The history of Welsh in Cardiff

National pride in Cardiff: Cardiff natives carrying Welsh flags during the 2009 Saint David's Day Celebrations. Source: Welsh National Assembly (Flickr).

By Tirion Davies

A common misconception – made by most outside of Wales, and even some from within the country – is that Welsh isn’t widely spoken in Cardiff. This may have been partly true two decades ago, but things have drastically changed in the capital.

According to a 1992 Welsh Social Survey report on the Welsh language, conducted by the Government, 9.6% of the population of South Glamorgan were able to speak Welsh (South Glamorgan was classed as Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan and part of Monmouthshire and St Mellons until the Local Government Act of 1994, where these areas were split into separate counties). According to Stats Wales, the 2001 census saw Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan boast a 22.3% percentage of Welsh speakers. The 2011 saw 21.9% of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan stating they were Welsh speakers. The expectation is that by next year’s census, the number of Welsh speakers as a whole will grow significantly, but especially in areas of South Wales where there have been boosts in the use of the Welsh language.

But why was Cardiff ever considered a city without a strong percentage of Welsh speakers?

To some extent, it has to do with the Industrial Revolution around the 18th and early 19th century. If you know anything about the history of South Wales, you’ll know the importance of coal mining to its culture. During the Industrial Revolution, as modern industry began to develop significantly in the 18th century, its growth switched to coal mining by the 19th century. Statistics from the early 20th century even claimed one in four Welsh workers was a coal miner.

Initially, the majority of coal miners were from Wales, migrating from the West or the North to the hub of coal mining mainly in the South Wales Valleys. At this time, most Welsh workers were monolog Welsh, and those who weren’t learned the language quickly out of practicality. Although over time, as coal mining became a commodity across the UK, immigration from outside of Wales increased. With more and more (mainly) English citizens moving into Wales, and with the national language of Wales remaining as English under the Act of the Union of 1536, there was no requirement to learn Welsh outside of desire or interest.

At the height of the Industrial Revolution, English was seen as the language of progression and business. As the coal mines were beginning to be run from outside of Wales, there was no need for the language within business agreements and meetings. As communities in the South Wales Valleys were at the forefront of industrial change, not only in Wales but also internationally, Welsh had no backing from officials, and so English triumphed as the language of success in this new, industrial world.

An 1847 report, known today as the ‘Treason of the Blue Books’ (it earned such a name because Governmental reports were bound in a blue sleeve) is in part to blame for the poor treatment of the Welsh language in the late 19th and 20th century in Wales. The report by William Williams stated that Wales should, ‘instead of appearing as a distinct people, in no respect differ from the English’. This meant that Williams’ report asked that education in Wales be changed to English medium.

Following the report, the Times of London spoke of the Welsh language, stating ‘its prevalence and the ignorance of English have excluded and even now exclude the Welsh people from the civilisation of their English neighbours’. When speaking of the Welsh-language tradition of the Eisteddfod, The Times stated ‘An Eisteddfod… is simply a foolish interference with the natural progress of civilisation and prosperity’.

The Blue Books had a monumental effect on the way the Welsh language was perceived by those both within Wales. and its neighbours. Even within Wales, hundreds of citizens were influenced by the Blue Books. Welsh was reconsidered in schools, and opinions were quickly turned against Welsh, by favouring English as the language of progression for the youth. Welsh was refused by many communities in South Wales.

Although the language never died, it was banned from schools. The Welsh Not was an item used in schools during the 18th, 19th and even the 20th century to stigmatise and discourage the use of Welsh amongst schoolchildren. When a child was heard speaking Welsh, they were required to wear the Welsh Not (usually a piece of wood attached to string with the letter ‘W’ and ‘N’ etched into it) around their neck. Whoever was in possession of the Welsh Not by the end of the school day earned a punishment, like a caning.

The community of Welsh speakers in South Wales was limited for a long time. Welsh was stigmatised and as a result, many considered the ability to speak Welsh a disadvantage. Things did gradually begin to change, however. During the 20th century, support for Welsh began to grow. The first Welsh language school in Cardiff was officially opened on the 5th of September 1949.

In 2019, pupils and teachers alike from across South Wales went on a march through Cardiff to mark the 70 years since the opening of this school. The opening of this school was monumental to the progression of the Welsh language within the Welsh capital and South Wales, especially in recent years. Now, with 24 Welsh medium primary schools and 4 Welsh medium secondary schools open across Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, the language is going from strength the strength. Many have asked that the next schools to open across Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan be Welsh medium, and it seems the Government are listening. According to Cardiff council leader Huw Thomas last year, one of the current Welsh secondary schools, Ysgol Plasmawr is duet to be expanded over the next two years.

As the Welsh capital, Cardiff sees thousands of new residents each year. With the changing attitude that the ability to speak Welsh offers more opportunities, parents are enrolling their children into Welsh medium schools. BBC Radio Cymru’s programme ‘Manylu’ found that the number of applications for year 7 pupils is already higher than the places available at two of Cardiff’s three Welsh-medium secondary schools. The Welsh Government have even announced they hope for Wales to have a million Welsh speaker by 2050.

With the support the Welsh language has been gaining in recent years, primarily by successes of events such as the 2018 Eisteddfod Genedlaethol in Cardiff, the 2019 Eisteddfod Genedlaethol yr Urdd (the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol’s youth counterpart) and Tafwyl, the aim seems appropriate. Cardiff as a city has re-embraced its Welsh language roots. Welsh is readily becoming more accessible.

Adults are deciding more than ever to pursue learning Welsh, especially those enrolling their children into Welsh medium schools and want to be able to help their children with homework. More adults are becoming late bilinguals with the help of programmes such as ‘Welsh for Adults’ run by Cardiff University and projects alike.

Cardiff Council announced a 5-year strategy in 2017 to develop a ‘truly bilingual Cardiff’. The strategy aims to create a naturally bilingual city where both languages are supported and encouraged equally. The Welsh Language (Wales) Measure of 2011 replaced the 1993 Welsh Language Act, meaning as part of the new legislation, Welsh has an equal legal status as English and cannot be treated less favourably. It’s a far cry from the Welsh Not and a boost for the development of the language. Welsh is being encouraged in more scenarios, and it seems the ideals that Welsh should be perfect and without flaw is outdated.

The need for the growth of the Welsh language in any capacity has outweighed the need for it to be spoken perfectly each time. As the old saying goes, ‘gwell Cymraeg slac na Saesneg slic’ (‘it’s better to speak Welsh that isn’t perfect, than to speak no Welsh at all’). With more students moving to Cardiff from Welsh language backgrounds from North Wales and other parts of Wales, and with the success of student communities like the GymGym (Welsh society), Welsh students have been a big boost to the Welsh language community in Cardiff.

More and more, people are understanding that being able to speak Welsh isn’t an exclusive club. Welsh speakers would rather hear Wenglish in Cardiff than no Welsh at all. The support of the Welsh language in Cardiff is important. The survival of the language in Cardiff is no longer at risk, but its success sometimes needs a boost – it could still be considered the minority language.

O bydded i’r heniaith barhau.

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