Monday, 2 April 2018

Why aren’t there Three Languages in Wales?

Below are three verses from a poem, probably written in the 18th century.  What language do you think it is? How much of it can you understand?

Well, gosp, c'hull be zeid; mot thee fartoo, an fade;
Ha deight ouse var gabble, tell ee zin go t'glade.
Ch'am a stouk, an a donel; wou'll leigh out ee dey.
Th' valler w'speen here, th' lass ee chourch-hey.
Yerstey w'had a baree, gist ing oor hoane,
Aar gentrize ware bibbern, aamzil cou no stoane.
Yith Muzleare had ba hole, t'was mee Tommeen,
At by mizluck was ee-pit t'drive in.
Joud an moud vrem earchee ete was ee Lough.
Zitch vaperreen, an shimmereen, fan ee-daf ee aar scoth!
Zitch blakeen, an blayeen, fan ee ball was ee-drowe!
Chote well aar aim was t'yie ouz n'eer a blowe.

Now I don't know about you, but I would guess that you struggled quite a bit with that.  

Okay, Spoiler alert:  What you have just seen is a language called Yola, an offshoot of Middle English, spoken by the Yoles, an ethnic group who lived in a remote corner of County Wexford, Ireland.  This language was something they managed to hold on to down the centuries until into their eventual assimilation in the 19th century.   The other name for their language was 'Forth and Bargy', after the two adjacent baronies in which they lived. 

The two baronies of Forth and Bargy, in County
Wexford, Ireland, where the Yoles lived and spoke
their ancient offshoot of 12th Century English.
But who just who were the Yoles? To answer that question, you have to go back to 1169 and the Norman Invasion of Ireland.  In short, the Yoles were the descendants of English peasants brought over by their Norman lords to work their newly conquered land on the Emerald Isle. 

It was by no means only County Wexford that was affected by this forgotten 12th century plantation of Ireland.  In many of their newly acquired fiefdoms, Norman lords brought over their own peasants and merchants too, and settler communities of English, Welsh, Flemish and French descent sprang up in Ireland. 

Although, most of these settlers, and even their lords, were assimilated by the Gaelic Irish over the next few centuries, in at least two places, these old enclaves survived – one being at Fingal in County Dublin, and the other being our friends, the Yoles of County Wexford.

In both places, separation from mainstream English back in England is what made the local dialects evolve down such unique paths until they became de facto seperate languages in their own right.

So what about Wales?
Map of Wales from around the 12th century.
Areas ruled by the Marcher Lords are in orange while
areas ruled by the native Welsh Princes are in green.
Wales, just like Ireland, was invaded by the Normans – in Wales's case starting almost as soon as 1066 itself.  The invaders were a group of Norman Barons known as the Marcher Lords and this first invasion was them acting totally 'free-lance' - the King of England had little or nothing to do with these first invasions, as I understand it.

On the contrary, the Marcher Lords were acting purely for personal gain - they each wanted to create new territories for themselves where they, (and not the King of England) could each be their own boss.
Like in Ireland, the new invaders brought over peasants with them, mostly Flemish and English settlers, and the result was that scattered along the South Wales coast, permanent enclaves of English ethnicity and language were created, which survived down the centuries.  

On the right is a language map of Wales from around 1810, and as you can see, there were 'bubbles' of English that existed along the South Coast - in Southern Pembrokeshire, the Gower, and in the Vale of Glamorgan.  

These 'Englisheries' were there because they dated back to Norman times.  

An Interesting Side Note
What is worth noting is that when, 200 years after the first Norman Invasions, Edward I launched his much more famous conquest of North and West Wales, very little changed in terms of language borders.  

Although Edward I did bring English settlers over to Wales, unlike with the Norman barons two centuries earlier, these colonists were almost exclusively urban - they settled in the new English-built castle-towns, and not in the countryside.  That is significant.

Although these new settlements began their lives as English-speaking enclaves, events such as the Black Death, which disproportionately affected towns and cities, ravaged their Anglophone populations, and the subsequent resettlement of them by the native Welsh made them solidly Welsh-speaking again.  

The town of Caernarfon is perhaps the greatest example of this - the town and its castle were founded to be the centre of English power in Wales and began its life as an enclave of English ethnicity and language par excellence, and yet today it is the most Welsh-speaking town in 21st century Wales.

So although the Edwardian Conquest is seen by Welsh Nationalists as the ultimate disaster in Welsh history, with myths of King Edward slaughtering the bards (something which has inspired poetry as far away as Hungary,)  I would argue that it was the first of the two invasions which did far much damage to the Welsh Language. 

 But I Digress
So the question that I pose is this - Why didn't the English spoken in it's medieval enclaves in South Wales diverge into something separate, as did Yola and Fingallian in Ireland?

Because, as far as I know, Pembrokeshire English and Gower English is pretty much the same as English as in England, with the exception of the accent, of course, although I may be wrong?

So the title of this blog perhaps shouldn't be 'Why aren't there Three Languages in Wales?' but Why aren't there four or five - one for each South Wales enclave?

Just imagine it - a separate Germanic Language called 'Pembroke-ish' or 'Gowerish.'


  1. The answer I presume is that before modern roads the sea was historically a linking factor rather than a dividing one.

    Therefore English speakers in South Pembrokeshire and Gower had too much contact with for example English-speaking people in Somerset and Devon to either revert exclusively to the Welsh that they were surrounded by on land, or to diverge too far from dialects of English spoken in places they were in contact with that they could be considered to be speaking a separate language.

    Moreover the Welsh speakers in adjoining areas also had some contact with these same people, so reducing the incentive for the English speaking exclaves in Pembrokeshire to revert to Welsh, though there may perhaps have been more bilingualism than the popular mythology of "Little England beyond Wales" gives credit for?

    The exclave in Wexford had perhaps less frequent direct contact with England due to greater distance such that there was less reason to remain close to England dialects, although in this case the question would be why did an English derived dialect survive at all rather than revert to Irish?

  2. In the present political situation, as "what is a language" is both a linguistic question and a political one, the anglophone pockets in Wales are in essence not minorities in Wales but part of the dominant linguistic group of Great-Britain (and thus not looking to advertise differences with it.)

    In the case of an independent Wales, only then they would become a minority and reposition themselves as a unique culture.

  3. Cham is just archaic South-Western English dialect. Recorded also from Dorset, Devon and Somerset. It was short for "Itch am" - Itch is "I".