Modern Welsh dates back to the sixth century. It is very closely related to Cornish and Breton. However, its history goes even further back to 600 years BC, when the early languages of Europe and Central Asia influenced the Celtic languages spoken across the European continent.
Most European languages, including Welsh, evolved from a language that we now call Indo-European, which in turn developed into nine language groups, one of which was Celtic. The Celtic language also had its own family of languages, some of which died out over the centuries. Those that survived migrated from mainland Europe to the western islands of Britain and Ireland. Welsh may not be spoken as much as English, but it is actually the oldest language in Britain.
The passing of the 1536 and 1542 Acts of Union brought a significant change to the official use of Welsh. The purpose of the Acts of Union was to integrate Wales with England. Therefore, English became the official language of business in Wales. During this time it was not possible for any Welsh speaker to hold office in Wales without becoming fluent in English. Although the language was not officially banned, it lost all status because of these restrictions. Over the next four centuries, the use of the Welsh language in Wales steadily declined. The language would not be used as an official language again until the passing of the 1942 Welsh Courts Act, which permitted limited use of the language in the courts.
One of the most famous Welsh literary works is the Mabinogi, a string of tales first transcribed at some point between 1050 and 1170. However, it is believed that the tales are much older. In fact, the Mabinogi may have inspired some of the Arthurian legends. Over a period of centuries, these stories were passed down through the generations by the Cyfarwydd, or storyteller.
Although the Welsh language is native to Wales, people speak it all over the world. It is spoken by a minority in England and the Welsh immigrant colony in Chubut Valley in Argentine Patagonia.
A greeting in Welsh was one of the 55 languages included on the Voyager Golden Record. The Voyager Golden Record is a phonograph record which contains sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of human life and culture on Earth. It was launched into space in 1977. In 2008 the Voyager space crafts became the 3rd and 4th artefacts to go beyond our solar system.
Each greeting on the phonograph is a unique message. The Welsh greeting is “Iechyd da i chwi nawr ac yn oes oesoedd” which translates into English as “Good health to you now and forever”.
The 1993 Welsh Language Act is to-date the most significant Act passed in regard to the Welsh Language. This Act was the first to state that public sector organisations must treat the Welsh and English languages equally, and it was the result of decades of pressure from Welsh language activists.
The teaching of Welsh is now compulsory in all schools in Wales up to the age of 16. This has helped to stabilize and even reverse the decline of the language.
In popular culture, Wales has recently witnessed some of its important expats promote the use of the Welsh language by speaking it on television. The most recent example is that of Glyn Wise and Imogen Thomas. Their conversations in Welsh on Big Brother 6 sparked a nationwide debate about the Welsh language.
Television channel S4C broadcasts exclusively in Welsh during peak hours and the main evening television news provided by the BBC in Welsh is available for download. In addition, the BBC broadcasts a Welsh language radio station, BBC Radio Cymru on a daily basis.
The BBC also recognises how important the Welsh language is in the United Kingdom and they have set up a project called The Big Welsh Challenge, which takes five celebrities and challenges them to learn Welsh in 12 months with the help of five famous faces. The aim of The Big Welsh Challenge is to encourage others to learn and understand Welsh and its importance in our society.
Many major corporate organisations have followed the Government’s lead and realised the importance of providing their product or service information in both Welsh and English.