Identity Are Directly Related To The Welsh Language. Essay, Research Paper
“Welshness – a strength of spirit and character which despite centuries of English neglect and attempted assimilation remains defiant.” This quote is taken from the Lonely Planet Guide, 1997 and it helps to explain the perception of an identity of the Welsh. For centuries the character of a Welsh nation has survived despite historical conflicts and it is this history of resistance and survival which has helped to produce the public perception of a Welsh people. This essay will aim to discuss the major dimensions which figure in these nationalistic ideologies, the main objective being to discuss to what extent the Welsh language is a contributing factor.
The nation is increasingly seen as being an ‘imagined community´ and Anderson (1991) states that cultural and political networks bond its members. In the case of Welsh identity, the environment exhibited a territorial sense in its defence of ‘national space´ but it was this nationalist understanding of territory which led to an ideology of nation-building, incorporating both symbolic and material acts. (Gruffudd: 1995) Therefore, the development of a Welsh identity can be attributed to many factors of geographical, cultural and historical significance.
Gwyn A.Williams (1985) suggests that for a century and a half the people of Wales have been expressed as an archetypal myth known as the gwerin. He states that; “ The gwerin was the heart and soul of the Welsh nation who cultivated a respectable and genial commonalty.” Thus, it was this group of peoples who were perceived as the ‘true Welsh´ and whose character formed the ideas of an identity with Wales as a community.
Perhaps the most important link with this ‘Welshness´ is the issue of the Welsh language. Peate (1933) explains the importance of the language:
“ Tradition and language in Wales are as weft and warp; without either the final pattern of our society is ruined.” In the past the Welsh language was very influential and at the time of the first language census of 1891, over half of the population knew Welsh. Thus, Wales was able to identify itself as a separate nation of speech as well as demographically and this therefore had a significant impact on the Welsh people´s identity overall. The earlier mentioned gwerin was Welsh-speaking and was interpreted as: “ Men and women with their roots in the locality for centuries, and the native language on their lips.” (Peate: 1941) By having its own separate language from the rest of Britain, Wales was able to distinguish itself as a separate nation, different both culturally and geographically. However the proportion of Welsh speaking people in Wales has significantly decreased over time. By 1911 the proportion had fallen to 40 percent, with a sharp fall after the inter-war depression and Second World War to 28 percent in 1951. This radical fall in numbers of Welsh speakers has prompted groups such as The Welsh National Party, the Plaid Cymru, to campaign to preserve Wales´ identity through the promotion of the language. Gruffudd (1995) argues that during its first 20 years the Plaid Cymru was not a political party, but:
“ A cultural and educational movement that sought to re-establish a traditional, organic and rural form of Welsh identity.” Conserving the language is one of the most important aims of Welsh nationalist political groups and it is the most forwarded strategy of the Welsh Language Board that states its main aim is:
“ To ensure the Welsh language to be self-sustaining and secure as a medium of communication in Wales.”
It can be seen that the use of the language has become increasingly under threat by considerable English-speaking strength in Wales from early days. Williams (1985) states that there are two major reasons for the collapse of the language around the turn of this century. Firstly as a result of the sheer mass of immigration into Wales and secondly as a product of the drain of the Welsh out of Wales in the 1930´s. However, more generally the Welsh language has had to try and live with a world language of probably unparalleled richness. It can be reputed that the idea of a Welsh identity is not directly related to the Welsh language due to its decline.
Even in modern times the majority of the Welsh population identify themselves as being ‘Welsh.´ That is, being part of a separate nation from the rest of Britain and possessing qualities both culturally and socially of Welsh origin. A review of the public´s attitudes in 1996 by the Welsh Language Board discovered that 88 percent of the Welsh think that the language is something to be proud of, however only 41 percent said that they thought it had a future in Wales. This therefore supports the argument that a Welsh identity can survive amongst the Welsh population, even with a very dramatic decline in the language. Consequently this suggests that there must be other factors relating to the formation of ‘Welshness´ that are separate from the linguistic factor.
The countryside is a separate factor that is considered to be a storehouse of Welsh cultural identity and Davies (1983) states that: “ The Welsh nation is a nation with its roots in the country and soil.” Therefore, this rural and agricultural image has a central and symbolic role associated with Welsh identity.
In analysis it can be seen that there are two major factors which combine to form an image of the Welsh identity. The first of these is considered to be geographical and is related to the Welsh countryside and topography. The stereotyped representation of green valleys and hills projects a specific image of Wales to which the Welsh community can relate. This factor links with that of language. Gruffudd (1995) states that the studies of Welsh language have highlighted linguistic fortresses, divides and frontiers. Thus, these boundaries represent the struggle that has and still is taking place between the preservation of the Welsh language and culture from English influence. In conclusion, the ideas of Welsh identity are related very strongly to the Welsh language. This is true to the extent that the language has moulded the countryside of Wales and has helped to develop its culture and individualism from the rest of Britain. Language has played a central role in the organisation of Welsh life and in the process of nation–building, its importance being highlighted in the incorporation into the media, education and law. However, the topics of tradition, territory, and nationalist politics must not be overlooked in the role they have played in the development of a Welsh character. According to Williams (1982): “ Wales is an artefact which the Welsh produce, the Welsh make and remake Wales day by day and year after year.”