The Welsh language in the 20th century


As Wales increasingly moved towards devolution in the middle of the 20th century, its cultural distinctiveness was being eroded in many parts of the country.

Image: Gwynfor Evans interviewed by Hywel Davies at Evans' home in Talar Wen, Llangadog, Carmarthenshire in 1962 (BBC)

Features in:

The Story of Wales
The Story of Wales

More information about: The Welsh language in the 20th century

Ironically, the growth of Welsh institutions can be seen as coinciding with the erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of Wales. The vote against devolution in 1979 was interpreted as acculturation - that the cultural and social values of the English were taking possession of those of the Welsh.

One factor in the acculturation was the extensive migration from England, particularly to rural areas and to the northern coastal resorts, a development which led to arson attacks upon second homes owned by non-Welsh people. Central to the concerns of many was the decrease in the proportion of the inhabitants of Wales able to speak Welsh, a proportion which declined from 29.9% in 1951 to 18.6% in 1991.

Such concerns led to the establishment in 1962 of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) which was prepared to break the law in order to secure official status for the Welsh language. Among the developments in which the society's activities played a part were the provision of Welsh official forms and road signs, the establishment of the Welsh Language Board and the recognition of Welsh as a core subject in the National Curriculum.

In the 1970s agitation by the society and others created a consensus in favour of a Welsh-language television channel, but it took Gwynfor Evans' threat that he would go on hunger strike before the channel was launched in 1982. Curiously, Welsh-language militancy caused the language to be less rather than more of a political issue. It loomed large in the referendum of 1979 and then hardly at all in that of 1997.

Pessimism about the prospects of the Welsh language persisted in the early 21st century, although there were some more promising developments, in particular the proliferation of associations having Welsh as their primary language, the vibrancy of the Welsh popular music scene and the remarkable success of Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin (the nursery schools movement).

The census of 2001 showed that the proportion of the inhabitants of Wales claiming to have a knowledge of Welsh had risen from the 18.6% of 1991 to 20.52%, and it is generally believed that the 2011 census will reveal further increases, especially among the young. Although doubts have been expressed about the readiness of many Welsh-speakers to make regular use of the language, experts have stressed that Welsh is among the top 15% of the world's languages in terms of its prospects.

However, awareness of the consciousness of the Welsh as a nation may be more dependent upon organized sport than upon linguistic distinctiveness. As Merfyn Jones put it: "For many people... Wales exists by virtue of those who represent her at sport. In nation building, there can be few institutions as influential as Wales's national teams." Probably the country's most powerful symbol is the Millennium Stadium, the magnificent 72,000-seat construction opened in 1999 which dominates the centre of Cardiff.

BBC iPlayer

More History programmes on BBC iPlayer

No radio programmes available

More History programmes on BBC iPlayer