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Essay: The Welsh language

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  • Subject area(s): Linguistics essays
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  • Published: November 17, 2015*
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  • The Welsh language
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One of the main attacks on the Welsh language to this day was the Act of Union 1536. Although only around 150 words out of the 7,500 words in the Act of Union deals with the Welsh language, ‘that 2 per cent of the statute has been the subject of more discussion than the other 98 per cent’. It may certainly be argued that consequent to this Act the Welsh language was left in the most vulnerable, if not hopeless position possible. The Act of Union created new courts, new counties and the opportunity for each county to return a Member for Parliament. The Act deprived the Welsh language of any official status by stating that English was the language of these new institutions. Section 20 of the Act (otherwise known as the ‘language clause’) went further by explicitly prohibiting those who would use the Welsh language from holding public office – ‘and also that from henceforth no Person or Persons that use the Welch Speech or Language, shall have or enjoy any manner Office or Fees within this Realm of England, Wales, or other the King’s Dominion, upon Pain of forfeiting the same Offices or Fees, unless he or they use and exercise the English Speech or Language.” With the Welsh language officially outlawed and all legal proceedings declared to be held in English, it can most certainly be argued that following the Act of Union 1536 the future for the Welsh language was very bleak, and intentionally so due to the desire of the King to eradicate anything that distinguished Wales from England.

A.O.H. Jarman described how the Welsh started to feel ‘that the privileges of citizenship were only given to the Welsh on condition that they forgot their own particular past and personality, denied their Welshness, and merged with England’. This explains how the Welsh people were rather expressly told that their country and everything uniquely belonging to it was no longer relevant and that if they wanted to gain anything from the legal system then they would essentially need to forget that they were Welsh or rather forget that there were any distinctions between the English and the Welsh. It can be thus assumed that the Welsh language was or should be seen as a hindrance for the Welsh people who wanted to experience those ‘privileges of citizenship’. Its use within the legal system was thus essentially futile.

The second Act of Union in 1543 established the Court of Great Sessions of Wales; an establishment which had the same powers in civil law as the King’s Bench in England. Wales was divided into twelve counties with its thirteenth county, Monmouthshire, being added to the Oxford circuit of the English Assizes. The annexing of Monmouthshire without a doubt ‘gave rise to the erroneous belief that the county was not a part of Wales’. Although the specific effect of this on the Welsh language would be difficult to document, it can be confidently assumed that the people of Monmouthshire would be made to feel even more alienated than the rest of the Welsh people, as described above by A.O.H. Jarman and thus their language an even further alienated part of their identity. A weaker feeling of Welsh identity and a stronger feeling of the need to learn or advance their use of the English language appeared to be inevitable, albeit unintentional, consequences. This was due to the natural feeling of isolation and desire to ensure that they were not at a disadvantage in this English dominated legal system as a result of linguistic inability. It would also prove more difficult for any unofficial assistance in the Welsh language, for example the assistance of Welsh speaking court officials, to be provided in the Oxford Assize.

The Sessions would meet twice a year in each county ensuring that English law was being applied in Wales, and in the English language. Of the 217 judges who sat on the Sessions’ benches in its 288 years of existence, only 30 of them were Welshmen and it is unlikely that more than a handful of these 30 actually spoke Welsh. This emphasised how unofficial the Welsh language was and how the ability of the Sessions, and thus the legal system, to cater for Welsh monoglots depended entirely on the court officials below judgeships (positions often filled by Welshmen ) and on the standard of interpreters. This displays a clear sense of indifference towards the Welsh language in that there was no direct provision for Welsh-speaking judges to cater for Welsh monoglots unable to understand legal procedures in English; it was simply left to chance.

Judge Garrow from the Shropshire Assizes in 1818 defended the right of Welsh witnesses to give evidence in their own language regardless of their knowledge of English. He claimed that he would not like to have to give evidence in French, which was his second language. Four years later, Garrow repeated this again in the Shrewsbury Assizes; ‘It was a very natural feeling that those who were only partially acquainted with one language, and intimately acquainted with another should prefer giving evidence on oath in the latter.’ The Acts of Union seemed to contravene nature in insisting upon people using a language they barely knew, if at all, in such a distressing environment as the court of law.

Although there was a ‘Welsh’ justice system, it was by no means actually ‘Welsh’. As Mark Ellis Jones explained, ‘the Great Sessions dispensed English common law and any differences between practice in England and Wales were purely procedural’. The Court of Great Sessions may have differentiated Wales from England in the way in which cases were dealt with, but the Welsh justice system was certainly not that different, if at all, to the English justice system. It was very much a case of English law being applied in the English language, just under a slightly different system.

