The Welsh Language

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Cymraeg (Welsh) is the oldest language in the British Isles that evolved from an Indo-European language.  It is truly amazing that the Welsh language has survived after hundreds of years of support for its banishment.

Before the 16th century, most of the people of Wales spoke only Welsh.  When Henry the VIII enacted the Act of Union in 1536-1542, which incorporated Wales into England, he also banned Welsh speakers from public office and declared English the official language of Wales.

A number of events worked in Wales’ favor to keep their language alive: the translation of the Bible into Welsh by William Morgan in 1588; low emigration numbers from the country; and the absence of a military draft before WW1.  Prior to WW1 there were 977,000 Welsh speakers in Wales, representing 43.5% of the population.  This in spite of 19th century practices in schools where Welsh children were required to wear a piece of wood inscribed with WN (Welsh Not) when they were overheard speaking Welsh during the school day.  The WN sign would be hung around the neck and that child could pass it on to another child caught speaking Welsh.  At the end of the day, the last person wearing the symbol would be punished. Welsh children were told that English was considered the best language for instruction.

By the 1950s the Welsh language was in demise, decreasing to 504,000 speakers by 1981 (Jones, H. M., 2013.)  In the 1960s the government replaced Welsh road signs with English substitutes.  Protest broke out around the country with acts of civil disobedience by members of Plaid Cymru (Welsh National Party) who painted over the English signs with green paint.

But by 1967 the government created a Welsh office that would place the Welsh language on par with English, and the Welsh signage was returned. The Welsh Language Act was also passed in 1967, ensuring that anyone in a court of law in Wales could be represented in Welsh.

In 1977 Wales also secured its own FM Radio Station, Radio Cymru, thanks to the British Broadcasting Company.  During the general election of 1979, the Labour and Conservative parties promised a Welsh Language Channel on television.  In 1980 the president of Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor Evans, went on a hunger strike, not giving in until the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher followed through.  S4C channel went on the air in November of 1982, and appointed its first female CEO, Iona Jones in 2005.


In 1998 the Government of Wales Act was passed which established a national assembly for Wales.  The Welsh Assembly started its work in 1999, and has brought autonomy to the country for the distribution of finances and education.  The education reform act in Wales was passed in 1988, and ten years later it became compulsory that all students in Wales study Welsh either as a first or second language for eleven years between the ages of five and sixteen. Welsh and English are the official languages of the National Assembly of Wales (Senedd) in Cardiff.


Hywel Roberts

National Assembly of Wales, Cardiff.

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