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The Welsh Language - Origins & Brief History

Julie Lord
The Welsh Language - Origins & Brief History

Find out about the beautiful Welsh language, where it came from and its development over time.

 If you visit Wales now you will still hear people speaking Welsh and English. There is also lots of signage using the language and some television programmes even feature Welsh voice overs. Current data shows that around 28.5% of people aged three and above can speak Welsh, which is just over 850,000 people.

 What you may not know is that the Welsh language (Cymraeg), which is native to Britain, has faced many challenges over the years threatening its very existence. There is a good reason the English names for the Welsh language, people and country (Gymraeg, y Cymry, Cymru) come from a German name for foreigners that is seen across Europe and applied in the same way. The Latin name, Volcae, is a name for the Celtic lost people. For a long time the Welsh did have to face a belittling and even downgrading of their own language, and have come close to being a lost people many times.

 Let’s take a closer look at this beautiful language and it’s history:

The Battle To Keep The Welsh Language

Nearly 30% of people in Wales can speak Welsh now, but pre-1850 nearly all Welsh people spoke the language.

At thousands of years old (nearly 4,000 potentially), Welsh is an incredibly old language, stemming from an ancient Briton Celtic language. This Celtic language was used before the Romans invaded and was widely spoken all across Europe from 600BC. It had a few different versions, and the version that caught on in Britain is Brythonic, which is the base language for Cornish, Welsh and Breton (native Brittany).

The name Brythonic actually originated from John Rhys, a Welsh Celticist. When the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain all Brythonic was split between Northern England who spoke Cumbric, South West England where Cornish was spoken, and Wales, where early Welsh was spoken.

At this time, England ruled over Wales and Welsh language was banned, meaning citizens had to speak English to get any employment or education. The industrial revolution then saw many English people move to Wales, diluting the amount of Welsh speakers further. The end of the 20th Century painted a picture of the Welsh language being near enough over for the country.

Luckily, many campaigns and action from Welsh individuals resulted in the language being saved. In the 60’s, a radio broadcast called The Fate Of The Welsh Language (Tynged Yr Iaith) was the catalyst for the Welsh Language Society (Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Cymraig) being set up. Eventually, with a lot of sit-ins and action from Welsh individuals, the language was given equal status with th English language. Support for the language strengthened and to current day, it is taught in Welsh schools and many Welsh children speak it as their first language and there are many successful Welsh voice-over artists working for professional agencies such as Matinee.

 Interestingly, Welsh is also spoken in areas of Patagonia. This is because around 150 years ago Welsh people travelled to colonise South America and those colonies survived in small parts of the country, including Chubut. Keeping their native language alive, the schools setup in Chubut teach Welsh and Spanish.

“Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon.” - A nation without language, is a nation without heart

Understanding some of the difficulties Wales has had keeping its language, with much of those issues coming from English government, it isn’t hard to see why there’s still a strong rivalry between the nations. Luckily, this beautiful language still very much exists in Wales.

Next time you’re there to visit the stunning beaches, castles or National Parks in the country of Wales, take a moment to appreciate their rich language, after all, many times it has nearly ceased to exist at all.

Julie Lord
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