Reinventing the Welsh language movement

Cynog Dafis says the next stage is to persuade Welsh speakers to speak Welsh rather than English

It seems that Mudiad yr Iaith (the Welsh-language campaigning movement) is at last in the process of reinventing itself. There is every reason for it to do so. The policy landscape today is fundamentally different from that which led to the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg following Saunders Lewis’s celebrated radio lecture Tynged yr Iaith (Fate of the Language) in 1962. That was a clarion call for a civil disobediance campaign to win official recognition for the Welsh language.

In the 1950s Trefor and Eileen Beasley (pictured) had to suffer 16 court appearances and numerous visits by the bailiffs to remove their furniture before Llanelli Rural District Council finally agreed to produce bilingual rate-demand forms. Last week I attended a memorable funeral service at Henllan Amgoed for Eileen, who typically had bequeathed her body for medical research.

In the 1960s, the Post Office adamantly refused to place Swyddfa’r Post on the facade of their buildings, much less provide any kind of Welsh-language service within them. The request for vehicle-duty forms and certificates to be produced bilingually produced the same kind of response from the Ministry of Transport. Parents who refused to register the births of children other than in Welsh were hauled before the courts and in one case imprisoned. One clerk-to-the-court firmly declared that, “The language of the Queen’s courts is English”.

Faced with such a systematic and comprehensive denial of fundamental rights there was every justification for adopting the revolutionary approach that Saunders Lewis advocated. The fruits of the decades-long campaign which ensued, and which cost many people dearly, are to be seen all around us.

Today the situation is fundamentally different. During its first four years the National Assembly and the Welsh Government accepted the need for proactive policies to strengthen the position of the language. The 2011 Welsh Language Measure further strengthens both the official status of the language and the means by which that status is to find practical expression.

The Welsh Government’s strategy for the Welsh Language 2012-17, A Living Language, a Language for Living declares that it will implement its vision of seeing the language prosper, and will make use of ‘language planning’ to that end. Among other things, the intention over the next five years is to

  • Increase the number of people who know and use Welsh.
  • Ensure more scope for people to make use of the language.
  • Increase in Welsh-speakers’ confidence and fluency.
  • Promote greater awareness among the public of the value of the language.

The Welsh-medium Education Strategy (April 2010) talks about “our vision of continuous growth in Welsh-medium education and training in all sectors and at all ages”. It states that “Welsh-medium education from the early years, with strong linguistic continuity through each educational stage, offers the best conditions for nurturing the bilingual citizens of the future”. It further commits that at least 70 per cent of curriculum time should be in Welsh in order that learners properly master the language. It says the Welsh Government “accepts this central principle”. Further, it says that it is desirable “to ensure that learners are able to attend a school or college where Welsh is used for all activities” – an endorsement of the designated Welsh-medium schools sector.

Among the standards in the Language Commissioner’s consultation document are Promotional Standards which require that “positive steps be taken to promote the wider use of the language”. Bodies coming under the scope of the new Welsh Language Act must therefore not just provide Welsh-language services, they must also promote their use.

What all of this amounts to is that the discourse familiar to members of the Welsh-language movement during the decades following Saunders Lewis’s lecture has now penetrated to very the heart of government in Wales. This is no less than remarkable and is one of the undoubted achievements of democratic self-government, usually called ‘devolution’, though the process of change was well under way before 1999.

The successful launch of Dyfodol i’r Iaith (A Future for the Langauge) at the National Eisteddfod is a response to this transformed situation. Dyfodol will operate strictly within the law but will be independent and adopt a radical policy programme for the development of the language. With professional staff, an active membership and a broad base of popular support, it aims to ensure, though effective lobbying and constructive policy proposals, that Welsh will always be at the heart of government policy and integral to what one might call the ‘national enterprise’. The success of the environmental NGOs is cited as an example to emulate.

The intention is that Dyfodol will become the primary channel through which the wider language movement, loosely grouped in Mudiadau Dathlu’r Gymraeg (Movements that Celebrate the Language), will advance its constructive agenda.

A further initiative launched at the Eisteddfod Arddel (to own/espouse) concerns what one might call the demand side of language-promotion policy. A number of factors lay behind my proposing this initiative:

  • The fact that Welsh-speakers these days commonly find themselves in mixed language communities and situations.
  • The depressing personal experience of observing fluent, and sometimes prominent, Welsh-speakers opt in such cirumstances to use English even when there is every provision to enable them to use Welsh.
  • The need to respond to the provision of Welsh-language services with far greater take-up.
  • The need to snap out of the rhetoric of protest and the defensive crisis-laden mindset which still typifes much of the debate, in circumstances where they are no longer appropriate.

As the demographic ground shakes beneath our feet and the communications revolution redefines interpersonal and community relationships, the big question is how a benign spiral can be set up in which the Welsh language is increasingly used, leading to ever-increasing competence and assertiveness, normalisation and further growth.

A good place to start might be with ourselves. Arddel (meaning ‘to own’ as in opposite of ‘disown’) invites individuals to sign up to an intention to use Welsh in all circumstances where that is reasonable and possible. In this way use of the language would be normalised in the experience of both language-communities. It sounds elementary, self-evident, even tame, you might say. But if taken seriously by sufficient numbers of people, it could create a powerful momentum behind the Welsh language whose effects could be far-reaching.

This needs organising as well as the creation of solidarity, esprit de corps, among the participants, who would themselves be members of the wider language community, partly territorial, partly institutional, increasingly networked and dispersed, for whose creation Ned Thomas called in his masterly introduction to the new edition of Tynged yr Iaith: the community of Welsh-speakers within the wider national community of a multi-cultural Wales.

Arddel has been launched by Iaith Cyf (Language Ltd), the Newcastle Emlyn- based language planning centre. The website is up and running and further developments will follow.

What then is the future of Cymdeithas, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year? Its leaders are adamant that it will remain faithful to its ‘revolutionary’ origins, by which they mean retaining illegal methods as a core principle, while campaigning also on many issues such as the closure of small rural schools, and Welsh-medium radio and television.

Nigel Stapely’s persuasive Click on Wales article last Friday about Jamie Bevan’s unsuccessful efforts to get a Welsh-language summons and court-proceedings, articulates the case in favour of Cymdeithas’s stance. My view is that such unfinished business, as well as a more dynamic approach to the promotion of the language, are now better pursued through Dyfodol and the Arddel initiative.

I conclude with an instructive anecdote. During the Eisteddfod I had a conversation with a charming teenager outside the Dyfodol stand. When I explained that the new movement would operate strictly within the law, her response was, “Oh, but there’s no fun in that!” Which is really worth thinking about, but not perhaps a valid argument for a continuing revolution.

Cynog Dafis is a former MP and AM for Ceredigion.

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