoples throats and yet still it is in steep decline; sometimes you have to accept that you are flogging a dead horse. You have simply not got the people’s hearts and minds. Support for Welsh is tepid at best. i.e. If you ask people: ‘should Welsh be supported?’ you get a big yes; if you ask: how important this is in relation to other things of government, it comes rank bottom. See, that is tepid support.

        My real problem, however, is the divisive and excluding effect the language has on people. I want my children to be able and willing to communicate with everyone – black, white, straight, gay, eccentric et al. Alas, Welsh impedes this. It creates a cabal of 10% of the population who are in the club and 90% who are not. If they communicate with their friends in Welsh, those who don’t speak it will be excluded; all their friends will speak English, so this problem is thus negated. That is why most kids don’t bother – they want to have lots of friends.

        To be more impartial, I do think this is the real reason the language is having existential problems. If just one person in a group speaks English only (which, clearly, is very likely), it is de facto certain that everyone in that conversation would need to revert to English to accommodate. Over time, people use Welsh less and less often, as it has less impact on their lives. This in the long run will make Welsh increasing non-viable.

  4. Unfortunately Welsh is dying out, mainly because Welsh speakers don’t use it. Others may try to learn it but if the core Welsh speaking population aren’t bothered then there’s little hope.

  5. “as a result of the mass movement of people caused by the industrial revolution,” not entirely true – there was a more concerted effort – see the blue books and other systematic ways the language was eroded – cleverly and horribly!

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