Friday, 28 October 2016

Welsh being under threat has nothing to do with Globalisation

Back in the spring of 2015, I was with two relatives in their car driving through the countryside of Ceredigion when one of them said that Welsh was a 'dying language' and that its demise was inevitable due to 'Globalization' and the fact that the world was getting 'better connected.'  She then used the example of how, in her native country in Continental Europe, knowledge of English as a second language had increased dramatically, to argue that because of 'globalization' and modernity, English was going to triumph and languages like Welsh were inevitably going to disappear.

For those who have read an earlier blog on the position of Welsh as a vernacular in the North Wales county of Gwynedd, it will be immediately obviousl that such remarks are, well, wrong.   In Gwynedd's county town and administrative centre, Caernarfon, more than 80% of primary school children come from Welsh speaking homes and Welsh is still the majority pupil home language in a majority of the county's urban areas while there are village schools where more than 90% of children speak Welsh at home.  Yes, 90%.  Since when can a language where this is the case be classified as 'dying'?

Yet the percentage of children across Wales as a whole speaking the language at home is now only 7%.  Even in Gwynedd there are areas where Welsh no longer the majority pupil mother tongue, such as Bangor, coastal Merionydd and enclaves elsewhere.  Welsh is still a language that is spoken as a vernacular and by all generations, but the area in which this is still true has shrunk hugely; in the 1960s and '70s, the Welsh heartland covered nearly half the country's surface area, forming a swathe of territory stretching from Anglesey, down the west coast to the Bristol channel, while in 1870, nearly the whole country was majority Welsh speaking.   Thus, it would be more appropriate to describe Welsh as a geographically 'Rump Language'; for example the Byzantine Empire was a rump of the larger Roman Empire.

The problem with saying that the decline of Welsh is an inevitable by-product, or even part of, 'globalization' or 'modernity' is that you soon run into problems.  You'd have to prove that today's Welsh speaking areas are somehow not modern and globalized and that anglophone areas are.  You'd have to prove that people in Caernarfon and Blaenau Ffestiniog  don't have smartphones, don't board planes to other countries and don't eat foreign cuisine or drink coca-cola but that people in Barmouth and Aberdyfi do.  And on that, I can assure you, you would be proven very wrong.  The truth is that Welsh speaking urban and rural areas are no less modern or globalized than other urban and rural areas that are the same size.  And if you went up to a native welsh speaker and told them that they had lacked the benefits of modernity and globalization, such remarks wouldn't do you any favors.

If you still think that languages spoken by small countries are inevitably doomed because of globalization, put it this way;  Estonia and Iceland have around a half and a tenth of Wales's population, respectively, and are highly globalized.  Since when are those countries' languages considered old fashioned and moribund in a twenty-first century globalized world? They're not.  The changing fortunes of Estonian during the last century had everything to do with Soviet occupation and the demographic changes imposed on the country by the Soviets; not globalization. Estonian has become more widely spoken, not less, percentage wise since Estonian independence in spite of globalization accelerating since 1991.  Globalization is therefore not the reason why the Welsh language lost most of its territory during the past 150 years.  Wales being part of the United Kingdom must have to do with it, don't you think?  It is also interesting to note that those areas in Gwynedd which are still Welsh speaking tend to have less than 1/3 of their population having been born in England, while those which have been anglicized have higher percentages being born outside Wales.

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