Welsh Language History

History of the Welsh Language

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.

welsh_challengeTelevision 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.

Microsoft Translator, Now in Welsh

Good news for the Welsh language this week: Microsoft Translator is now available in Welsh. Microsoft Translator provides a variety of translation tools for individuals and businesses, as well as a machine translation API for developers.

The Welsh version of Microsoft Translator is a joint project between Microsoft and the National Assembly for Wales. It was unveiled to the public during a celebration for International Mother Language Day held last Friday in the Senedd. Read more

St. David’s Day

This Sunday (1st March) is St. David’s Day.

The Welsh are very proud of their heritage. St. David’s Day is a major event across the region. In Cardiff a large parade is held every year.

For the first time this year Swansea Council will be hosting St. David’s Week Festival with a range of musical, sporting and cultural events.

A little history on St. David…

Born in the 15th century he was later educated at Henfynyw (Old Menevia) in Ceredigion.

He founded a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosin (The Vale of Roses) where St. David’s cathedral now stands. The site is possibly an early religious community and has associations with St. Patrick who is thought to have spent time there before heading back to Ireland from Porth Mawr to convert the Irish to Christianity.

The exact year of his death is not known but the date of 1st March was chosen to commemorate his death and celebrate the patron saint.

St David is possibly the only patron saint of the four chief nations of the British Isles to have been born in the land which adopted him.


For years children were given a half day off from school on St. David’s Day. This custom no longer officially continues but it depends on the school.

Young girls often wear traditional Welsh costumes on St. David’s Day. The costume consists of a long woollen skirt, white blouse, woollen shawl and a Welsh hat. A Welsh hat is a tall stovepipe-style hat, similar to a top hat.
The national emblems of Wales are the Daffodil and the Leek.  The association between leeks and daffodils is strengthened by the fact that they have similar names in Welsh, Cenin (leek) and Cenin Bedr (daffodil, literally “Peter’s leek”).
The flag of Saint David often plays a central role in the celebrations, and can be seen flying throughout Wales.


Anyone who has studied languages knows that different languages can be surprisingly similar.

For example, Spanish and Italian look very much alike on paper-if you know one of the languages, you can almost intuit the meaning of a sentence written in the other language.

It’s not surprising to be able to see relationships between the languages of two countries that are close together geographically, but did you know that Spanish and Italian are also related to some of the languages spoken in India?

Strange but true-although we tend to think of European culture as being totally unrelated to Indian culture, there actually is strong connection.


Sanskrit, a language spoken in ancient India, is part of the Indo-European language family. As the name suggests, this family includes Sanskrit and its descendants along with most languages spoken in Europe, Southwest Asia and central Asia.

All in all, the Indo-European language family includes approximately 3 billion people speaking several hundred different languages. Each of these languages stems from a common, long-vanished ancestor called Proto-Indo-European.

How can we show that such a diverse group of languages and cultures are related? The first written evidence connecting them is from 1585, when Italian Filippo Sassetti wrote a letter home describing some of the similarities between Sanskrit and Italian.

The first public, scholarly mention of a common source for both European languages and Sanskrit was made during a speech by Sir William Jones in 1796, who advised the Asiatick Society:

“ Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists. ”

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. 2000. Read more

A Welsh Translation for Sherlock Holmes?

82 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s death, there’s no doubt that his famously logical detective has left a mark on the world. The Sherlock Holmes stories have inspired countless adaptations and have been translated into 76 different languages. However, they’ve never been translated into Welsh…until now.

The Deerstalkers of Welshpool, Sherlock Holmes society based in Powys, plan to translate “The Legend of the Speckled Band,” a locked-room mystery that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle considered to be his finest story featuring Holmes.

Roy Upton-Holder, the society’s founder, had long dreamed of translating Holmes into Welsh. As he explained to the BBC, encouragement and an offer of support from across the pond finally prompted him to act:

” I had an email from a Sherlock Holmes fan in Texas who is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the largest Holmes society in the USA. He asked if we were thinking about translating a book into Welsh and why didn’t we do something about it. He said he’d give us $100 towards it.”

However, according to Levy Gruffudd, a Welsh publisher interviewed by the BBC, the high cost of translation and presumed low demand have kept the popular detective stories from being translated into Welsh thus far:

“Most people would be interested in reading the original in English. It would be feasible to translate a book, but the costs would be very high. It might even be in the thousands of pounds, depending on the number of pages.”

So, how does Mr. Upton-Holder plan to get around these obstacles? By crowdsourcing the translation to local university students. He told the BBC:

“Since then I’ve contacted Aberystwyth University to see if someone there could help with the translating and we’ve thought about asking Welsh A-level students if they’d like to take on the translating as a school project. One of our members has recently retired from the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and he speaks Welsh, so he could help check the pupils’ work.”

That should help keep costs down, and I’m sure it would be a great experience for the students. Potential problems stem from the fact that literary translation is a highly specialized form of translation. It’s not enough to correctly choose words that mean the same thing in both languages. To be successful, you also have to capture as much as possible the tone, feel and rhythm of the original work.

Still, it’s an interesting experiment and definitely one worth watching.

Welsh to Headline Top American Arts Festival

The 10 day Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place in Washington DC from the 24th June. The 2009 festival focuses on Wales and Welsh heritage.

