Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Welsh is a Celtic language related to Cornish and Breton.
The 2011 Census recorded the total population of Wales to be 3.1 million, 58 per cent of whom identified themselves as Christian. Almost two-thirds (66 per cent) of the population in Wales, amounting to 2.0 million people, declared their identity to be Welsh (218,000 of whom also considered themselves to be British).
Though a very large proportion (95.6 per cent) of the population are white, Wales has become slightly more diverse with a small but growing share of ethnic minorities and residents born outside the UK. Ethnic minorities identified in the 2011 Census include Asian/Asian British (Indians 0.6 per cent, other Asian 0.5 percent, Chinese 0.4 per cent, Pakistani 0.4 per cent, Bangladeshi 0.3 per cent), Black/African/Caribbean/Black British (Black 0.4 per cent, Caribbean 0.1 per cent, other black 0.1 per cent), mixed/multiple ethnic groups (white and black Caribbean 0.4 per cent, white and Asian 0.3 per cent, other mixed 0.2 per cent, white and black African 0.1 per cent) and other ethnic group (Arab 0.3 per cent, any other ethnic group 0.2 per cent).
The Census also identified some 562,000 Welsh speakers, amounting to 19 per cent of the population aged 3 or over.
Speakers of Welsh inhabited large areas of Britain under the Roman Empire. A sense of Welsh unity in the face of the Anglo-Saxon invasions seems to have emerged by the middle of the sixth century, when the inhabitants of the western peninsula of Britain called themselves Cymry (‘fellow countrymen’) and their territory Cymru. Anglo-Saxons called them Wealas (‘foreigners’), from which derives ‘Welsh’.
The peninsula was regularly attacked, not just from the east but from the sea by the Norse. Wales had close contacts with Ireland and Cornwall, and for some time Welsh culture flourished. Until the Norman Conquest, Wales was ruled essentially as a number of dynastic principalities with shifting alliances; but by 1100 the Normans had overrun large areas of the east and south. In 1282 the last prince of Gwynedd died, and Edward I completed the English conquest. The first manuscript in Welsh, the Book of Taliesin, which appeared in the second half of the fourteenth century, contains a collection of some of the oldest poems in Welsh dating back to the fifth century.
Owain Glyn Dwr’s uprising of 1400 failed, and thenceforward Wales became more and more integrated into English political, territorial and economic life. Henry Tudor’s winning of the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 hastened Welsh decline, precisely because he was of Welsh origin. The Welsh nobility rapidly became anglicized and remote from the people they ruled. King Henry VIII’s Statute of Wales of 1536 and 1542 held that Wales had always been part of England and was henceforth to be administered in English, the intention being ‘utterly to extirpe alle and singular the sinister usages and customs of Wales’.
This latter aim was not simple to achieve. The Bible was translated into Welsh, and Welsh was recognized as the official language of worship in the Established Church. Thus the language had a common literary standard and cohesion that helped maintain it, even in the face of the massive English immigration occasioned by later industrialization.
By the terms of the 1746 Wales and Berwick Act, all laws made in England automatically applied to Wales unless an exception or special provision was made.
Industrial development in the Valleys
The coal mining and iron industries which developed in the early nineteenth century made south Wales a magnet for workers from England, Ireland and Scotland. It also made Wales a largely urban society. The new town of Merthyr Tydfil in Glamorganshire became the world’s largest iron-producing town. The mining and living conditions were appalling and mine and other workers espoused the Reform and Chartist movements which called for universal suffrage. Later the workers joined with the Co-operative and Trade Union movements and then the Labour Party, which became the predominant party of the industrialized south. Radicalism in the nineteenth century was met with repression by the wealthy industrialists and landowners, who also regarded the Welsh language as a means of fomenting dissent. Welsh-speakers were discriminated against and Welsh-speaking children were humiliated and punished in schools. Welsh was portrayed as a language not in keeping with a modern society. However, there was no official policy banning the language.
The population of Monmouthshire, where there were abundant seams of coal, grew ten times from 45,000 in 1801 to 450,000 in 1901. The canals and then the railways hastened industrialization and the influx of English-speaking migrants. In 1865 Welsh-speakers set up a colony in Patagonia, Argentina, where Welsh was the sole language and where Welsh is still spoken today. In 1886 Cymru Fydd (Young Wales) was founded on the model of Young Ireland. In 1901 just over half the population of Wales were Welsh-speakers. The independence of Ireland served as a spur for the establishment of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, in 1925, which aimed to establish a Welsh parliament and to win recognition of Welsh as the official language of Wales.
A number of young people, frustrated at Plaid’s commitment to constitutional measures, founded Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) in 1962. This organization used civil disobedience and violence against property – but not against people – to demand changes in the status of Welsh. It led the campaign for the first Welsh Language Act of 1967, which permitted the use of Welsh in courts and made Welsh-language contracts equally enforceable as those made in English. In 1988 the Education Reform Act, which established the national curriculum for ages 5 to 14 in school, allowed for the teaching of the Welsh language and culture in all Welsh schools. The Welsh Language Board was set up in the same year to advise on Welsh-language teaching. In 1992 an act was passed giving people in Wales the right to deal in Welsh with public bodies when it was reasonable to do so, although without defining this condition.
In 1997 the Welsh voted by a small majority in favour of a devolved Welsh Assembly, which came into effect in 1999. Welsh became an equal official language with English in Wales. All official Welsh documentation is published in both languages, and public authorities whose remit covers Wales and England, such as the Environment Agency, also have to use both languages. Following the passage of the Government of Wales Act in 2006, the Assembly was awarded limited legislative powers. However, these were greatly extended following the successful 2011 referendum that resulted in devolution of many law-making functions to Wales.
The National Assembly of Wales has expressed its independence from England in certain environmental measures, for example, its pronouncements against nuclear power and genetically modified crops, as well as its marked support for refugees and asylum seekers, establishing Wales as a ‘Nation of Sanctuary’. There are currently discussions underway to extend the powers of the Welsh Assembly, to bring them into line with those from Scotland.
The use of the Welsh language has increased significantly in public administration and signs since devolution. There are more employment opportunities for Welsh-speakers. Census data suggests that there has been a slight decline, however, in the number of Welsh speakers to 562,000 in 2011. The government announced a plan in July 2017 to achieve 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, close to double the current number, through targeted educational and economic initiatives.
Updated October 2020
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