Opinion

Why Welsh has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural language

20 Jul 2021 5 minutes Read
Hanes Cymry by Simon Brooks

Simon Brooks, author of Hanes Cymry, the first history of ethnic diversity in the Welsh-language community.

The Welsh-language community has always been multi-ethnic.

It was multi-ethnic at birth (it was a fusion between the two components of Romano-British culture after all) and has remained so ever since.

It is true that ethnic diversity within Welsh-language culture has peaked at various junctures (the later medieval ages and during the industrial revolution, for example) but there has never been a period when Welsh has not been multi-ethnic.

Furthermore, the strength of Welsh as a community language meant that sometimes this could be quite common.

For example, the Roma of nineteenth-century rural Wales were by and large fluent in Welsh. Irish and English migrants to the towns of the industrialising south and north-east learnt Welsh in their thousands. Jewish migrants who settled in communities where Welsh was the dominant language learnt Welsh.

Since the eighteenth century there have been black Welsh speakers: in rural Wales, the coalfield, Cardiff and also too across the border in Liverpool. South Asian speakers of Welsh in Wales are present by the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is probably an underestimate of their earliest presence in Welsh-language culture as it merely reflects what we can find in the historical record. The reality is that the vast majority of people did not leave historical traces of their existence as individuals.

Discrimination

This does not mean that Welsh speakers from minority ethnic backgrounds did not face racism. The first black speakers of Welsh learnt the language as a consequence of the slave trade. There are accounts of racist attacks on black Welsh speakers in the coalfield, and in 1870 in the Cynon Valley a black Welsh speaker was murdered.

Anti-Irish racism was rife in Welsh-language culture all through the nineteenth century. The Roma faced centuries of racism, as they did at the hands of people all over Britain.

As well as their involvement in the slave trade, Welsh speakers were also involved in colonialism. As they were not part of the core of the British elite, their involvement was of necessity more peripheral than that of the English upper classes. Nevertheless, they developed specifically Welsh-language forms of colonialism, in Patagonia and also as Welsh-speaking missionaries.

A visit by the Welsh missionary ‘John Davies, Tahiti’ to the island of Rapa-iti in the south Pacific (a journey on which he read Welsh-language theology) was the first contact between a white European and the island’s Polynesian inhabitants. The death of the majority of the population of Rapa-iti from disease was the direct result.

Yet at times the Welsh could constitute an ethnic minority themselves. That was certainly true in Liverpool in the nineteenth century where the Welsh maintained over 50 places of worship, had a Welsh-language press, ran parts of the local economy, congregated in particular communities such as Toxteth, and passed on a cultural identity based on the Welsh language to the second, third and occasionally fourth generations. They faced discrimination too. In advertisements for domestic servants in newspapers on Merseyside in the 1850s and the 1860s, the refrain ‘No Welsh need apply’ was remarkably common.

Power

Thus issues pertaining to ethnic diversity were part of Welsh-language discourse and the Welsh-language experience. Ethnic minorities spoke Welsh. The Welsh partook in European colonialism and also partook in racism. Yet in Wales, the Welsh viewed themselves as a displaced minority (the supposed original inhabitants of the Island of Britain), and in England they were sometimes racialised themselves as an undesirable minority.

Can we apply this history to contemporary Wales? Some have argued that Welsh-language culture as a minority culture has a tendency towards tolerance. Others have suggested that Welsh-language culture was largely exclusive. The reality is that while neither of these statements is inherently true both have been true at particular times in particular places.

For much of its history, the Welsh-speaking community formed a marginalised social group, both economically and also in relation to Anglophone power. It had undergone Conquest. Thus the history of Welsh-language interaction with other minorities is not always a simple relationship between a majority and a minority.

It was normally a relationship between two minorities, although we must remember too that the Welsh-speaking minority always had more power than groups excluded on the basis of race. Nevertheless, the fact that the Welsh-speaking community is itself a minority means that Welsh models of multiculturalism cannot be theorized in exactly the same way as in America or England.

And many people belonged to both groups, and were members both of the linguistic minority as well too as of racial and ethnic minorities within that linguistic minority. The nature of ethnic diversity varied over time and it varied too according to place. But of one thing we can be certain. In the 1500 year-or-so history of the Welsh language, not a single moment has passed in which the Welsh-speaking experience has been confined to one ethnic group.

What does this mean today? Welsh-language culture has always been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural in the past, and it will be so too tomorrow. In this instance then, the past does indeed shine a light into the future.

Hanes Cymry: Lleiafrifoedd Ethnig a’r Gwareiddiad Cymraeg (The History of the Welsh: Ethnic Minorities and Welsh-language civilization) is published by the University of Wales Press priced £19.99 and can be bought here.

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j humphrys
j humphrys
3 days ago

Google “UK mapped out by genetic ancestry”. Spin that!

Bruce
Bruce
3 days ago
Reply to  j humphrys

What is your point exactly? The article is about how Wales has always been an ethnically diverse country, far more so than the Britain First types would like to believe (for example, the existence of the black community in Tiger Bay, one of the oldest black communities in the UK). The article is also about language, culture and identity and genetics is irrelevant to those. I sincerely hope you are not one of those ‘blood and soil’ types for whom genetics = identity.

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
3 days ago

Diddorol a gwir iawn 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿

Andrew
Andrew
3 days ago

Welsh is far older than the ‘Romano British ‘.See Cymroglyphics by Ross Broadstock/ Britain s hidden history Channel on u tube.

Wrexhamian
Wrexhamian
3 days ago

Obviously in the past there have been black speakers of Welsh, since until the 20th Century 80% of the country was Welsh-speaking. Their descendants in the post-industrial areas have been stripped of the language in the same way that the national majority has. Some are now among the rising number of adult Welsh learners. There is a definite historical pattern as regards the assimilation of ethnic minorities into the Welsh-speaking world. The largest ethnic minority, the English, integrated until the early years of the 19th Century and became monoglot Welsh-speaking. It is only since the advent of industrialism in Cymru… Read more »

Last edited 3 days ago by Wrexhamian
Bruce
Bruce
3 days ago
Reply to  Wrexhamian

We should also remember that the rise of mass media contributed to the decline of the Welsh language. Before the rise of UK-wide daily newspapers (in English), cheap weekly magazines (in English), cheap paperback novels (in English), cinema (initially silent but later in English), radio (in English) and lastly television (in, you guessed it, English) the Welsh language held up pretty well. Welsh was still the majority language according to the 1901 census. In 1911, although it was no longer the majority language, it was being spoken by more people than ever before in its history. The decline from then… Read more »

Wrexhamian
Wrexhamian
3 days ago
Reply to  Bruce

Correct on every point. Some might wish to add post-1960 tourism to your perfect storm.

Bruce
Bruce
3 days ago
Reply to  Wrexhamian

And more recently(ish) second home owners and retirement homes.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
2 days ago
Reply to  Bruce

This is the time of the movies, and as the Twenties produced the ‘Talkies’ the struggling ‘miners institutes’ tried to save themselves financially by showing ‘movies’ so it was English became ‘cool’.

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