Over 100 firms, artists and experts will be attending the festival to showcase contemporary Welsh culture, industry and traditions under the theme of sustainability.

The annual Smithsonian Festival is held at the National Mall, which is where President Obama was inaugurated in January.

The Welsh programme of events includes talks by five up and coming Welsh writers, the woodland charity Coed Cymru who will showcase their affordable housing project, Cardiff choir ‘Only Men Aloud!’ and various Welsh professions.

There will be a ‘pub’ stage and a main stage which are designed to represent urban and rural environments; they have even erected some rugby goal posts!

It will be an interesting event for those visiting Washington DC this summer.

Welsh Exit Sign Confuses Shoppers

Bilingual shoppers leaving the Tesco in Swansea are presented with a bit of a conundrum: An exit sign with the English word “Exit” pointing to the right, and the Welsh language translation, “Allanfa,” pointing to the left. Which is it? Is there a separate exit for Welsh speakers?

Actually, no. According to store management, drivers can either exit the car park directly or they can exit through the petrol station. The English language sign points to the direct exit while the Welsh language sign points to the petrol station.  A Tesco representative told the BBC:

“We’d like to reassure all customers that they are welcome to exit the car park in either direction.” Read more

A Welsh Play in London

According to the 2011 UK Census, the number of Welsh speakers has fallen slightly since 2001, even in Wales itself. With that in mind, you might be forgiven for thinking that putting on a Welsh-language play in the middle of London would be a losing proposition.

Aled Pedrick hopes to prove you wrong. The actor and director is putting on a production of Gwenlyn Parry’s “Saer Doliau,” which translates to “The Doll Maker.” The play will run at the Finborough Theatre until the 19th of February.

Pedrick told WalesOnline that while staging a Welsh language play in London was bound to be challenging,

“[W]hen the Invertigo Theatre Company – two of whom are Welsh-speaking graduates from my alma mater, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – approached me with the idea, I was intrigued. And, being a London-based Welsh speaker myself, I knew that there was quite a sizeable community of similar sorts living here, many of whom work in the theatre themselves. So I figured there’d be quite a bit of interest in something like this from the off.”

The play is written and performed entirely in Welsh, but Mr. Pedrick told WalesOnline that “while the actors’ dialogue might be in Welsh, what they’re saying isn’t tied down to one single nationality.”

“Saer Doliau” tells the story of a Welsh doll mender tormented by two mysterious strangers, both of whom may or may not be hallucinations. The set incorporates a subtitle machine, so even if you don’t speak Welsh at all, you can understand what’s going on.

This review calls the subtitles “spare” and says that the setup “works very well for those who do not know any Welsh but offers a great deal more to those that do, for whom it should definitely be compulsory viewing.”

If you’re in the area and interested in attending, tickets and showtimes can be found here.

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Magnus D

Slades Seasonal Chart Topper Gets Translated Into Welsh

The BBC has reported that Slades Christmas hit ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ has been translated into Welsh.

Nevarro, from Cardiff and Llanelli got permission to translate and perform the some from original 70’s rocker Noddy Holder.

The cover of the 1973 number one will be played on music strand C2 on BBC radio Cymru on Christmas Eve.

Steff from the band told the BBC “it wasn’t an easy song to translate but we are happy to be the first band to be singing it in another language.

If you want to sing along to the familiar chorus:

“Wel dyma hi,
Nadolig Llawen,
Pawb yn Hapus hwyl a sbri
Edrych i’r dyfodol nawr
Mae pethau ar fin digwydd”

Farewell to Welsh Language Activist Eileen Beasley

Eileen Beasley, a pioneering Welsh language activist, died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 91 on Sunday.

Mrs. Beasley, along with her husband Trefor, attained near-legendary status among Welsh activists when the couple decided to convert their deeply held commitment to the language into direct action.

In the 1950’s, you see, Welsh had no official status or protections. Despite the fact that 90% of the Beasleys’ neighbors in the village of Llangennech spoke the Welsh language, all local government business was conducted in English. In protest, Eileen Beasley and her husband simply refused to pay the tax bills sent (in English) from their local council until the bills became available in Welsh as well.

As a result, the couple was hauled to court repeatedly over a period of 8 years. In lieu of the unpaid taxes, bailiffs came more than once for their personal possessions, at one point leaving the empty room barren of everything except a jar of homemade jam. In 1960, the Beasley’s were finally successful, and the council agreed to send bills in both Welsh and English.

In an obituary posted on Wales Online, Adam Phillips, chairman of Balchder Cymru, called Mrs. Beasley the “Rosa Parks” of the Welsh language movement, saying

“To have bailiffs come into your house and take everything you own because you refuse to pay on a point of principle – imagine the shame of that in those days with people looking down their noses at you. It’s people like these activists that make things happen. She and her husband did it peacefully, but suffered for it.”

The Beasleys’ protest inspired other Welsh language activists, leading to the founding of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) and eventually to a variety of political and cultural gains for the Welsh language, such as the passage of the Welsh Language Act in 1993.

Former Cymdeithas yr Iaith chair Angharad Tomos told the BBC that the Beasleys ” lit the flame of hope” with their fight for Welsh, which “persevered for a decade at a time when such action was unheard of in Wales.”