The history of the Welsh language

Welsh (Cymraeg) is the oldest language in Britain dating back possibly 4,000 years.

The majority of European languages, including Welsh, evolved from a language now called Indo-European, which developed into nine different language groups, one of which was Celtic. In turn, Celtic developed its own family of languages.

Before the coming of the Roman empire, Celtic languages were spoken across Europe. Present day place names indicate the extent of their influence: the town of Bala in Turkey and the city of London in England both have names with Celtic origins, as do the rivers Danube, Rhone and Rhine.

The Celtic languages that survived are those that migrated from mainland Europe to the western islands of Britain and Ireland. Labelled Insular to differentiate them from the Continental European languages, the versions of Celtic on these western islands developed into two branches.

In Ireland, Goidelic - or Q-Celtic, thanks to its characteristic kw sound - became the dominant language and gave rise to Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx. Most historians date the arrival of the Celtic language in Britain to around 600BC. This version of Celtic was to evolve into Brittonic (or Brythonic), which in turn gave rise to Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Go to the BBC Wales History site for more on the history of the Welsh language.

Who speaks Welsh today?

Today, according to the 2001 Census, 20.8% of people in Wales can speak Welsh. This means that approximately 582,362 people aged 3 and above speak the language. Welsh is mainly spoken in the West and North West of Wales, in counties such as Gwynedd, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion. Although the percentage of Welsh speakers is generally higher in the West, more and more people all around Wales are taking up learning Welsh and are sending their children to Welsh medium schools.

Resource: Welsh Language Board website (This website is now archived.)

Where can I hear Welsh being spoken?

Welsh is being spoken naturally as part of everyday life in communities across Wales, especially in the North West and West. Cardiff has a vibrant Welsh language community, as many young people have migrated from other parts of the country to the capital to work in the media, Welsh medium schools, the National Assembly amongst other jobs.

TV, radio and the press

Wales has its own Welsh language television channel - S4C, broadcasting more than 80 hours a week across television and broadband. Also BBC Radio Cymru is Wales' national Welsh language radio station broadcasting 20 hours a day accross the nation. Welsh language magazine Golwg is a weekly publication, as well as having a seperate news service online, Golwg360, and Y Cymro is a weekly newspaper. There are some monthly Welsh language magazines, such as Barn.

Welsh medium schools

Welsh became a compulsory subject for all pupils in Wales up to the age of 14 in 1990. In 1999, it became a compulsory subject until the age of 16. So now all pupils in mainstream schools in Wales study Welsh (either as a first or a second language) for 12 years, from the ages of 5 to 16. If you're a parent in Wales and would like more information about Welsh schools and education, click on BBC Wales' School Gate website.

Learn Welsh

If you're interested in learning Welsh, there are many online and face to face courses available around Wales.

For further information go to a bilingual page with information about courses. You can click on the Vocab language tool button on the top right of the page for help with the Welsh.

  • Video clips of Derek Brockway's 40 most useful Welsh greetings.
  • Other useful links

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