The Welsh language (Cymraeg) originates from the Brythonic-Celtic language formerly spoken throughout much of Great Britain and it possibly dates back 4,000 years. Welsh is a sister language to Breton and Cornish and a cousin to Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx. In fact, it was a Welshman in India in the 18th century, Sir William Jones, who noticed the similarities between Welsh and Sanskrit, facilitating further research into European language families.
The earliest known Welsh poetry dates from around 500 CE. and is derived from the region that is now southern Scotland and northern England. With the arrival of the Saxons, the Celtic languages moved to the western fringes of Wales and Cornwall, leaving only a few words and place names in England and Scotland, such as Aberdeen and the words corgi and penguin. The Saxons called their neighbours ‘Welsh’, meaning foreigner, while the Welsh themselves referred to each other as ‘Cymry’, which means ‘compatriot’ or ‘comrade’.
The language has a reputation for being difficult to learn for English speakers and for having place names that are almost impossible to pronounce. An example is the longest place name in Europe (and the longest train station name in the world): Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilio by the red cave). However, Welsh is phonetic and easy to spell. Contrary to popular belief, the language does include vowels (y and w are vowels in Welsh).
In 1536 the Act of Union of England and Wales specified that English would be the official language in the courts; non-English speakers were barred from public office and the Welsh gentry became increasingly English-speaking. In 1588, however, Welsh became the first non-state language in Europe to have its own translation of the Bible, a development that standardised the language and contributed to its survival. During the 19th century, Welsh was banned from schools and pupils using the dialect were stigmatised. By 1901 the number of Welsh speakers in Wales had declined to around 50% of the population and the decline continued throughout most of the 20th century.
From the 1960s, Welsh speakers reacted to this decline by campaigning for bilingualism and official status for the language. In 1980, politician Gwynfor Evans went on hunger strike to protest against the government’s breaking its promise to establish a Welsh-language television channel. The government yielded and S4C was established in 1982. There are many radio and television broadcasts in Welsh and around 500 books published each year. Furthermore, there is a vibrant cultural scene, the highlight of which is the National Eisteddfod, a festival of poetry and music. The official status of the Welsh language was confirmed with the Welsh Language Measure of 7 December 2010, which extended the obligation of public bodies to offer services in Welsh to some larger, private companies.
The 2001 census saw the first recorded rise in the number of speakers, which is now around 20%. Although it is sometimes claimed that everyone in North Wales speaks Welsh and that nobody in South Wales does, the county with the largest number of speakers is Carmarthenshire in the south-west. 11% of the population of the capital, Cardiff, speak Welsh, almost twice the percentage recorded in 1991. However, traditionally Welsh-speaking areas continue to see a decline.
It is estimated that approximately 1,000 people continue to speak Welsh (along with Spanish) in the Welsh settlement in Patagonia, Argentina. The resistance of the Welsh language, co-existing with one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, can be considered somewhat of a miracle.
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