Contrary to popular belief and perhaps the surface understanding of the Act of Union, as discussed above, in 1667 Charles Edwards argued, ‘the loss of political independence had been the essential prerequisite to bringing the Welsh people the Gospel in their own language’. This is a reference to the Welsh translation of the Bible which was completed in 1588 by William Morgan as a result of the Act for the Translating of the Bible and the Divine Service into the Welsh Tongue in 1563 under Elizabeth I. Despite the lack of official status for the Welsh language and its alienation from the legal sphere, there was still a desire to advance and expand the use of the Welsh language. This shows that the effect of prohibiting the Welsh language in the courtroom may not have been as damaging as it may have first seemed.

The Welsh Methodist revival of the eighteenth century also aided the proliferation of the Welsh language in society. Welsh poets such as Williams Williams Pantycelyn and Ann Griffiths enabled hymns to be sung in Welsh. Philip Jenkins claimed that in fact, ‘culture and religion both benefited from the Act of Union; and both were apparently flourishing three centuries after Henry VIII.’ Therefore, though Welsh was banished from the courtroom, it appeared to be fighting for its place in Welsh society.

Historian John Davies states that ‘it is unlikely that the authorities were intent upon the demise of Welsh’ and that the aim of uniform administration ‘could be achieved without seeking the demise of the only medium of expression possessed by the vast majority of the people of Wales.’ Although this may be true in principle with the authorities having no problem with the existence of the Welsh language as long as it was not in the courtroom, it is difficult to contend that the authorities did not realise the inevitably negative effect that prohibiting the use of Welsh language in the courts would have on the status and future of the Welsh language. As Mark Ellis Jones explains, ‘demoting the language from its official status in such domains as law and local government had an extremely detrimental and long-lasting effect ‘ rich legal Welsh vocabulary was gradually abandoned and the language was left with no material prestige’.

The claimed ‘uniformity’ created by the Acts of Union has certainly been questioned by many. John Davies suggests that the first Act of Union in 1536 was produced and passed with haste and as a result was full of errors. Its main aim appeared to be to ensure total incorporation, as stressed in the Act’s preamble but in reality, however, Wales was allowed ‘a degree of administrative and legal distinctiveness’ and the second Act of Union of 1543 ‘corrected the weakness of the original act and added to the distinctiveness of Wales’. Thus John Davies suggests that Wales was still recognised as a separate entity, perhaps specifically due to the establishment of the Court of Great Sessions, which were unique to Wales. This could only have been beneficial to the Welsh language and encouraging to the use of Welsh in the courtroom as Wales was therefore not fully absorbed by England, and thus neither the Welsh language was fully absorbed by the English language.

Historian E.D. Evans also challenges this concept of uniformity by explaining how, due to the system set by the Acts of Union whereby 27 constituencies returned members to Parliament, ‘it was fallaciously believed in the sixteenth century that thereby the Acts of Union conferred equal rights, liberties and privileges with the King’s English subjects, but in reality Wales only got half the representation given to England’. He stated, ‘the most striking feature of the system was its complete lack of uniformity’. This is a more cynical view of the lack of uniformity than that of Davies’. Davies argues that the lack of uniformity meant Wales retained a degree of power whilst Evans argues that the lack of uniformity simply meant that England had more power due to more representation than Wales thus both countries were not uniform at all. However, both Davies’ and Evans’ views can be reconciled by arguing that Wales retained a degree of distinctiveness but remained less powerful and thus dominated by England.

Evans certainly suggests that the Welsh language was in trouble as it had less, if any, representation that it should have had in Parliament. Although it seems rather clear that the intention would have been for England to have more representation than Wales in Parliament and thus have a stronger voice, the lack of representation for the Welsh language was certainly an unfavourable consequence for the people of Wales, particularly the Welsh monoglots. Therefore, provision for Welsh monoglots in the courtroom was unlikely to be a priority for the predominately English members of Parliament.

Although English was the ‘state language’ following the Act of Union, large parts of civil life were decentralised and consequently local officials had a considerable amount of discretionary power. Therefore, as Jones explains, although the Court of Great Sessions was quite strictly administered in English, it was not always the case with the smaller Quarter Sessions which had ‘probably greater scope for a more pragmatic treatment of the Welsh language’. This suggests that the harsh terms of the Acts of Union were perhaps not quite as harsh in reality with the formal, official status of the Welsh language within legal system being quite different to that in practice.

