Welsh Is Not English: How The Welsh Language Fought Back

What do you know about the Welsh language?

When I first moved to the UK 15 years ago, I thought Welsh was dying out. I moved to England and never considered that people in the UK speak more than English. To me, the Welsh language was a relic from the past.

But did you know that people went on protest marches and even got ARRESTED to keep this language alive?

In this podcast episode, I bring you interviews with Welsh learners and teachers, sharing their own passions for this ancient language.

Where is Wales?

Wales is one of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom. It's a small part of the UK, located on the western border of England.

It covers just over 8,000 square miles (20,722 km²) - that's about the same size as Massachusetts in the USA or half the size of Switzerland. In other words, Wales is not big.

But it's certainly old. The Welsh history begins with the Celts, and just like the bigger British island, it has a whole history of invasions and territorial fighting on its record. Here is a great timeline guiding you through the last few millennia of Welsh history.

What Is Welsh Like? A Quick Introduction

In terms of the language, Welsh is what was here first. The Celts spoke a dialect that would later evolve into Welsh, so this language is now considered a treasured part of Welsh identity.

Welsh is a Celtic language in the same family as Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, and Manx. It's spoken in two dialects these days: Northern and Southern Welsh.

The Welsh alphabet is quite similar to the English one, with a few quirks:

  • The vowels of Welsh are a, e, i, o, u, w, and y
  • There are no letters j, k, q, v, w, x, and z
  • There are extra consonants, namely ff, ll, rh, and ph

The Welsh letters also mutate when you start putting words together, which means that the first letter can change in all kinds of fun ways. Apart from that though, it's quite easy to pronounce because Welsh is phonetic, meaning what you see is what you get.

Find out more about how the language works and looks on Omniglot

But let's get back to our story.

How Welsh Came Under Attack

Welsh was spoken im Wales for thousands of years. But as the nation entered a turbulent period of history in the 19th century, the MPs and lawmakers in London started to wonder "why are these Welsh folks so much trouble?"

They decided that the existence of Welsh must have something to do with it, and introduced harsh measures to start eliminating Welsh from public and school life. On the podcast, you will hear from Morfydd who remembers her mother avoiding Welsh like the plague...for a pretty good reason!

Fighting For Welsh Language Rights

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"I want to live in Welsh" - a campaign poster from the Welsh Language Society

So between the 1800s and the 1950s, the use of Welsh decreased and English became seen as the standard language for any part of the UK.

In the 1960s, the activist language group Cymdeithas Yr Iaith was founded. This group campaigned for many of the things that are now bilingual standards in Wales, such as road signs and official council letters, television, and customer service in Welsh.

Many members were arrested, asserting their willingness to go to court for language rights. And over time, this fight for language rights has led to significant changes in law and society. The Welsh language hasn't died out.

In the podcast, you'll hear from Steffan Webb who shares how Cymdeithas yr Iaith started and what they got up to. Until today, the Welsh Language Society remains an active protest movement and Steffan explained that they see a long way to go.

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Bilingual Driving Directions
in Wales

What's Next For Welsh?

The Welsh government is a devolved government, meaning they have the power to determine some of what happens in their area. But officially, Wales is still a part of the United Kingdom and they don't get to determine which languages are spoken.

The Welsh language became an official language in Wales in 2011, with the government act stating:

This means it must be treated no less favourably than English.

They decided that the existence of Welsh must have something to do with it, and introduced harsh measures to start eliminating Welsh from public and school life. On the podcast, you will hear from Morfydd who remembers her mother avoiding Welsh like the plague...for a pretty good reason!

Fighting For Welsh Language Rights

Welsh is now on Duolingo, and there is a hugely popular online course called Say Something in Welsh, focusing on enabling learners to speak everyday Welsh.

This means that there are independent Welsh learners everywhere in the world now, learning online just like me (read about my own langauge progress).

Do You Want To Give Welsh A Try?

Every Welsh learner becomes a part of this bigger story. If you're interested in trying the language for yourself, you can download my Welsh Starter Kit here and kick off with the resources that I used to start my own journey.

Before you listened to this podcast, what did you think about Wales? Did you already know this story of protesting in the streets for language rights?

Share your thoughts in the comments - I'm excited to hear from you. 

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