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Dylan Thomas could speak Welsh, according to the 1921 census

07 Jan 2022 3 minute read
A Dylan Thomas Trail marker in New Quay. Picture by Jaggery (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Dylan Thomas could speak Welsh, according to the 1921 census published yesterday.

The results of the census were published by The National Archives and Findmypast as the 100-year rule which keeps the records private came to an end.

According to the record for a 6-year-old Dylan Marlais Thomas, who later became one of Wales’ best-known poets, he speaks “both” Welsh and English.

While his parents DJ and Florence were both fluent Welsh speakers, it has been believed that Dylan and his sister Nancy were brought up in the Uplands suburb of Swansea speaking only English, as was common at the time.

However, the census record indicates that DJ (David John) Thomas, who filled in and signed the census page, at least believed his son to be bilingual at the age of six, and his sister too.

Dylan Thomas said in his own letters that he could not read Welsh. However, it is clear from his own writings that he had some understanding of spoken Welsh, as he would have heard the language around him quite frequently and included elements of it in works such as Under Milk Wood.

In the book, Dylan Thomas: An Original Language, Barbara Nathan Hardy, notes that “Thomas was not brought up speaking Welsh, even though his parents were bilingual, but he was acquainted with Welsh speakers and Welsh scholars”.

“In my day, a decade later, Welsh was a compulsory subject in elementary and grammar schools, but Thomas would probably not have learned it at his little private school and when he was at Swansea Grammar School Welsh was not a compulsory subject,” she wrote.

“He is said to have done no work as a Grammar-School boy but he would certainly have come into some contact with Welsh, if only in hymns and the national anthem.

“He would also have heard it spoken, as I did myself, accurately and inaccurately, in the streets and pubs as well as in Fernhill farm.”

She also notes that he quotes snippets of simple Welsh in the broadcasts, for instance in ‘Return Journey’, and his talk on ‘Welsh Poetry’ shows “interest and knowledge” of the language.


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Dai Rob
Dai Rob
10 months ago

My Grandmother in Port Talbot (Cwmafan) grew up as a first language Welsh Speaker….but she couldn’t read a word of it, as she was schooled in English!
She died around 25 years ago…..I would have loved to have a conversation in Welsh with her now, as I have learned the language up to basic conversation standard!

arthur owen
10 months ago
Reply to  Dai Rob

I suspect you and your Grandmother would have no comprehension of each other.You, presumably, speak standard modern Welsh of the southern variety.She would spoken a variety of Welsh from the border between the Gwentian and the Dementian’But it woujd have been lovely to talk to her.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
10 months ago
Reply to  arthur owen

There is far too much made of this mythical lack of mutual understanding between speakers of the various dialects or the various generations who speak Welsh. So called ‘modern’ Welsh is basically a synthesis of a broad form of the local Welsh, i.e. why there are courses for, respectively, both North and South Wales. Any half decent tutor will refine and bias their teaching towards the hyperlocal, and any serious learner will seek out people who speak the local forms. Yes, certainly there may be a few initial issues of understanding to overcome, but that is really no big issue.… Read more »

arthur owen
10 months ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

An example of what I was referring to, my daughter went to a Welsh school in Cardiff and works for an insurance company,she was talking to an elderly customer who was not very confident in English so she turned to Welsh but when she said ‘beth yw eich cyfeiriad’ the lady was flummoxed.Incidentally Aberteifi might administratley be Ceredigion bur culturally it is in Pembrokeshire.

Ed Jones
Ed Jones
10 months ago

It is staggering how it has survived. I thank all before me who spoke Welsh and passed it (realise I was lucky as both parents were fluent) on and also a huge thanks and well done to all of those who have learnt and continue to learn (my wife included) it, diolch o’r calon.

Gill Jones
Gill Jones
10 months ago

Yes, I believe that Dylan could speak Welsh as his mother spoke Welsh as did all his maternal side of the family in rural Carmarthenshire, where he spent his summer holidays. As a pre-school child his mother would naturally converse with him in Welsh whilst his school-teacher father was at work. Doubtless it would revert to English when the domineering father came home!

arthur owen
10 months ago
Reply to  Gill Jones

Change that to the domineering,but also Welsh speaking father.Apparently the father did not want the children speaking ungrammatical lower class Welsh.Some people who believe that they love the language are objectively,as th Marxists would say,its enemies.

Gill Jones
Gill Jones
10 months ago
Reply to  arthur owen

Yes, his father could speak Welsh and I concur with your comment that he went out of his way to ensure that the children were not tainted by speaking their mother tongue! Sad, but typical of that era. Dylan’s poetry was heavily infuenced by the Welsh language and elements of ‘cynghanedd’ can be detected when reading his poetry aloud. I believe the language was also an influence on his prose as well. Imagine how our literature would have been greatly enriched if he’d been wholly fluent in Welsh.

stub Mandrel
10 months ago

When I was a boy the Welsh language teaching was awful, all grammar and mutations with hardly any vocabulary. Nearly half a century on I’m learning again, and it’s so much easier and enjoyable.

Gill Jones
Gill Jones
10 months ago
Reply to  stub Mandrel

Da iawn – dal ati.

Crwtyddol
Crwtyddol
10 months ago

Many people of that time were able (and did) speak Welsh, but were only literate in English. Hence couples who only spoke Welsh to each other corresponded in English through letters, notes, etc. Dylan, linguistically,, was extremely competent and cynghanedd etc, influenced strongly his alliterative style. I find it unlikely to imagine he was incapable of speaking Welsh, however badly, but I think it’s unlikely he could read / write the language.

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