Until the arrival of county councils in 1889, the Quarter Sessions were very much the ‘hub of local government’. This meant that the Quarter Sessions were responsible for a significant amount of the administrative work that would later be undertaken by county councils. This would have certainly been advantageous for the Welsh language with the Quarter Sessions more likely to be held in Welsh due to their smaller and perhaps less important nature. It thus appears that the Welsh language still had its place in official realms of society such as politics and, albeit more trivial, legal matters. Mark Ellis Jones also explains how the legal system entailed a considerable amount of popular involvement before the first half of the nineteenth century, mainly due to the fact that the means of state prosecution by a permanent police force was yet to be established. It was therefore ‘absolutely essential that the legal system was not hostile to the monoglot Welsh speaker’. This suggests that the likely use of the Welsh language in the Quarter Sessions would have been exploited as the legal system required the cooperation of society in terms of state prosecution and would thus need to accommodate society’s needs in return; the need to proceed with legal matters in their only language.

Philip Jenkins claims that ‘In the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, the proportion of Welsh speakers in Wales was probably around 90 per cent’ and that ‘at least until after 1700, it would have been remarkable to find a Welsh squire or even peer unable to read or converse in Welsh.’ This perhaps suggests that, as discussed above, the provisions of the Acts of Union in relation to the Welsh language were not quite so strictly enforced and thus its actual effect on the Welsh language in terms of its speakers was not as negative as it may have first appeared.

It has been suggested that as a result of the proceedings of the Court of Great Sessions being in English, Welsh-speakers sought a Welsh language supplement to the system, which may be seen in the form of ‘y ceffyl pren’. ‘Y ceffyl pren’ was a form of social humiliation where offenders would be tied to a wooden frame and paraded around the village. This can be compared with that of ‘rough music’ in England or ‘riding the stang’ in Scotland. As Pat Molloy explains, ‘Adulterers, harsh landlords, the fathers of bastard children who hid behind the hated provisions of 19th century Poor Law making the mother entirely responsible for her own predicament, all faced the frightening, embarrassing (and not infrequently painful) effects of these riotous affairs’.

Were this the case, it would demonstrate that there was a demand for settling disputes and ensuring justice through the Welsh language. Therefore, this may be seen as proof that Welsh monolinguals were not adequately catered for within the justice system and were left to improvise by themselves to compensate for that failure. It may be argued that this chosen method of compensation in itself was dangerous and unjust and could even have potentially been prejudiced against non-Welsh speakers as a result of the bitterness of Welsh-speakers for the justice system’s failure to provide for them.

However, the connection between ‘y ceffyl pren’ and the need to supplement the justice system for Welsh-speakers may be questionable. Many explain that ‘y ceffyl pren’ was intended to operate as a warning to wives and husbands suspected of marital infidelity’ thus suggesting that the link between the use of ‘y ceffyl pren’ and the concern for the use of the Welsh language is a tenuous one at best.

Despite the apparent lack of connection between this system of alternative justice and the Welsh language, it can certainly be argued that the use of ‘y ceffyl pren’ reflected wider cultural concerns. The fact that there was clearly a demand for a system of alternative justice in the first place demonstrates a certain lack of faith in the legal system and a lack of belief that justice was being sufficiently served through this system. This may suggest that there was perhaps some suspicion that English judges were being imported for Welsh circuits with English law being enforced even further and any Welsh concerns being disregarded. This idea of law being imposed by outsiders, in what many would regard as an outside language, may explain some of the clear mistrust in the legal system.

It appears therefore that having been formally stripped from any form of official status and banished from the courtroom by legislation, the Welsh language was far from being in a strong position. The above discussion demonstrates how, on most occasions, the negative effect of legal changes on the Welsh language was not intentional but rather proved to be inevitable. It may even be argued that the purpose of the Acts of Union was not to ensure the demise of the Welsh language but rather to ensure official unity between England and Wales and thus an English language legal sphere. Nevertheless, the natural consequence of this was to place the Welsh language in a fragile position. However, it has been discussed how, in practice, this undesirable consequence was not always the case. Wales retained a certain degree of independence with large parts of civil life being decentralised and thus able to be dealt with in Welsh. The banishing of the Welsh language in the courtroom had no effect on the Welsh language in religious Wales with the Bible being legislated to be translated to Welsh. Thus, in reality, the Welsh language was in a stronger position in society than the prohibition of the Welsh language in the legal sphere might have suggested. However, albeit perhaps unintentional, the official outlawing of the Welsh language inevitably would have led to its devaluation, despite its survival and flourishing in certain aspects of society, before the abolition of the Court of Great Sessions.

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