History and Development of the Welsh Language

(The following essay was written for ADF's Indo-European Language module. It has been slightly edited for this site. - G. R. Grove)

This topic could easily fill a book, but in deference to my space limits I will attempt to be concise. Like most languages, the current state of Modern Welsh reflects its history in a variety of ways. Some of these include:

a) The Roman invasion and occupation of Britain. Beginning in 43 CE, the Romans gradually took control of most of Britain with the exception of the Scottish Highlands. The invasion began in the Southeast, and gradually worked its way north and west. The last of the native tribes in what is now Wales was conquered by Agricola in 77 or 78 CE, and the Roman advance reached the Forth-Clyde isthmus by 84 CE (Smyth 4). During the next three hundred years Latin appears to have gradually replaced Insular Celtic as the chief language of the new towns and estates in the lowland zone of the east and south, but the native language persisted, especially in the highland areas of Britain (e.g. Wales, Cumbria, and the Pennines), where Roman influence was much less pervasive (Russell 8). Archaeology indicates that in some of these areas the Roman military and the surviving native cultures existed almost independently side by side, with little exchange of artifacts (Millett 30). However, especially during the early period of Roman dominance, Highland Celtic absorbed a very large number of Latin loan-words, but was not otherwise substantially affected; on the other hand, such Lowland Celtic as remained underwent significant structural changes as well (Schrijver 165-170).

b) The Anglo-Saxon invasion and settlement. Beginning in the late fourth century CE and accelerating after the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410 CE, a number of Germanic population groups arrived and settled in the east and south of Britain. To detail this migration is beyond the scope of my essay, but it seems clear that some proportion of the Romano-Celtic population of the area took refuge in the highland zone, taking their Latinized Celtic with them. The amalgamation of the two forms of Celtic produced drastic changes in the resulting hybrid language (Schrijver 172), some of which can be detected in the earliest (sixth century) Welsh poetry. The surviving Celtic speakers were forced back into the north and west, gradually being cut up into separate territories in the late sixth and seventh centuries. By then, the ones in southern Scotland and Wales were speaking Old Welsh, and producing an impressively complex and mature body of poetry, some of which survives in Y Gododdin (Jarman, Russell 8-9) and in a few of the verses attributed to the legendary bard Taliesin (Williams).

c) North versus South. It seems likely that there were always regional dialects in the lands of the Cymry (the Welsh people’s name for themselves). The mountainous nature of the country tended toward it; travel was difficult and dangerous; and until the last century many people never moved far from the place where they were born. Even today there are a number of differences between the northern and southern versions of the language; in the Middle Ages there were strong political differences as well, as the small kingdoms strove against each other and against the English. At least six major dialect regions have been delineated, with many minor subdivisions (Russell 139).In my experience, a modern Welsh-speaking Welshman can still identify the place of origin of one of his fellow countrymen by region (if not by city or town) without difficulty by accent and word choice alone.

d) The Norman Invasion. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the Normans also overran much of Wales, but subsequent rebellions soon returned control of many of the Welsh kingdoms to their native rulers. The Normans retained part of the South and some of the eastern border regions, which became the Marcher lordships. From these areas their language and culture filtered into Wales, and in return they acquired some of the early versions of the stories of King Arthur, which they later elaborated (Roberts 221).

e) The end of Welsh independence. Edward I completed the Anglo-Norman conquest of Wales in 1283. Thereafter many of the native laws and customs were suppressed, but the language continued to flourish. Welsh bardic poetry in particular reached its peak in the mid-fourteenth century with the work of Dafydd ap Gwilym. Dafydd expanded the traditional field of Celtic praise poetry to include love poetry as well, and created or made popular a number of verse forms which are still practiced today. Dafydd’s huge poetic vocabulary is clear evidence of the influx of Norman French words into his language, many of which are first attested in his work (Bromwich, Poems xix, “Dafydd ap Gwylim” 98).

f) The Acts of Union and the destruction of Welsh laws. The Acts of Union, a series of measures passed between 1536 and 1543, changed the administration and legal systems of Wales and harmonized these systems with those of England. This process did away with the use of traditional Welsh laws and Welsh language in civil cases, which had continued until then under English rule. Although the changes were not unpopular with the gentry, who derived some benefits from them, they acted against the common people, who were no longer allowed access to justice or legal office without renouncing the use of their native tongue (Carr 19-20, Davies 233-238).

