March 01, 2007

Roland Mathias. ‘The Welsh Language and the English Language’.


Mathias begins by discussing the beginnings of Welsh or Cymraeg in around 500 BC, its development into a more recognisable form of the language and its wars with other languages on its borders (Offa’s Dyke, the South Wales coast and Pembrokeshire). As I have ancestors in Pembrokeshire, I find it fascinating that Henry I settled a body of refugee Flemings there in 1108. Could this be where my Noot ancestors come from? Many English people settled in Pembrokeshire and the Gower too.

The real problem for the Welsh language came though after the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542, since although these acts allowed Welsh subjects the same rights as English ones, the Welsh would have to give up their language to be allowed into the club. However, Mathias is aware that, the Welsh language, ousted from commerce, education, law and administration, had identified itself with religion’ (42). Individuals also had an effect on the language’s longevity; for example, William Salesbury’s translation of the Prayer Book and the New Testament into Welsh in 1567 and William Morgan’s translation of the Bible in 1588. As Mathias notes, ‘the purity of the language was more seriously preserved by dictionary-makers and manuscript collectors’, yet ‘the identification of Welsh as the language especially fitted for religious observance, for theological discourse and argument, was not, and could not easily be, unmade’ (42-43).

The South Wales Valleys were a particular hotspot for immigrants and the Welsh language waned here during the nineteenth century.

South-east Wales, increasingly as the nineteenth century progressed, was an industrial Klondyke attracting tens of thousands of workers in every decade. At first most of these came from Welsh-speaking regions farther west. […] But in the later developed coalmining areas and in the eastern valleys of Monmouthshire the cast hoards of incomers undoubtedly included far more English-speakers, even if a few of them were Irish or Scots. (30)

Mathias continues:

The language of the bosses was English: the commercial language was English. And fro their children the language of the school was English too. Many streets were wholly English-settled and no other language was ever spoken there. […] Against this incoming army Welsh had no champions except the chapels and the Iforites, the only benefit society [sic] to make a point of using the Welsh language and encouraging Welsh tradition. (51)

This is all true and fair, yet Mathias is snobbish about the incoming English workers and the miscegenation between them and Welsh communities to create English-speaking Welsh people. He writes of the situation of Welsh who lost the Welsh language as a ‘tragedy’ as if the language could have somehow solved all of their problems (53). He recognises why English-speaking Welsh rejected Welsh, yet he seems to dislike the desire, ‘to escape […] into the broader vistas of a world language’ (54).

Yet Mathias does call for reconciliation in a back-handed manner. He suggests on the one hand that, ‘English-speakers in Wales have for centuries depressed and deprived the Welsh’, but adds that this, ‘is not something that can be allowed to provoke its simple opposite’ (56). He then goes on to suggest that the ‘English-only majority is […] culturally deprived’ and suggests that further insult should not be added to injury (56). As if the English speakers did not feel Welsh already, Mathias magnanimously recommends that, ‘steps must be taken to associate the English-speaking majority spiritually and culturally with Wales in terms other than those of language’ (56).

Mathias is also rather narrow in writing about which languages writers should use: ‘It seems to me not at all undesirable that writers who have learned to speak Welsh and even to write in it should still retain English for the body of their work and that, occasionally at least, those who normally write in Welsh should provide a little insight into their attitudes by writing in English’ (58). Native Welsh speakers can use English, but those who have learned Welsh are prohibited from writing in two languages. Mathias also describes Welsh-speaking Wales as ‘Welsh Wales’, a rather ambivalent term.

Roland Mathias. ‘The Welsh Language and the English Language’. The Welsh Language Today. Ed. Meic Stephens. Llandysul: Gomer, 1973. 32-63.

- 2 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. David Morley

    This is a great and elegant use of a visual with the text, Zoe. I wondered where on Offa’s Dike this picture was taken though?

    05 Mar 2007, 10:15

  2. Chris

    Just wondering if you have any info on your Noot family? I am researching part of my family (Noot) also from Pembrokeshire, would be interested in hearing if you do.


    01 May 2007, 19:58

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