Abraham Somers Cocks
For much of the 20th century, if someone had said ‘Welsh Wales’/Y Fro Gymraeg, it would have been clear what the speaker was referring to.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there existed a continuous expanse of territory stretching from the top of Anglesey to the Bristol Channel in Carmarthenshire where more than 70-80% of the population spoke Welsh.
In 1961, parishes where more than 80% of the population spoke Welsh covered nearly 40% of Wales’s land area.
Here, Welsh was the language of the community and of the school playground. Yes, nearly everyone spoke English, but as a second language.
The fifty years since then have been little short of apocalyptic. The southern half of the then Fro Gymraeg, south of the river Dyfi, can no longer be considered to be Welsh-speaking communities.
Most people in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire can’t speak Welsh anymore, while the percentage of primary school children speaking Welsh at home in 2013 was 27.7% and 22.3%, respectively.
In north-west Wales, things have at least been not as bad; In Gwynedd, 56.4% of primary school children spoke Welsh at home in 2013, and in Anglesey, 37.3%.
I looked at the data to see whether or not Welsh was continuing the hold on out there, and what the future may hold for Welsh in its remaining territory.
To do this, I looked school census data from 2013, 2016 and 2017 for primary schools across Anglesey, Gwynedd, and neighbouring Conwy.
I also compared them to figures given as contextual information in Estyn reports dating back at least 10 years.
Gwynedd and Anglesey
Those of you who have read my blog about Welsh in Gwynedd will know that even there, there are areas where Welsh-at-Home (WAH) children are in the minority:
- Most of coastal and southern Meirionnydd
- Enclaves elsewhere such as Abersoch and Beddgelert.
On Anglesey, most of the coastal areas are no longer Welsh-speaking. But how are the remaining Welsh-speaking areas doing?
The good news is that many areas do appear to be holding out, for now at least. The bad news is that other areas are experiencing a rapid decline.
In Criccieth, 64% of children spoke Welsh at home in 2004. Thirteen years later only 42% do.
Beddgelert had half its children speak Welsh at home in 2005 but now it’s less than 10%.
In Llanberis, the iconic Welsh-speaking base of Snowdon, 69% of children in 2013 spoke Welsh at home, in four years it has fallen to 51%.
In the same four years, in Bala, it has fallen from 60% to 49%.
Up in Arfon, the English-speaking enclave of Bangor has stopped being an enclave; Chwilog and Tregarth at the head of the Ogwen valley have already fallen.
In the latter, the WAH in its primary school has fallen from around 50% to 26.8% in less than 10 years, and the trend appears to have spread further up the valley.
The figure for Ysgol Abercaseg (Babanod), the infants’ school in Bethesda, fell from 70.6% to 55.7% between 2013 and 2017.
Although the town of Caernarfon is somewhere that is holding out well, the percentage of primary school children speaking Welsh at Home being higher in 2017 (78.7%) than in 2013, one of its four schools appears to have fallen from 60% in 2005 to 38.2% twelve years later.
De Facto segregation appears to have emerged.
Areas that are/were solidly Welsh-speaking are fast reaching a tipping point – sometimes so quickly that you can count the years on the fingers of one hand.
The national census that everyone focuses on is so incredibly useless at revealing such changes, or giving any correct impression on the state of Welsh as the home language in any given community.
Who would have thought that only 32% of primary school children in Dolgellau speak Welsh at Home (2017), when the 2011 Census said that 64% of the town’s population could speak the language?
Who would have guessed that less than 10% of children speak Welsh at Home in Holyhead when the 2011 Census said that 42% of its population could speak Welsh?
The truth is that the general census, which only asks you if you can speak Welsh, can be positively misleading. We’re misleading ourselves as to the strength of the Welsh language, and with dire consequences.
Why does it matter?
I’ve heard some people say that it doesn’t matter if the Fro Gymraeg disappears.
They think that the fact that more people outside of the traditional Welsh-speaking areas are learning it as a second language is enough to compensate.
What the table on the right shows, is that there is an indisputably strong correlation between the percentage of children speaking Welsh at Home, and it being used in the playground.
In other words, in order for Welsh to be heard in school playgrounds and in skate parks, you need to have children who speak Welsh at home, and they need to be surrounded by other children who speak Welsh at home.
Otherwise, they will just speak English, regardless of the medium of instruction. For that reason, there needs to be communities of Welsh-speakers, not just individual Welsh-speakers scattered around the place, as is increasingly the case.
For that reason, for it to truly be a living language, it needs to have territory.
For that reason, the survival of the Fro Gymraeg is the difference between Welsh being a living language and it merely being a subject taught at school.
If a language reaches a stage where there are no school playgrounds left where it can be heard, can it still be considered a living language?