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Welsh Language Census figures reopen our perennial debate

14/12/2021

By Dafydd Wigley

In 1999  an excellent book  was published entitled “The Welsh Language and the 1891 Census”.  Compiled  by Gwenfair Parry and Mari Williams, of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth, the  500 page book  examined 20 communities around Wales. It attempted to dig deeper than the superficial picture painted by that century-old census.


The 1891 census was controversial for many reasons. It was the first census to include questions concerning the Welsh language – yet places like Nefyn and Llithfaen  were given incorrect forms, with the “language spoken” column omitted. Thomas Gee wrote in   Baner ac Amserau Cymru,  “The undeniable truth is that the Welsh language and the Welsh nation had not a shadow of fair play in the census”.

The  1891 census  showed that almost a million people – 55% of Wales’ population - could speak Welsh,  over half of them  speaking  no English.  John Morris Jones, later Professor of Welsh at Bangor, famously asserted that “ More people now speak Welsh than ever before!”

Yet  those  statistics  concealed changing linguistic patterns in many industrial areas:  Blaenau Ffestiniog and Rhosllanerchrugog were notable  exceptions.  There was controversy about how  the data was collected and about  interpreting the outcome. Linguistic  controversy  has been a feature of censuses in Wales ever since!
Every decade, as  census figures are published, the Welsh-speaking community recoils into neurosis - as if these figures alone tell us everything about  the language and its prospects of survival.

Census  figures invariably  trigger heated debate; some spawned new campaigning  groups and  led to  legislative change.
The 1961 census was the first which I remember. The percentage of Welsh speakers had dropped  from 50% in 1901 to 29% in 1951 and 26% by 1961.  Forebodings about the census outcome prompted  Saunders Lewis’ famous 1962 radio lecture,   “Tynged yr Iaith” ( “The fate of the Language”). That led to establishing  Cymdeithas yr Iaith   (The Welsh Language Society); the  Hughes Parry Report of 1965;  and  the  Welsh Language Act, 1967.
This week’s census figures again  triggered controversy. One group, largely ignored, are the 409,582  people resident in England who describe themselves as “Welsh”.  Of these, 291,746  describe themselves as “Welsh Only” ( not “Welsh and British”). These  include many  Welsh speakers, perhaps as many as 150,000. Simon Thomas AM was right to highlight  economic factors as  key to understanding the drop in Welsh speakers in rural Wales.  Many undoubtedly  moved  to England to seek work. The language’s  future  is inextricably linked to the economic wellbeing of its heartland areas.


Two key dimensions inevitably elude census analysis. The first is whether people who can speak Welsh,  actually  do so in their family, work and community lives. The second is that statistics cannot convey the passion felt by most Welsh speakers about the  survival of their language.


Our inspirational national anthem, written prior to any census computation of Welsh-speakers,  ends with the words “O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau” (“O that our old tongue should endure”). Whatever  the 2011 census may say, those sentiments will most assuredly continue.