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Welsh evolved from British, the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Britons. Alternatively classified as Insular Celtic or P-Celtic, it probably arrived in Britain during the Bronze Age or Iron Age and was probably spoken throughout the island south of the Firth of Forth. During the Early Middle Ages the British language began to fragment due to increased dialect differentiation, evolving into Welsh and the other Brythonic languages (Breton, Cornish, and the extinct Cumbric). It is not clear when Welsh became distinct.
Kenneth H. Jackson suggested that the evolution in syllabic structure and sound pattern was complete by around 550, and labeled the period between then and about 800 "Primitive Welsh". This Primitive Welsh may have been spoken in both Wales and the Hen Ogledd ("Old North"), the Brythonic-speaking areas of what is now northern England and southern Scotland, and therefore been the ancestor of Cumbric as well as Welsh. Jackson, however, believed that the two varieties were already distinct by that time. The earliest Welsh poetry – that attributed to the Cynfeirdd or "Early Poets" – is generally considered to date to the Primitive Welsh period. However, much of this poetry was supposedly composed in the Hen Ogledd, raising further questions about the dating of the material and language in which it was originally composed.
The next main period, somewhat better attested, is Old Welsh (Hen Gymraeg, 9th to 11th centuries); poetry from both Wales and Scotland has been preserved in this form of the language. As Germanic and Gaelic colonisation of Great Britain proceeded, the Brythonic speakers in Wales were split off from those in northern England, speaking Cumbric, and those in the south-west, speaking what would become Cornish, and so the languages diverged. Both the Poetry of Aneirin (Canu Aneirin, c. AD 600) and the Poetry, or Book, of Taliesin (Canu Taliesin) were in this era.
Middle Welsh (Cymraeg Canol) is the label attached to the Welsh of the 12th to 14th centuries, of which much more remains than for any earlier period. This is the language of nearly all surviving early manuscripts of the Mabinogion, although the tales themselves are certainly much older. It is also the language of the existing Welsh law manuscripts. Middle Welsh is reasonably intelligible, albeit with some work, to a modern-day Welsh speaker.
The famous cleric Gerald of Wales tells a story of King Henry II of England. During one of the King's many raids in the 12th century, Henry asked an old man of Pencader, Carmarthenshire, whether he thought the Welsh language had any chance:
Modern Welsh can be divided into two periods. The first, Early Modern Welsh ran from the early 15th century to roughly the end of the 16th century and was the language used by Dafydd ap Gwilym.
Late Modern Welsh began with the publication of William Morgan's translation of the Bible in 1588. Like its English counterpart, the King James Version, this proved to have a strong stabilizing effect on the language, and indeed the language today still bears the same Late Modern label as Morgan's language. Of course, many changes have occurred since then.
The language enjoyed a further boost in the 19th century, with the publication of some of the first complete and concise Welsh dictionaries. Early work by Welsh lexicographic pioneers such as Daniel Silvan Evans ensured that the language was documented as accurately as possible. Modern dictionaries such as the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (the University of Wales Dictionary), are direct descendants of these dictionaries.
The influx of English workers during the Industrial Revolution in Wales from about 1800 led to a substantial dilution of the Welsh-speaking population of Wales. English migrants seldom learnt Welsh and their Welsh colleagues tended to speak English in mixed Welsh–English contexts. So bilingualism became almost universal. The legal status of Welsh was inferior to that of English, and so English gradually came to prevail, except in the most rural areas, particularly in north west and mid Wales. An important exception, however, was in the non-conformist churches, which were strongly associated with the Welsh language.
By the 20th century, the numbers of Welsh speakers were shrinking at a rate which suggested that the language would be extinct within a few generations.
According to the 1911 census, out of a population of just under 2.5 million, 43.5% of those aged three years and upwards in Wales and Monmouthshire spoke Welsh (8.5% monoglot Welsh speakers, 35% bilingual in English and Welsh). This was a decrease from the 1891 census with 49.9% speaking Welsh out of a population of 1.5 million (15.1% monoglot, 34.8% bilingual).
Concern for the Welsh language was ignited in 1936 when the UK government decided to build an RAF training camp and aerodrome at Penyberth on the Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynedd. The events surrounding the protest became known as Tân yn Llŷn (Fire in Llŷn). The UK government had settled on Llŷn as the location for this military site after plans for similar bases in Northumberland and Dorset had met with protests.
However, UK Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin refused to hear the case against basing this RAF establishment in Wales, despite a deputation claiming to represent half a million Welsh protesters. The opposition against 'British' military usage of this site in Wales was summed up by Saunders Lewis when he wrote that the UK government was intent upon turning one of the 'essential homes of Welsh culture, idiom, and literature' into a place for promoting a barbaric method of warfare.
On 8 September 1936 the building was arsoned, and Welsh nationalists Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J. Williams claimed responsibility. The trial at Caernarfon failed to reach a verdict and the case was sent to the Old Bailey in London. The "Three" were sentenced to nine months imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs, and on their release they were greeted as heroes by a crowd of 15,000 people at a pavilion in Caernarfon.
