Does Wales Need A Language Revolution?

July 23, 2012 11:30 am

The inimitable Saunders Lewis.

Saunders Lewis is considered one of Wales’s literary heavyweights; his is one of those names that prompt wide eyes, pursed lips and subtle nods of the head. His works are considered to be part of the so-called Welsh Canon –the body of Welsh literature thought to consist of classics that every Welsh child must learn about. He was also the man who, in 1962, professed that the Welsh language was on the brink of extinction. In his famous Tynged yr Iaith (Fate of the Language) radio lecture, Saunders said:

‘Nid dim llai na chwyldro yw adfer yr iaith Gymraeg yng Nghymru. Trwy ddulliau chwyldro yn unig y mae llwyddo.’

In English that means:

‘The revival of the Welsh language in Wales will be a revolution. Through revolutionary means alone can we succeed.’

The historian Gwyn Alf Williams argued that Saunders’ lecture led to direct action against offices, road signs, and TV masts; the establishment of the post of Secretary of State for Wales in 1964; the Welsh Language Act 1967; the creation of S4C, the Welsh-language television channel; and importantly, the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society).

Cymdeithas, as it is often known, continues to be a Welsh-language pressure group and recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its formation with what is thought to be the biggest Welsh-language music festival (held in Pontrhydfendigaid, West Wales). Since its conception, Cymdeithas has employed what it calls ‘non-violent activities’ (gweithgareddau di-drais) in order to campaign for Welsh-language equality. Many of its most prominent campaigners have faced fines and prison sentences for taking part in activities held in Cymdeithas’s name, such as refusal to pay the television licence fee, trespassing at television masts, and vandalising offices; from Ffred Ffransis to Jamie Bevan.

How necessary those non-violent direct activities were is debatable, of course, but what marks Cymdeithas is its inability to adapt to

The Welsh Language Society, during their first protest.

the new political situation in Wales. While climbing TV masts or vandalising offices might well have been appropriate in the 1960s and 1970s, one can be fairly certain that in this 21st century post-devolution Wales, such measures are probably a touch extreme.

I was born into a Welsh-speaking family, I was raised to speak Welsh and English and have received and continue to receive my education through the medium of Welsh, even at University. I consider Welsh to be my first language and for that matter, I consider myself to share the core values and principles of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg. However, I have never felt comfortable with describing myself as a supporter of Cymdeithas; I barely remember a Wales without devolution and as far as I can remember, Cymdeithas’s methods have never quite felt right for me. That’s left me, and people like me, in what can only be described as a Welsh-language activist’s limbo. I’m studying for a degree in Welsh, yet I have no group, no organisation, which focuses itself on Welsh-language activism that I can identify with – how can that be right?

Well, perhaps now I can now sleep easy. It has been announced that a new Welsh-language movement has been formed – Dyfodol i’r Iaith (Future for the Language). Its purpose is not to replace Cymdeithas, but as one of my lecturers, Dr Simon Brooks, puts it:

‘Operating as a constitutional pressure group to both develop and champion public policy initiatives, Dyfodol i’r Iaith will be an advocate for the Welsh language within the context of the Welsh Assembly and Government. It will lobby politicians, the Language Commissioner and leaders of public, private and third sector organisations to ensure that Welsh is at the heart of policy-making.’

In this post-devolution Wales, Cymdeithas should have changed its methods of campaigning. Even its ‘non-violent’ activities are now out-dated in this era of Wales which is fortunate enough to enjoy having a National Assembly and a Government to call its own. As Dr Brooks says, ‘it is also important that a language movement exists which is inclusive and reaches out – and is as welcoming to members of unionist political parties as it is to members of Plaid Cymru.’

So, is the need for revolution as important in 2012 as it was in 1962?

As times have changed, the language protests should have too.

The short answer is yes. While we have seen some progress in securing equal rights for those in Wales who wish to live their lives through the medium of Welsh, and while there has been some improvement in the numbers and percentages of people in Wales who speak Welsh, the situation is still dire. The indigenous language of Wales is still a minority language and the position of Welsh as an official language is still, unfortunately, slightly ambiguous.

What has changed between 1962 and 2012 is that the sort of revolution which we now require is completely different. Today, we must see a constitution-based revolution, one based on legislation and a change in the attitude of civic Welsh society towards the Welsh language (note that we must also see the development and strengthening of a distinctly Welsh civic society).

Importantly, Dyfodol yr Iaith must be an organisation whose doors appear open to more than nationalists and those who are prepared to take arguably extreme measures in the name of the Welsh language. Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg was formed out of Saunders’ lecture, but Saunders himself was one of the founders of Plaid Cymru. Indeed, Cymdeithas was established at one of Plaid Cymru’s ‘summer schools.’ Since 1962, Welsh-language activism and Welsh nationalism have gone hand-in-hand because of the link between Cymdeithas and Plaid Cymru. There is no such link where Dyfodol yr Iaith is concerned, which is of huge significance as it gives the means to take reasoned action in the name of their language for those who love and care for the Welsh language but (a) do not feel comfortable with Cymdeithas’s methods, or (b) do not support the cause of Welsh nationalism.

Such measured, cross-party activity is exactly what the Welsh language needs in this day and age. If Welsh is to succeed as a living, community language, then it must be accepted by all, must not be seen as the play-thing of one pressure group and one political party, and must be cared for by society as a whole – not just the Welsh Language Society – in a moderate yet effective and efficient way.

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