There are many European languages classified as in danger. Some, like Lower Sorbian, have dropped below the number of 50,000 speakers at which UNESCO regards them as effectively dead. The Celtic languages present a mixed picture. Manx and Cornish are effectively dead despite the efforts of revivalists while both Gaelic and Irish are endangered, the latter despite 90 years of official promotion by the Government of the Irish Free State and later the Irish Republic. Irish language policy after partition was based on the assumption that the language would inevitably flourish with the revival of national consciousness following independence. It failed, therefore, to provide economic support for the Gaeltacht regions where the language was spoken and thus to prevent economic emigration from those areas. In consequence Irish is now only spoken by about 60,000 people in scattered pockets around the west coast.
The position of Welsh seems much healthier, not least because there are large contiguous Welsh speaking areas. With Welsh now enjoying near official status anyone living in those areas can, if they choose, live their life almost entirely in Welsh. One of these regions is the Llyn Peninsula in North West Wales where I have been a regular visitor in recent years after first going there with my parents at the age of 7. Back then Welsh speakers were disadvantaged in a number of ways. Official business could only be conducted in English and decades of inadequate schooling had left many native speakers lacking the vocabulary to talk about much other than day to day and domestic matters. Consequently Welsh, in 1969, was largely a language of the home, one viewed by many (including some Welsh speakers) as a quaint relic of a bygone age.
Things were about to change and even as a seven year old I noticed the beginnings of militant Welsh language activism. Road signs, for example, were altered to remove Anglicised versions of place names, and official notices in English were defaced. From these small beginnings the campaign gathered pace and was to achieve notable successes, such as the decision of the Government in 1982 to accede to Welsh demands for a Welsh language TV channel (Sianel Pedwar Cymru) and bilingualism in signage and public services. Many people are opting to learn Welsh as adults ( including English incomers) and ,on the surface the picture looks rosy.
Yet in the heartlands the outlook is a little more ambiguous. We have just returned from a break in Aberdaron. In this part of the Llyn retirees and second home owners have helped to push house prices up to levels way beyond the reach of young locals. Employment here is either in agricultural and not well paid or in hotel and catering which is both poorly paid and seasonal. With many houses now costing well over £200,000 the economic foundations of this community and its ability to reproduce itself are now being undermined in ways which must have long term consequences for the language.
As always we drove two miles along the coast from Aberdaron to Braich y Pwll, the windswept head land that is the very end of Wales, with its view over Bardsey Island. This is a magical place, particularly on a summer’s day when the sea glitters in the sun. When we drove up there a few years ago language activists had chalked on the road
TAI GWAITH IAITH
HOUSES WORK LANGUAGE which is a succinct summary of my argument. Welsh has a good claim to be the oldest living European language but there are reasons to be concerned about its future.
Despite this one summer visit inspired this poem ( which was first published in Dreamcatcher in 2007).
BRAICH Y PWLL
The air is stitched with gorse.
High on its incense I rise above
the grassy headland to watch
the sea exporting stars,
watch Bardsey ride the waves
below, buoyant as the seals on
its flanks, the seals who bask on
the razor rocks but do not bleed,
as the soft hump of the island
seeps the waters that give life to
the abbey, farms and cottages,
the ground where mossy headstones
imply the histories buried below,
pilgrims, farmers ten thousand saints
whom the heavens will honour for
as long as seals can hymn the moon.