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Backbone of Britain: The battle to protect the Welsh language has already begun

Emily Scaife explores the importance of the Welsh language to rural and farming communities and why the battle to protect its future has already begun. 

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A country without a language is a country without a heart

The potential impact Brexit could have on Wales looms over the country, but it’s not just the farming industry that’s at stake.

 

A Brexit-shaped blow to the industry, which relies so heavily on lamb exports, could have serious implications for the country’s heritage and language, both of which have their foundations in rural areas.

 

The Welsh language is heavily steeped in agriculture, with research revealing those speaking it within the ‘agriculture, energy and water’ category make an essential contribution to its preservation.


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What’s more, the proportion who speak Welsh is 29.5 per cent, a figure significantly higher than the overall population figure of 17 per cent.

 

Farmers’ Union of Wales president Glyn Roberts says: “As a general rule Welsh is preserved in the farming community more than in other industries.

 

“While you might only hear one or two people speaking Welsh on the street of a town, at the local livestock market 95 per cent of conversations will be in Welsh.

 

“In our Welsh speaking areas we have a duty to preserve the language which was spoken across England and Wales and in parts of Scotland 1,800 years ago. In no other Celtic country does such a high proportion of the population speak their native language.”

 

Emlyn Roberts, a beef and sheep farmer based near Dolgellau, Snowdonia, agrees the use of Welsh in certain areas of the country is still widespread.

 

“It is part of our heritage and history,” he says. “We feel privileged to have been brought up with two languages and we’re proud of it.”

 

Emlyn, who coaches a youth rugby team, all of which speak Welsh and many of whom are farmers, believes it is vital those who do speak the language continue to do so.

 

“It won’t die out, but parts of the country are losing it,” he says. “However, there are areas where the demand for Welsh education is outstripping the available spaces. People see it as an advantage now for work and education.”

 

Diminished

 

This upturn in fortune is good news for the Welsh language, considering the unavoidable fact its use has diminished significantly in the past 200 years. Back in 1850 the number of Welsh speakers in the country was as high as 90 per cent.

 

However, the Welsh government is determined not to leave the language’s fate to chance, setting a goal for one million Welsh residents to speak it by 2050.

 

First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who hopes the nation will come together to hit the number, says: “Welsh is one of our treasures, and is part of what defines us as a nation, whether we speak the language or not.

 

“Reaching a million speakers is a deliberately ambitious target so the Welsh language thrives for future generations. There are challenges ahead, but we can undoubtedly face those in the knowledge that we are building from a position of strength.

 

“If we are to succeed, we need the whole nation to take ownership of the language.”

 

Taking ownership of the language is something many farmers are proud to do. Sharon Richards and her husband Gareth offer information bilingually at their farm-based educational centre in Carmarthenshire.

 

As well as an Iron Age hill fort dating to 400BC, the 81-hectare (220-acre) dairy and sheep farm attracts a lot of visitors because it is also supposedly home to Merlin’s Hill, the site where King Arthur’s magical guardian supposedly lived in a cave.

 

“We saw it as an opportunity to educate the general public, as well as schoolchildren,” says Sharon. “By providing information in Welsh and English, we encourage interest in the language while educating people about the farm, the area, and how the landscape and agriculture has altered.”

 

The farmhouse offers B&B accommodation and Sharon says although many guests like to hear her speaking in Welsh, the occasional visitor has been offended.

 

Indeed, the language has a history of being judged and those who speak it have often suffered prejudice.

 

“At one time schoolchildren were punished for speaking Welsh in schools,” Sharon says. “And a lot of Welsh men lost their lives in the First World War because they could only speak Welsh. When orders were shouted in English, they didn’t know what was going on.

 

“Now, more and more people are wearing badges saying ‘We speak Welsh’. And if people move here, they learn to speak Welsh so they can fit in.

 

“In fact, a lot of people regret not having learned it. There was a time when it wasn’t cool to speak Welsh.

 

Heritage

 

“I spoke Welsh first. I only learned English when I went to school. It’s a beautiful, ancient language and it’s our heritage. A country without a language is a country without a heart.”

 

The Welsh language is viewed by many as sacred, not least because it’s one of the few remaining traditional aspects of Welsh culture that still remains.

 

Aled Griffiths, a fifth-generation farmer from Machynlleth, Powys, says the typical Welsh settlements which revolved around a chapel are largely a thing of the past, but the language has maintained some aspect of community spirit.

 

As a member of Welsh-language male voice choir Côr Meibion Machynlleth, the group are largely made up of men from his local farming industry.

 

“There is one teacher, but he teaches children from farming families,” he says. “There is a tyre dealer, but he relies on the farming industry for his income.

 

“Everything comes back to farmers. I’m worried that as well as the industry suffering there could be a wider cultural impact, particularly on the language.”

 

The European Union provides support for minority languages and Aled reveals a lot of funding has been awarded to help promote Welsh in recent years.

 

“Westminster haven’t prioritised the Welsh language at all in the past, so I’m not getting my hopes up they will in the future,” he says.

 

Iestyn Pritchard, NFU County Adviser for Anglesey, Mid Gwynedd and Meirionnydd, agrees a blow to the Welsh farming industry could accelerate the decline of the Welsh language but is determined to adopt a glass-half-full approach.

 

Resilient

 

“We are vulnerable in terms of being quite far away from the market,” says Iestyn, whose family farm is based in Anglesey and still run by his 81-year-old father.

 

“The community is resilient and people will stick it out for a number of years, but it could have a long-term effect, particularly if a lot of people come into the area” he says. “Around a quarter of the homes purchased in Anglesey last year were second homes.”

 

Yet an influx of new people doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the language. After all it’s happened before.

 

Mass migration of English speakers into Wales during the Industrial Revolution led to a fall in Welsh speakers so significant there were fears it would die out completely.

 

Iestyn believes the situation now is different. “We do find that people come along and want to learn Welsh – and it’s not the easiest of languages to learn, to be fair,” he adds.

 

“The language goes through phases. It was once more fashionable to speak English. However we’ve found over the past 10-15 years Welsh language education has increased a great deal, particularly in those areas that don’t traditionally speak Welsh.”

 

Encouraging more people to learn and speak Welsh is vital. Aled elaborates: “You can teach it in the classroom, but if people don’t live and breathe it, that’s when it’s in trouble.

 

“We always have, and always will, conduct all our business in Welsh and speak it at home.

“There are still half a million of us who speak or understand it, so if anyone thinks they’re getting rid of us, they’ve got another thing coming.”

Welsh facts:

  • At potentially 4,000 years old, Welsh is one of the oldest languages in Europe
  • The Welsh Language Bill in 1992 gave Welsh equal status with English in all public bodies following a period of unrest, which featured sit-ins at government buildings
  • The highest concentrations of fluent Welsh speakers are found in west Wales. However these areas have also seen the largest decreases in the number of fluent speakers too. The largest increases have been seen in locations such as Cardiff
  • Younger people are more likely than older people to have received their education only or mainly through Welsh
  • Just over half of Welsh speakers use the language daily; around 1 in 5 speak it every week.
  • J.R.R Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, described Welsh as the ‘senior language of the men of Britain’.

 

 

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