Languages of the British Isles – Welsh

By , October 17, 2010 1:39 am

Local tongues

Although by far the most common language spoken in the British Isles is, and has been for many centuries, English, there are other local languages, too.

Some are living languages, such as Welsh and Gaelic, others are extinct, such as Manx and Cumbric.

The most widely-spoken of these today is Welsh, spoken mainly in Wales, and also on the boundary with England. “Welsh” is the name in English – the name of the language in Welsh is “Cymraeg”.

The word “Welsh” came from the Anglo-Saxon for “foreign speakers”.

Percentage of people in each Welsh county who are Welsh-speaking

Percentage of people in each Welsh county who are Welsh-speaking

There is a Welsh Language Board, called Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg, whose website can be found here.

This is the first in a series of articles looking at local tongues spoken in the British Isles.

This post will look at the current number of speakers, where they live, how the language is used, and what type of language and linguistic family Welsh belongs to.

Welsh is the Celtic language I am most familiar with; my family today has a Welsh surname and a scattering of Welsh first names.

My great-grandparents on my father’s side were native Welsh speaking, but left north Wales for Liverpool, as many Welsh people did at the end of the 19th century.

A Celtic Language

Welsh evolved from the Celtic language known now as Brythonic or British, a language which was probably first spoken in the British Isles in the Iron Age.

Celtic languages are usually divided into two sets, P-Celtic and Q-Celtic, and British (and therefore Welsh) is P-Celtic, along with Cornish, Breton, Gaulish and Pictish.

A page from the Early Welsh poetry, the Book of Taliesin

A page from the Early Welsh poetry, the Book of Taliesin

Irish and Scottish Galic, Manx and Celtiberian (spoken in what is now Spain) are Q-type Celtic languages.

A Brief History of Welsh

During the Iron Age and Roman Period, British or Brythonic was probably spoken in most of what is now England and Wales, and probably a lot of Scotland and Ireland, too.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the gradual invasions of Saxons, Danes, Vikings, and other tribes from the east, British speakers became isolated in patches of the British Isles.

The common British tongue slowly separated into separate languages over time; the precise difference between a dialect of British and a new language being open to interpretation.

Gerald of Wales, a 12th century cleric and chronicle writer, who wrote extensively about Wales

Gerald of Wales, a 12th century cleric and chronicle writer, who wrote extensively about Wales

By about 600AD, Welsh was probably already well distinct from Cornish and Breton, although the language across Cumbria and southern Scotland was probably still very similar to what was spoken in Wales.

“Old Welsh”, from about the 7th / 8th to the 11th centuries, was a written language, in Wales and Cumbria. Poetry and prose survives in Welsh from this time.

Middle Welsh, from the 12th to 15th centuries, bequeathed a lot of writing that can be read today.

A modern Welsh speaker can generally get the gist of it, although there have been changes. It’s apparently quite similar to the difference between Chaucerian and modern English.

Early modern Welsh was established at about the time that William Morgan, the Bishop of Llanduff, translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Welsh, in 1588.

The first Welsh dictionaries and grammar books date from the 19th century.


Welsh speakers today

Welsh is a thriving, living language. Children living in Wales learn the language up to the age of 16, and there are Welsh-medium state schools. About 20% of primary schools are Welsh medium, but only two secondary schools.

William Morgan, Bishop of Llandaff and Bishop of St. Asaph, who translated the Bible into Welsh in the late 16th century

William Morgan, Bishop of Llandaff and Bishop of St. Asaph, who translated the Bible into Welsh in the late 16th century

The most detailed recent report is the 2004 Welsh Language Use Survey, which looked in detail at the use of Welsh, levels of fluency, ages of speakers, business and public use, education, and literacy.

The survey found that 21.7% of the population in Wales spoke Welsh, and of those, 57% were fluent speakers. That meant that there were 611,000 Welsh speakers, of whom 315,000 were fluent. 88% of them spoke Welsh daily.

58% of speakers could write Welsh very well, and another 31% could write it well.

Welsh speakers are found more in the west than the east, and more in the north than the south. Therefore, not surprisingly, the heaviest concentration of Welsh speakers is in the north-west, in Angelsey (Ynys Môn in Welsh) and Gwynedd.

Welsh is a growing language – 37% of 3 to 15 year olds are Welsh speaking, 22% of 16 to 29 year old speak Welsh, but only 16% of those in their 40s and 50s are Welsh speakers, and 19% of those over 65 are Welsh speaking.

There is also a small group of Welsh-speaking Argentines, descendants of settlers in the 19th century, who set up a Welsh colony in Patagonia. There are an estimated 5,000 Welsh speakers there today.

Welsh media and publications

By law, the public sector must produce much of its material in both Welsh and English. For example, if you visit the main Home Office website here, you will find a button at the bottom right which says Cymraeg and gives you the Welsh translation.

Road signs, banks and major shops all tend to have signs in both languages, too.

There is a Welsh-only television station, S4C, whose (English language) page can be found here. The BBC produces some television programmes in Welsh, too.

The BBC has a Welsh radio station, Radio Cymru, and there are about 10 other radio stations that broadcast partly or mostly in Welsh.

To hear Welsh, spoken over pictures of Wales, see this youtube video: Spoken Welsh

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