The oldest language spoken in Britain, with an unbroken history from Brythonic origins as part of the Celtic family of Indo‐European languages from which most European languages derive. Germanic and English advances westward led to the separate development of Brythonic Celtic in Wales, Cumbria, and Cornwall: only Welsh survives; Cumbric died out in the 11th cent. and Cornish in the 18th. Those who used this language called themselves Cymry (fellow‐countrymen).
Welsh appeared as a recognizable language before ad 600; up to the mid‐12th cent., when French and English influences became strong, Old Welsh has left few traces apart from inscriptions, manuscript glosses, and Welsh poetry in saga or prophetic vein. Middle Welsh from the mid‐12th cent. to the early 15th was rich in prose and popular verse, whose writers were patronized by Welsh princes and then (after 1283) by gentry of Welsh and immigrant lineage. The same influences that enriched the language set the scene for its decline, for trends in government and society, immigration and town foundation, popularized Latin, French, and especially English in the later Middle Ages. The Act of Union (1536) sought to replace Welsh with English in official contexts; it discouraged its use and patronage, and the gentry gradually ceased to speak Welsh, adopting English surnames instead of Welsh patronymics.
Salvation came with printing and the Reformation, especially with the translation of the Scriptures and the Prayer Book into Welsh (1567, 1588). Educational, antiquarian, publishing, and religious movements in the 17th and 18th cents. ensured its survival as a spoken and written tongue; indeed, the 18th cent. saw a renaissance in Welsh culture. Even after half a century of industrialization, in 1801 80 per cent of Wales was Welsh‐speaking. Industrialization was not at first an enemy to Welsh, for many migrants to the southern valleys were Welsh‐speaking, but as a proportion of the expanding population they were a declining number. The popularity of English among the upper classes, the demands of British education, the cosmopolitan industrial and commercial centres, immigration, and mass media and communications undermined Wales's linguistic character and portrayed the language as old‐fashioned. By 1901, 50 per cent of Wales's population spoke Welsh; thereafter the decline was relentless.
Yet since the 18th cent., Welsh literary culture has shown some creativity: an interest in Welsh history and tradition (including the eisteddfod), a vigorous Welsh press, active nonconformity, the growth of national sentiment, and the foundation of national institutions (notably a library, museum, and university) in the late 19th and early 20th cents. More recently, opinion has focused intently on the question of the language's survival. It has been buttressed by academic study and a literary renaissance, acceptance at all levels of education, as well as by pressure groups, even perhaps violent protests. It remains to be seen whether this nurturing will enhance its vitality and stem its overall decline.
Subjects: British History — Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).