REMEMBERING SAUNDERS LEWIS, A WELSH CATHOLIC
Why Keeping the Welsh Language Alive Is a Christian Concern

December 1998By Preston Jones

Preston Jones, an Anglican, teaches in the Department of History at Sonoma State University in California. He reads Welsh and has written on Welsh history.

For the first time since the turn of this century the decline of spoken Welsh has been arrested. According to Britain’s 1990 census, nearly 20 percent of the population of Wales is able to speak Welsh, and a growing number of them are in Cardiff, the bustling capital of Wales, where upwardly mobile young people employed in Welsh-language communications and government affairs are raising their children in Welsh. One observer has called the increase of spoken Welsh in Cardiff a “quiet revolution.”

Some 500,000 Welsh now speak their native tongue (compared, say, to 40,000 Irish who are fluent Gaelic speakers). Sincere efforts are being made among Gaelic speakers in both Ireland and Scotland, and even among some Cornish and Manx, to preserve their Celtic languages, but the Welsh have had the greatest successes, and schools devoted to teaching Welsh are in increasing demand. In the past decade and a half, over 12,000 learners participated in Welsh immersion courses at the Canolfan Iaith Genedlaethol (The National Language Center) in northwest Wales, and in mid-1996 the Canolfan reported that its number of Welsh learners had doubled in a mere six months.

Thus, for those committed to the preservation of the Welsh language there is good news. Due to the political will of Welsh speakers and to the response of a British government that, fearing an increase in the strength of Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalist Party), has passed laws over the years strengthening the language’s cultural standing, the future of the Welsh tongue is more secure now that it had been for some time.

Or is it? If, as the Economist put it in May 1992, to “natter about your plumbing or your gas bill in the native argot” is the goal, real progress has been made. But requiring government documents to be printed in Welsh and English, or requiring English-speaking students to study Welsh, while pleasing to a small minority within the United Kingdom, may not seem self-evidently warranted. Do these amount only to the artificial resuscitation of a language that would otherwise die a peaceful, natural death? Are there, in fact, good reasons for keeping Welsh alive?


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