About Welsh

The Welsh Language

Welsh is a Celtic language, closely related to Breton and Cornish, and more distantly to Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It is currently spoken by about half a million people out of a population of some three million in Wales. Its heartlands are still in the rural areas, Gwynedd in the north, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire in the south west, but population movements have brought many Welsh-speakers to the cities of Cardiff and Swansea, and the language is by no means confined to any particular parts of the country.

Welsh has been in gradual decline throughout the twentieth century, but a vigorous movement in defence of the language has brought about a revival since the 1960s, which has secured widespread Welsh-medium education and a Welsh television channel (S4C). Once primarily the language of the hearth and the chapel, it is now used in { all domains of modern life. The Welsh Language Act of 1993 gave it legal status equal to that of English, and it is anticipated that the establishment of the Welsh Assembly will lead to its increased use in the political sphere. With so many children learning the language at school, the decline in the number of speakers has been halted, and its future seems secure, for the next generation at least.

For very many Welsh speakers the language is essential to their sense of identity and of belonging to a place and a community. But although more Welsh people are bilingual than ever before, Welsh continues to decline as the everyday language of the communities which are its backbone, eroded above all by immigration. This mixture of hope and concern, the sense of using a medium at once full of vitality and yet under threat, is one facet of the complexity of recent Welsh writing.

Welsh Literature

The Welsh literary tradition is an ancient one, extending back to the late sixth century, a time when an early form of Welsh was spoken in the north of the Island of Britain, before the Welsh were confined to the territory now know as Wales. Some essential features which still characterise Welsh literature are to be seen in the poetry of Taliesin and Aneirin in praise of kings and warriors. Verbal craftsmanship is one, the poem as oral artefact with intricate patterns of sound, later formalised as cynghanedd. The social responsibility of the poet is another, speaking to and for his tribe, in praise of an ideal order. Poet or story-teller, the author in Wales has always been a highly respected craftsman central to the life of the community.

In counterbalance to the court poet's public role there was a more personal kind of poetry, seen in the ninth-century lament of Heledd for her brother Cynddylan, and in the work of Dafydd ap Gwilym celebrating the joys of love and nature in the fourteenth century. The Welsh poetic tradition was a continuously developing one, in the hands of professional bards for over a thousand years, until the seventeenth century, and then continued by folk poets, known as beirdd gwlad.

Welsh prose fiction does not have such a continuous tradition as the poetry, but there are some very popular and influential stories from the Middle Ages. King Arthur is perhaps Wales's greatest single contribution to European literature, being the central figure of a vast complex of romances in many languages. Less well-known, but more typical of Welsh story-telling is the Four Branches of the Mabinogi with its vivid narrative style and interweaving of human and supernatural characters.

The foundations for modern Welsh prose were laid by the translation of the Bible in the sixteenth century, and the religious impulse has been essential to much of Welsh literature until the present day. With the spread of the Nonconformist chapels the most popular literary form was the hymn for communal singing, and the greatest hymnwriters, such as Williams Pantycelyn and Ann Griffiths were revered as national heroes.

The revival of the Eisteddfod in the nineteenth century gave Wales its first truly national cultural institution. Eisteddfod competitions have maintained literary standards, have given writers a platform to publicise their work, and have ensured that literature, and above all poetry, continues to be a truly popular artform in Wales.

Political nationhood has been one of the major concerns of twentieth-century writers, above all the dramatist Saunders Lewis, one of the founders of the Welsh Nationalist party, Plaid Cymru. Welsh nationalism has been concerned primarily with the defence of a language and culture threatened, as are many others, by Anglo-American international dominance. The work of poets such as Waldo Williams and Gerallt Lloyd Owen has inspired activists in campaigns of non-violent protest which have secured new status for the Welsh language.

One of the most exciting recent developments has been the growth of women's writing in Welsh. In fiction the lead was given by Kate Roberts depicting the slate-quarrying communities of Caernarfonshire. Male dominance of the poetic tradition has been challenged by several new voices, most notably Menna Elfyn, and now Gwyneth Lewis, who writes in both Welsh and English.

What significance does this literary tradition have for the modern Welsh writer? For many it is a source of pride and inspiration, as seen in the revival of strict-metre poetry. Some have reacted against the weight of tradition, or have sought out neglected aspects, as women poets have found forgotten role models such as Gwerful Mechain. With the advent of post-modernism the literature of the past has become a quarry for playful reference, a store of myths to be shattered or to be interpreted anew. Whatever attitude the individual author may take, the literary tradition is an essential context enriching contemporary Welsh writing.

For more information see the Companion to the Literature of Wales (ed. Meic Stephens, 1998), Dafydd Johnston, The Literature of Wales: A Pocket Guide (1994), and the Guide to Welsh Literature series (all published by the University of Wales Press).