The Welsh Language in the 20th Century
How slaughter on the battlefields of WW1 had a disastrous impact on the Welsh language
After the last census, it was determined that almost 20% of the population of Wales could speak Welsh. The most recent language survey in 2019 by the ONS put this figure at almost 30%, showing a steady and definite rise in people learning the native tongue of Wales.
The number of people who know and speak Welsh has both risen and fallen across the ages, but one of the biggest influences on the welsh language in its history is the impact of the First World War.
Before the war, the language had already been forced to overcome several hurdles. In 1536, Henry VIII’s Act of Union mainly outlawed the language and laws were passed to remove the status of Welsh. As a result, people would need to learn and speak English in order to progress in work and society. The parliamentary reports on the passing of the law read: ‘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 effect. It dissevers the people from intercourse which would greatly advance their civilisation, and bars the access of improving knowledge to their minds.’
With an attitude like this, the language and its native speakers were always going to be up against it.
During the industrial revolution Welsh, or Cymraeg as its known in the language, was faced with more problems. A mass migration of English into Wales diluted the language further. There were more people in Wales but out of these there were less people learning the language. The legal status of Welsh was lower than English and an increase in all English work places throughout the 19th century pushed Welsh towards the brink.
If the increase of non-welsh speakers to Wales was bad for the language, then the loss of welsh speaking men was even worse. The First World War claimed the lives of almost one million soldiers from the UK. It is estimated that 20,000 Welsh speakers died in the battlefields of Europe, a decimation on the language which saw the percentage of speakers drop from 43.5% to 38% in the census of 1921.
Despite centuries of discrimination against the nation and the language, tens of thousands of Welshmen joined the fight. They played a vital part in some of the most important battles of the war, including the capturing of Mametz Wood in the opening days of the Battle of the Somme. They fought hard, and returned to a country and a language in further decline.
The death of so many Welsh speakers was a permanent step back for the language. The economic downturn of the 1920s forced even more native welsh to leave in search of work, but it was the impact of the First World War which would be the biggest blow to the language in the 20th century.
There has been a rise again in the number of people speaking Welsh, thanks to political acts in recent decades. In 1992 the Welsh Language Bill gave Welsh equal status with English in all public bodies and drives to boost the language continue to this day. School children learn welsh up until the age of 16 and the support for the language is growing.
Welsh will, hopefully, never suffer another setback on the scale of the First World War. the loss of so many welsh speaking people in a relatively short period could have finished off the declining language. However, thanks to the determination of the many generations of Welsh speakers since the war, the language is enjoying a healthy growth. So much so that an ambitious target to get one million Welsh speakers by 2050.
If this is met, it will be done so with the thousands of welsh sons who died for their country during the First World War in mind.