The Welsh Language – A False Dawn?

Professor Emeritus John Aitchison and Harold Carter Gregynog
Professor of Geography Aberystwyth Emeritus look at the census results.

Welsh languageThe recent publication of preliminary results from the 2011 census relating to the state of the Welsh language has elicited responses of dismay, surprise and puzzlement in equal measure. Just a decade earlier the situation had been very different. The returns from the 2001 census were heralded as marking an historic, even momentous, turnaround in the well-being of the language. For the first time in over a century numbers of Welsh speakers were seen to be advancing after years of persistent and debilitating decline.

Between 1991 and 2001 they increased by just over 13 percent, from roughly 508,000 to around 580,000. The 2011 census would suggest that this surge in numbers has been rudely halted, and that decline has once again set in. With just over 560,000 respondents (19.9 percent of the population 3 years of age and over) now indicating that they ‘can’ (not necessarily ‘do’) speak the language, this amounts to a decennial fall of just under 2 percent. Not a dramatic reversal of fortunes, admittedly, but hardly encouraging given the efforts that have been made to maintain the momentum. Was it a false dawn after all?
Whilst the aggregate national statistics for 2011 are worrying in themselves, much more so are the changes that have taken place in different parts of the country. In an analysis of the 1991 census entitled ‘A Broken Heartland and a New Beginning’, we drew attention to a steady collapse and fragmentation in Welsh as a community language within its traditional heartland areas in the west and the north of Wales (Y Fro Gymraeg). These had long been the main linguistic redoubts; bastions that had succeeded in resisting Anglicization. But even back then it was evident that these cores were steadily weakening in the face of a range of pressures, not the least of which were those related to the frailty of local economies and demographics, all of which manifest themselves in population shifts and patterns of migration, both in and out.
Our earlier studies were based on detailed analyses at the community level, but the recent data for the 2011 census would suggest that the dilution highlighted then has continued. Between 2001 and 2011 the unitary authorities of Ceredigion and Carmarthen in particular recorded significant falls in absolute numbers of over 6%. More disturbingly, for the first time the Welsh-speaking populations within these areas were no longer in the majority. Gwynedd and Ynys Mon showed more resilience, but are seen also to have suffered losses.
Beyond the heartlands the situation is very mixed. As expected, Cardiff continued to gain Welsh speakers. Here, numbers increased by some 15 percent; bearing testimony to the attractions of the region, particularly to young, upwardly mobile Welsh-speakers seeking employment, appropriate to their skills and qualifications, in the capital city and its immediate hinterland. Significantly, nearly 50 percent of Welsh speakers in Cardiff are aged between 15 and 44 years. In the traditional heartland authorities, equivalent figures range from 32 to 38 percent. Such has been the growth in Cardiff that it now claims more Welsh speakers than the whole of Ceredigion (36,700 as compared a figure of just under 35,000).
Whilst Cardiff has asserted itself as an increasingly strong linguistic nucleus, notable gains were also recorded for a surrounding cluster of unitary authorities – Newport, Caerphilly, Vale of Glamorgan, Monmouth and, marginally, Rhondda Cynon Taff. Although numbers here (absolute and proportionate) are as yet small, strongly represented among them are Welsh speakers under 15 years of age (commonly over 45%). Together with Cardiff, they now account for 21 percent of all Welsh speakers in Wales.
Elsewhere the picture is one of general decline, with some of the largest losses, proportionately, being recorded in a contiguous block of authorities encompassing what were once centres of mining and heavy industry in south-east Wales (Swansea, Neath, Bridgend, Rhondda Cynon Taff and Merthyr Tydfil), and not dissimilar parts ofnorth-east Wales (Flint, Wrexham). Developments here are particularly significant, for these areas have long been home to large numbers of Welsh speakers.
Such aggregate statistics are admittedly crude, but they do prompt serious questions as to how the apparent reversal of fortunes at a national level has come about, given the investment that has been made in seeking to further promote the language. Without entering into detailed analyses of migration statistics or highlighting local nuances, it is evident that at the heart of the matter, at least as far as the decline in the core areas of rural Wales is concerned, is the inability of such areas to construct economic and social environments that will satisfy the needs and aspirations of young Welsh speakers. This being the case, it suggests that a new front must be opened up in the battle to secure the future growth of the language. The campaign via political means, through legislation, has been largely won. So has the effort to ensure the status of the language, both formally and informally. Bilingual education has also made great strides. But continued pursuance of the battle, mainly along legislative lines, could possibly be misplaced and, indeed, counterproductive. Take one example. There have of late been expressions of concern regarding the insufficient use of Welsh in the provision of National Health services. All well and good, but for people in rural communities (many of which are isolated) the prime issue is not that of language but of the effective maintenance of hospital and related services. In times of economic difficulty the immediate planning response is to stress economies of scale; centralisation and enlargement have become the mantra of planners. But those are the very policies which weaken the viability of rural communities, exacerbate the out-migration of the young, thus leading to language loss. It is here that the crucial confrontations are now taking place, not over rights and equality. There is the greatest danger that the language’s future will be fought on wrong, and largely irrelevant, grounds.
 In conclusion, it must be added that measures to offset such problems face major difficulties. Large scale capital projects (Wylfa is a singular exception) are very unlikely given the present state of the economy, and in any case they tend to increase the in-migration of non-Welsh speakers. Small and medium size businesses have to contend with a range of problems, foremost among them being remoteness and a totally inadequate transport infrastructure. Furthermore it is not easy for such enterprises to assemble and maintain an effective reservoir of skills. Some agriculturally based businesses, in dairy products and meat production for example, have been very successful. But there, too, there have been problems and the movement of production to larger more accessible sites is all too familiar. In short, the bases for the effective sustaining of vibrant rural communities – the traditional hearth areas for the language – are weak, and could be getting weaker.
Although they have been criticised as inadequate and unreliable indicators of linguistic well-being in some quarters, the data generated in the 2011 census at least serve to prompt renewed debate and to highlight the complexity of the problems facing those who seek to invigorate the language of Wales, both as a mother tongue and as a medium of communication more widely deployed in daily life. The campaign for status and recognition has been successfully prosecuted, and much has been achieved.

The task ahead is Sisyphean – but not necessarily futile.

Books ‘Language, Economy and Society. The Changing Fortunes of the Welsh Language in the Twentieth Century’, 2000.
‘Spreading the Word. The Welsh Language 2001’, 2004.

Published in Cambria Magazine February 2013.
Professor Emeritus John Aitchison and Harold Carter Gregynog
Professor of Geography Aberystwyth Emeritus

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