With the advent of broadcasting in Wales, Plaid Cymru protested against the lack of Welsh-language programmes in Wales and launched a campaign to withhold licence fees. Pressure was successful, and by the mid-1930s more Welsh-language programming was broadcast, with the formal establishment of a Welsh regional broadcasting channel by 1937. However, no dedicated Welsh-language television channel would be established until 1982.
According to the 1931 census, out of a population of just over 2.5 million, the percentage of Welsh speakers in Wales had dropped to 36.8%, with Anglesey recording the highest concentration of speakers at 87.4%, followed by Cardigan at 87.1%, Merionethshire at 86.1%, and Carmarthen at 82.3%. Caernarfon listed 79.2%. Radnorshire and Monmouthshire ranked lowest with a concentration of Welsh speakers less than 6% of the population.
In 1956, a private bill sponsored by Liverpool City Council was brought before the UK parliament to develop a water reservoir from the Tryweryn Valley, in Meirionnydd in Gwynedd. The development would include the flooding of Capel Celyn (Holly Chapel), a Welsh-speaking community of historic significance. Despite universal and bi-partisan objections by Welsh politicians (35 out of 36 Welsh MPs opposed the bill, and one abstained) the bill was passed in 1957. The events surrounding the flooding highlighted the status of the language in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1962 Saunders Lewis gave a radio speech entitled Tynged yr iaith (The Fate of the Language) in which he predicted the extinction of the Welsh language unless direct action was taken. Lewis was responding to the 1961 census, which showed a decrease in the number of Welsh speakers from 36% in 1931 to 26% in 1961, out of a population of about 2.5 million. Meirionnydd, Anglesey, Carmarthen, and Caernarfon averaged a 75% concentration of Welsh speakers, but the most significant decrease was in the counties of Glamorgan, Flint, and Pembroke.
Lewis' intent was to motivate Plaid Cymru to take more direct action to promote the language; however it led to the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) later that year at a Plaid Cymru summer school held in Pontardawe in Glamorgan.
With concern for the Welsh language mounting in the 1960s, the Welsh Language Act 1967 was passed, giving some legal protection for the use of Welsh in official government business. The Act was based on the Hughes Parry report, published in 1965, which advocated equal validity for Welsh in speech and in written documents, both in the courts and in public administration in Wales. However the Act did not include all the Hughes Parry report's recommendations. Prior to the Act, only the English language could be spoken at government and court proceedings.
Following the defeat of the Welsh Assembly "Yes Campaign" in 1979, and believing Welsh nationalism was "in a paralysis of helplessness", the UK Conservative Home Secretary announced in September 1979 that the government would not honour its pledge to establish a Welsh-language television channel, much to widespread anger and resentment in Wales, wrote Dr. Davies.
In early 1980 over two thousand members of Plaid Cymru pledged to go to prison rather than pay the television licence fees, and by that spring Gwynfor Evans announced his intention to go on hunger strike if a Welsh-language television channel was not established. In early September 1980, Evans addressed thousands at a gathering in which "passions ran high", according to Dr. Davies. The government yielded by 17 September, and the Welsh Fourth Channel (S4C) was launched on 2 November 1982.
The Welsh Language Act 1993 put the Welsh language on an equal footing with the English language in Wales with regard to the public sector.
The Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 had made English the only language of the law courts and other aspects of public administration in Wales. Although the Welsh Language Act 1967 had given some rights to use Welsh in court, the Welsh Language Act 1993 was the first to put Welsh on an equal basis with English in public life.
The Act set up the Welsh Language Board, answerable to the Secretary of State for Wales, with the duty to promote the use of Welsh and to ensure compliance with the other provisions. Additionally, the Act gave Welsh speakers the right to speak Welsh in court proceedings under all circumstances. The previous Act had only given limited protection to the use of Welsh in court proceedings. The Act obliges all organisations in the public sector providing services to the public in Wales to treat Welsh and English on an equal basis; however it does not compel private businesses to provide services in Welsh: that would require a further Language Act.
Some of the powers given to the Secretary of State for Wales under this Act were later devolved to the National Assembly for Wales (Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru), but others have been retained by Westminster.
In a speech at the 2000 National Eisteddfod at Llanelli, Cynog Dafis, Plaid Cymru AM, called for a new Welsh-language movement with greater powers to lobby for the Welsh language at the Assembly, UK, and EU levels. Dafis felt the needs of the language were ignored during the first year of the Assembly, and that in order to ensure the dynamic growth of the Welsh language a properly resourced strategy was needed. In his speech Dafis encouraged other Welsh-language advocacy groups to work more closely together to create a more favourable climate in which the use of Welsh was "attractive, exciting, a source of pride and a sign of strength". Additionally, Dafis pointed towards efforts in areas such as Catalonia and the Basque country as successful examples to emulate.
