Why the revival of Welsh became a model for minority languages across the globe
On a day this September, I drove from Ynys Môn down the Llŷn Peninsula, to a hill overlooking Pwllheli, in search of the site of one of the most important events in the revival of the Welsh language.
It was here, 85 years earlier, that three men set fire to a half-built bombing school, intended for use by the Royal Air Force as Europe barrelled once again towards war.
The burning of the bombing school and the trial that followed galvanised both the Welsh nationalist movement and the movement in defence of the Welsh language. In particular it raised the profile of one of the arsonists, Saunders Lewis, a professor at Swansea University and founder of Plaid Cymru.
While they objected to the bombing school on pacifist and environmental grounds, Lewis and his two fellow arsonists — D. J. Williams and Lewis Valentine — were mainly concerned that an RAF base would bring English workers and soldiers into one of the most Welsh parts of Wales, at a time when Cymraeg was headed towards terminal decline. The bombing school represented, in the words of one critic, a threat to “one of the few remaining homes of Welsh national culture.”
Llŷn today would appear to validate those fears. The former site of the bombing school is now a caravan park catering to English tourists, and tensions over English-owned holiday properties on the peninsula are reaching heights not seen since a wave of arson attacks in the 1980s and ‘90s. As I drove out of Llŷn, I passed two giant red signs reading, in Welsh and English, “No more second homes” and “The right to live locally.”
Tynged Yr Iaith
And yet, the Welsh revival movement that was driven in large part by the burning of the bombing school — and boosted significantly by a speech Lewis gave in 1962, “Tynged Yr Iaith,” in which he called for direct action to demand legal protection for and recognition of the Welsh language — has been successful beyond its instigators’ wildest dreams.
When Lewis gave his 1962 speech, he warned that “Welsh will end as a living language, should the present trend continue, about the beginning of the twenty-first century.” By the time he died in 1985, at the grand age of ninety two, there was a secretary of state for Wales, Plaid had sent nine members of parliament to Westminster, the Welsh language was properly recognised in court, and there was a flowering of activism and cultural activity across the country, supported in part by new publicly funded television and radio channels in Welsh.
According to official statistics, today some 880,000 people speak Welsh in Wales, and the country is well on track to hitting the target of a million speakers by 2030. Younger generations have never known a Wales without Welsh at the forefront, and have a confidence and pride in the language not seen for over a century. The revival of Welsh has not only benefited speakers of that language: it is used as a model and inspiration by communities around the world as they seek to protect and revive their own minority tongues.
These efforts can fuel wider movements towards decolonisation and autonomy for minoritised communities. In Hawai’i, the (partially Welsh-inspired) language revival has helped shape a cohort of Hawaiian speakers who are leading the fight to protect native lands and rights. Nor is it a coincidence that the generations who grew up speaking Welsh in schools are among the greatest supporters of Wales’ independence from the United Kingdom.
Languages survive or perish based on politics
Languages survive or perish based on politics. The Blue Books, a series of reports commissioned by Westminster which led to the suppression of Welsh in the 19th century, were produced in response to growing worker unrest in Wales. Hawaiian was suppressed following the islands’ illegal annexation by the United States. In Hong Kong, where I live, the fate of Cantonese is teetering in the balance, as efforts to preserve it in the face of encroachment by Putonghua (Mandarin) risk being seen as Beijing as secessionist, sparking a backlash that could speed up Cantonese’s decline.
Growing up, while I learned about the suppression of the Welsh language, this was never connected with other communities’ similar experiences, nor was there any mention with how the revival of Welsh inspired and was inspired by efforts to protect other minority languages. For a long time, one of the strongest criticisms of the Welsh language movement, and the nationalist movement more generally, was its insularity, an instinct to look backwards and bemoan a lost past. Even as other minority language communities looked to Wales for inspiration, Welsh speakers could be ignorant of those they should have been building solidarity with.
Ellis Vaughan, a student at the University of Bangor, told me that when he was growing up, “it was so often emphasised that we had something unique and different” in the Welsh language. While this was intended as a way of celebrating the ancient tongue, it cut young people off from a pro-indigenous rights and minority language movement that spanned not only Europe, but the entire globe.
“When I started studying other Celtic languages, I almost got annoyed, “ Vaughan said. “You don’t have to go far to find a whole slough of minority languages who have typically suffered very similarly in the past and have a similar fight ahead of them.”
“I remember wishing that we would have been taught that we’re not the only ones doing this. That we’re not alone in this fight.”
This is an edited excerpt from Speak Not: Empire, identity and the politics of language by James Griffiths (Zed/Bloomsbury 2021).