g) The translation of the Bible and the creation of Literary Welsh. The translation of the Bible into Welsh by William Morgan in 1588 had far-reaching consequences for the language. Although Welsh translations had existed before, this authorized version, along with the Welsh translation of the Book of Common Prayer, had the beneficial effect of conferring official status on Welsh as a liturgical language for use in the Anglican churches, even as it was being suppressed in the law courts, which undoubtedly aided its survival against the pressure of English (Davies 242-245). At the same time the language of the Welsh Bible became the standardized language of a new Welsh literature. This artificial form of the language – Literary Welsh – served as a fertile medium for the development of that literature, but at the expense of devaluing the spoken dialects of the living language (King 3).

h) The “Treachery of the Blue Books” – suppression of a language. In the political and religious ferment of the nineteenth century, with Welsh nationalists and labor leaders contending against London-based English government, and the various branches of Nonconformism contending against Methodism and Anglicanism, the Welsh language suffered farther suppression. The “Treachery” in question refers to the infamous report of the Education Committee in 1847 regarding the abyssal provision of basic education in Wales (Davies 390-391). The solution offered by the commissioners included compulsory schooling in English of largely monoglot Welsh children. The ensuing tumult led some parties, in Wales as well as England, to actively hope and work for the extinction of the Welsh language itself (Davies 302, 392-393, 455-456). Their motives were various, and they came far too close to success. The supporters of the language had a long fight to uphold it, but their successes in the twentieth century (Davies 644-656) culminated in the establishment of Welsh medium schools and in the Welsh Language Act of 1993.

i) The Welsh Language Act – hope for the future. The Welsh Language Act of 1993 gave the Welsh language equal official status in Wales with English for the first time since the sixteenth century (legislation.gov.uk). This has led to increased use and teaching of Welsh in Wales, with the result that the decrease in the number of Welsh speakers has been halted, at least temporarily, and there is still hope for the future of the language.

This has been a long – possibly an over-long – discussion, but I hope it has helped to illustrate some of the milestones along the road which brought the Welsh language to its present condition in Wales. I can only say, with the Welsh national anthem, “O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!” – O may the Old Language endure!”

Works Cited

Bromwich, Rachel. Dafydd ap Gwilym[:] A Selection of Poems. Llandysul, Dyfed, Cymru; Gomer Press, 1982. Print.

Bromwich, Rachel. “Dafydd ap Gwilym.” Jarman, A. O. H., and Gwyilym Rees Hughes, Eds. A Guide to Welsh Literature 1282 – c. 1550 Volume II. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, U.K. 1997. Print.

Carr, A. D. “The Historical Background, 1282-1550.” Jarman, A. O. H., and Gwyilym Rees Hughes, Eds. A Guide to Welsh Literature 1282 – c. 1550 Volume II. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, U.K. 1997. Print.

Davies, John. A History of Wales. London, Penguin Books, 1993. Print.

Jarman, A. O. H. Aneirin: The Gododdin: Britain’s Oldest Heroic Poem. Llandysul, Dyfed, Cymru; Gomer Press, 1990. Print.

Millett, Martin. Roman Britain. London: B T Batsford (for English Heritage), 2005. Print.

Roberts, Brinley F. “Tales and Romances.” A Guide to Welsh Literature Volume 1. Eds. A. O. H Jarman and Gwilym Rees Hughes, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, U.K., 1992. Print.

Schrijver, Peter. “What Britons Spoke around 400 AD.” Britons in Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Higham, N. J. Woodbridge; Suffolk, UK, and Rochester, NY, USA; 2007. Print.

Smyth, Alfred P. Warlords and Holy Men[:] Scotland AD 80-1000. Ediburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984. Print.

Legislation.gov.uk. Welsh Language Act of 1993. The National Archives. Web. 27 March 27, 2012.

Williams, Sir Ifor. The Poems of Taliesin: English version. Trans. J. E. Caerwyn Williams. Dublin: Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1987. Print.

All material copyright 2012 by G. R. Grove