The Welsh language is the native language of Wales, where it is spoken by approximately half a million people.
Despite centuries of oppression by the English language, the Welsh peoples have continued to sustain a sense of Welsh identity and to revitalize their language. The Welsh language (known as Cymraeg in Welsh) also has one of the oldest and most colorful literary traditions of all the European languages, dating back as far as the 6th century.
Classification and Early History of the Welsh Language
The Welsh language is a member of the Celtic language group, a subfamily of the Indo-European language family.
The Celtic subfamily is divided into a Continental and Insular group, the Continental group now being extinct. The Insular group is split into the Brythonic (British) and Goidelic (Gaelic) divisions. The Welsh language belongs to the Brythonic division, along with the Breton and Cornish languages.
The Celts were a dominant tribe in Central and Western Europe throughout the first millennium BC, and it is believed that at one time Celtic languages dominated these areas of Europe. Although Latin largely came to replace Celtic languages, they continued to survive on the British Isles.
Early Welsh Literary Tradition
Despite long-standing threats from the English language, the Welsh language has one of the richest literary traditions in Europe.
The earliest examples of written Welsh date back to the 9th century. Due to the fact that a significant amount of this literature deals with the “Old North,” many scholars believe that these manuscripts were actually written in North Britain (present-day Scotland) as far back as the 6th century.
From Old Welsh to the Middle Welsh Language
Middle Welsh dates from approximately 1150 to 1500, following the Old Welsh period, which ran from circa 800 to 1150. The Middle Welsh period produced a rich collection of medieval literatures, both poetry and prose. A number of important manuscripts dating from the 12th and 14th centuries are preserved today.
The English threat to the Welsh language began as far back as the Anglo-Norman period beginning in the 11th century. Ever since the advent of Anglo-Norman rule, the English language has continued to hold a protected and privileged position of official status in Wales, a tradition that continues to this day.
The Reformation: Religion and Development of the Modern Welsh Language
The Reformation and the advent of the printing press both played enormous roles in the development and preservation of modern Welsh, which dates from circa 1500. The literary modern Welsh language was standardized largely thanks to a Welsh Bible translation completed by William Salesbury in 1588. This more dignified standard of “literary” Welsh came to take precedence over the various spoken forms of the language.
From this point on, the Welsh language found a stronghold in religion as religious texts came to dominate Welsh language publications. Today, this literary form of the Welsh language continues to exist along with a number of varied spoken dialects.
Development of Welsh Nationalism
In 1870, the British Parliament established a universal education system but failed to address the need for a Welsh language schooling system. Consequently, this act served to strengthen identification of the Welsh language with a Welsh national identity. It was also seen by many as a threatening sign for the future of the Welsh language.
In response, Welsh nationalist resistance movements began to gain support, campaigning for Welsh language rights as well as the local autonomy of Wales. From 1886 to 1896, members of the Young Wales movement (Cymru Fydd in Welsh) campaigned for the right to Welsh self-government.
In 1925, Welsh nationalists formed the Plaid Cymru political party; however, this failed to gain popular support. Not until after World War II did the party first win seats in local government elections. The first Plaid Cymru party member entered Parliament in 1966.
Establishment of the Welsh Language Society
Resistance movements geared toward Welsh language support were reinvigorated in the 1960s in the face of an increased English language threat due to the growing popularity of English-language television.
Established in the 1960s, the Welsh Language Society (Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg in Welsh) became one of the leading organizations campaigning for Welsh language rights. Thanks to the organization’s work, Wales has seen an increased use of the Welsh language in its school systems, the introduction of Welsh road signs, and a growth of Welsh language radio and television broadcasting throughout the country.
The Welsh Language Act of 1993
The Welsh Language Act of 1993 established further progress in the battle for Welsh Language Rights. It declared that government bodies in the United Kingdom treat the English and Welsh language equally when transacting government and court business.
The Welsh Language Act also enhanced the status of Welsh-language public television broadcasting. The television channel Sianel Pedwar Cymru, launched in 1982, is a notable example. Still broadcasting today, it is aimed specifically at Welsh language audiences and is broadcast in both Wales and the UK.
The Welsh Language Today
The Welsh language continues to exist today, being spoken by an estimated half million people in Wales. It now coexists with English in most parts of Wales, and most Welsh speakers also speak English. A number of dialects exist, almost all of which have deviated significantly from the standard literary Welsh.
In fact, most modern Welsh speakers have difficulty writing or comprehending traditional written Welsh. There has of yet been no resolution concerning the establishment of an acceptable modern Standard Welsh literary language.
Welsh Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: CYMRAEG
Language Family: Indo-European, Celtic, Insular, Brythonic.
Spoken by Approximately 580,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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