Lord Elis-Thomas, former Plaid Cymru president, disagreed with Dafis' assessment, however. At the Urdd Eisteddfod, Lord Elis-Thomas said that there was no need for another Welsh language act, citing that there was "enough goodwill to safeguard the language's future". His comments prompted Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg and many others to call for his resignation as the Assembly's presiding officer.
In the 1991 census, the Welsh language stabilised at the 1981 level of 18.7%.
According to the 2001 census the number of Welsh speakers in Wales increased for the first time in over 100 years, with 20.8% in a population of over 2.9 million claiming fluency in Welsh. Further, 28% of the population of Wales claimed to understand Welsh. The census revealed that the increase was most significant in urban areas, such as Cardiff with an increase from 6.6% in 1991 to 10.9% in 2001, and Rhondda Cynon Taf with an increase from 9% in 1991 to 12.3% in 2001. However, the number of Welsh speakers declined in Gwynedd from 72.1% in 1991 to 68.7%, and in Ceredigion from 59.1% in 1991 to 51.8%. Ceredigion in particular experienced the greatest fluctuation with a 19.5% influx of new residents since 1991.
The decline in Welsh speakers in Gwynedd and Ynys Môn may be attributable to non-Welsh-speaking people moving to North Wales, driving up property prices to levels that local Welsh speakers cannot afford, according to former Gwynedd county councillor Seimon Glyn of Plaid Cymru.
Glyn was commenting on a report underscoring the dilemma of rocketing house prices outstripping what locals could pay, with the report warning that "...traditional Welsh communities could die out..." as a consequence.
Much of the rural Welsh property market was driven by buyers looking for second homes for use as holiday homes, or for retirement. Many buyers were drawn to Wales from England because of relatively inexpensive house prices in Wales as compared to house prices in England. The rise in home prices outpaced the average earned income in Wales, and meant that many local people could not afford to purchase their first home or compete with second-home buyers.
In 2001 nearly a third of all properties sold in Gwynedd were bought by buyers from out of the county, and some communities reported as many as a third of local homes used as holiday homes. Holiday home owners spend less than six months of the year in the local community.
The issue of locals being priced out of the local housing market is common to many rural communities throughout Britain, but in Wales the added dimension of language further complicates the issue, as many new residents do not learn the Welsh language.
Concern for the Welsh language under these pressures prompted Glyn to say "Once you have more than 50% of anybody living in a community that speaks a foreign language, then you lose your indigenous tongue almost immediately".
Plaid Cymru had long advocated controls on second homes, and a 2001 task force headed by Dafydd Wigley recommended land should be allocated for affordable local housing, called for grants for locals to buy houses, and recommended that council tax on holiday homes should double, following similar measures in the Scottish Highlands.
However the Welsh Labour-Liberal Democrat Assembly coalition rebuffed these proposals, with Assembly housing spokesman Peter Black stating that "we [cannot] frame our planning laws around the Welsh language", adding "Nor can we take punitive measures against second home owners in the way that they propose as these will have an impact on the value of the homes of local people".
In contrast, by autumn 2001 the Exmoor National Park authority in England began to consider limiting second home ownership there, which was also driving up local housing prices by as much as 31%. Elfyn Llwyd, Plaid Cymru's Parliamentary Group Leader, said that the issues in Exmoor National Park were the same as in Wales, however in Wales there is the added dimension of language and culture.
Reflecting on the controversy Glyn's comments caused earlier in the year, Llwyd observed "What is interesting is of course it is fine for Exmoor to defend their community but in Wales when you try to say these things it is called racist..."
Llwyd called on other parties to join in a debate to bring the Exmoor experience to Wales when he said "... I really do ask them and I plead with them to come around the table and talk about the Exmoor suggestion and see if we can now bring it into Wales".
By spring 2002 both the Snowdonia National Park (Welsh: Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri) and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park (Welsh: Parc Cenedlaethol Arfordir Penfro) authorities began limiting second home ownership within the parks, following the example set by Exmoor. According to planners in Snowdonia and Pembroke applicants for new homes must demonstrate a proven local need or that the applicant had strong links with the area.
It seems that the rise of Welsh nationalism rallied supporters of the language, and the establishment of Welsh television and radio found a mass audience which was encouraged in the retention of its Welsh. Perhaps most important of all, at the end of the 20th century it became compulsory for all schoolchildren to learn Welsh up to age 16, and this both reinforced the language in Welsh-speaking areas and reintroduced at least an elementary knowledge of it in areas which had become more or less wholly Anglophone. The decline in the percentage of people in Wales who can speak Welsh has now been halted, and there are even signs of a modest recovery. However, although Welsh is the daily language in many parts of Wales, English is universally understood.
In the 2011 census it was recorded that the proportion of people able to speak Welsh had dropped from 20.8% to 19%. Despite an increase in the overall size of the Welsh population this still meant that the number of Welsh speakers in Wales dropped from 582,000 in 2001 to 562,000 in 2011. However this figure was still much higher than 508,000 or 18.7% of people who said they could speak Welsh in the 1991 census.
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