Welsh, The Eight Wonder|
Survival of the Welsh Language: Part VI
In the southern valleys, an Anglo-Welsh character came into being; one that came to dominate the political, social and literary life of Wales, and it was here also that a new and particular kind of Welshness was forged, symbolized by the cloth-capped, heavy drinking, strike-prone, English-speaking, rugby fanatic of the Valleys..To such a character, and to a certain extent, to the majority of the three large urban areas of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, the people of the West and North, the Bible-toting, chapel-going, teetotal, parsimonious, and above all Welsh-speaking were totally alien beings who might have come from another planet. The repercussions are felt strongly today as only one in five of the inhabitants of Wales use Welsh as a language of everyday affairs.
In other areas, the Welsh language had been in decline for over 100 years. In Flintshire, so near to the large urban areas of Merseyside and Cheshire there had long been deliberate attempts to stamp out the Welsh language: a traveller to the area as early as 1799 described the situation:
If therefore, in the colloquial intercourse of
the scholars, one of them be detected in
speaking a Welsh word, he is immediately
degraded with the 'Welsh lump,' a large piece
of lead fastened to a string, and suspended
round the neck of the offender. The mark of
ignominy has had the desired effect: all the
children of Flintshire speak English very well
Such drastic measures had their desired effect. By 1804 John Evans wrote that "North Wales is becoming English." In the same year, Benjamin Heath Malkin wrote :
The language of Radnorshire is almost
universally English. In learning to converse
with their Saxon neighbours, they have
forgotten the use of their vernacular tongue
Other areas did not suffer the loss of the language. Lord Tennyson, who in a letter to a friend in 1839 thought "it [is] remarkable how fluently little boys and girls can speak Welsh." Tennyson's romantic views of the Welsh language, however, were not shared by the Government in London, nor by everyone in Wales. In a letter to The Cambrian in September 1840, one writer blamed the Welsh language for the country's moral turpitude:
I cherish the hope that I may yet see the day
when Wales, no longer the seat of barbarity and
heathenism, will herself take a fit position
(from which she has so long been excluded)
in moral literature and science. It may be asked
how was Wales set aside from that past, which
is the glory and pride of every other nation? The
answer is simple -- she is bound with fetters as
yet indissoluble which she seems to hug with
increasing tenacity -- namely her language --The
Welshman is a fool, his language is his folly --
he prefers others to enjoy his goods, he prefers
he prefers being laughed at as a puppet in Druidic
processions and Bardic Eisteddfodau
The writer wished to see the disappearance of Welsh, "without which act, we can never hope to be recognized otherwise than as simple, good-natured, honest barbarians."
The letter, astonishingly enough, was written just at the time that Lady Charlotte Guest was making known to the world some of the glories of Welsh literature through her translations of the medieval tales known as the Mabinogion.. Mrs. Guest (Lady Llanover), advised the mothers of Wales,". . .speak Welsh to your children . . .it is from you, and not from their fathers, that they will learn to love God in their own language." Others were not so sympathetic.
Some of the letters published in The Cambrian in the mid 19th Century show an attitude of many Englishmen towards the Welsh language that has persisted until today. In one of them, the writer was amused by the proposal to have the infant Prince of Wales (eldest son of Queen Victoria), instructed in the Welsh language. He wrote that the prince, by trying to pronounce the Welsh "ll" or "ch" would be perceived as having spasmodic affections of the bronchial tubes "that would lead to quinsy or some terrible disease of the lungs and jugulum and would alarm everyone."
The writer, no doubt fully amused at his own cleverness, and obviously completely oblivious to the beauties of the Welsh language and the glories of its culture, goes on to ask his readers to consider the roars of laughter in the House of Commons when the budget of the day includes the following items: "Three thousand pounds per annum for teaching His Royal Highness Welsh, making leek broth, and the national mode of eating it." The idea, he continued. was revolting, "like trying to cram a calf with logic: nature forbids it."
The same kind of fatuous, condescending arguments, of course, appeared in the newspapers of Wales some one hundred and twenty years later when Charles, as the so-called Prince of Wales, was being taught Welsh at Aberystwyth University. The newspapers of the 1990's too, often contain similar letters and articles that discuss the merits of continuing the Welsh language in the schools, of teaching it to newcomers, and of its relevance in the modern world. All despite the fact that, in the earlier period, even Queen Victoria herself, that staunch symbol of Empire, advocated the teaching of Welsh in the schools of the principality.
By the middle of the 19th century, Victoria's views notwithstanding, the tide was running heavily against Welsh. In 1842, a Royal Commission, looking into the state of education in Wales, noted that some Welsh boys employed at mines in Breconshire were learning to read English at Sunday School, but that they could speak only Welsh. This was intolerable to the commissioners.
It was demanded in Parliament that an inquiry be conducted into the means afforded to the laboring classes of Wales to acquire a knowledge of the English tongue. The report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for South Wales in 1844 lamented the fact that "The people's ignorance of the English language practically prevents the working of the laws and institutions and impedes the administration of justice." It didn't seem to occur to the commissioners that it was their own ignorance of the language that was obstructing justice!
The report led to another Royal Commission, conducted in 1847, which was to have a lasting effect on the cultural and political life of Wales. The report, in three volumes bound in blue covers, has become known as Brad y Llyfrau Gleision (The Treachery of the Blue Books, for the three young and inexperienced lawyers who conducted the report had no understanding of the Welsh language, nor, it seems, did they understand non-conformity in religious matters.
Bright, intelligent and well-read Welsh-speaking children were unable to understand the questions put to them in English, and the surveyors pig-headedly assumed that this was due to their ignorance. Their report lamented what they considered to be the sad state of education in Wales, the too-few schools, their deplorable condition, the unqualified teachers, the lack of supplies and suitable English texts, and the irregular attendance of the children. All these were attributed, along with dirtiness, laziness, ignorance, superstition, promiscuity and immorality: to Nonconformity, but in particular to the Welsh language. As the report stated:
The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales
and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and
commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy
to over-estimate its evil effects.
One result, of course, of the publication of such "facts" led to so many of its speakers being made to feel ashamed and embarrassed. The effects of the controversy thus stirred up has lasted up until today; it certainly did much ot bolster the position of those who agreed with much of the report and who saw the language as the biggest drawback to the people of Wales. One drastic remedy, the imposition of English-only Board Schools did much to further has ten the decline of Welsh over a great part of the country. In these schools, as in Flintshire a half century earlier, the "Welsh Not" rule was imposed with severe penalties for speaking Welsh, including the wearing of a wooden board, the old "Welsh lump" around one's neck.