Monday, September 28, 2015

A Brief History of the Welsh Language

Just having finished my homework for my Welsh 101 Audit, I thought I might post it here. I had a little fun with it. It's nice to be free in an audit and 58-years-old in a class of mostly freshmen.

A rather more complex map of Celtic Migrations than is necessary for our purposes, but it's kinda cool.
Welsh 101
Brief History of the Welsh Language
Grant L. Vaughn
Sept. 28, 2015

Welsh, the language of the foreigners. But only if you’re Saxon and what do they know? Johnny-come-latelies to the British Isles as they are. And that current Queen is a Saxon from the family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha having to change their name during WWI to “Windsor” for the War PR so their subjects would forget they were pretty much real Saxons. But I digress. Forget the Saxons, they didn’t add much to the language. (Well, a lot of the fake Welsh words that end in “io,” sort of like the British version of Tex-Mex).

Welsh derives from the Celtic language branch of the Indo-European languages. It is an ancient language by quirk of fate. The Celtic movements through Western Europe, formerly dominate until the Romans and Germanic peoples squeezed them out, still left many place names. The Rivers Danube, Rhine, and Rhone all have Celtic origins as well as the major cities of Vienna and Paris.

When squeezed off the continent, the Celtic languages divided into Goidelic and Brithonic – the latter is our concern as its principal component is Welsh (Cymraeg) with Cornish and Breton closely related (and I think Manx – although I could be wrong and it belongs to. . .) The other branch is Goidelic which is the Gaelic of Ireland and Scotland which are less spoken than Welsh because we have the Northern Welsh who learn it at home and English in school and the Southern Welsh who learn English at home and Welsh at school. The Patagonians just stick with the Welsh as better than Spanish.

Modern Celtic Languages
The Romans conquered and Latinized a good part of the British Isles around the time of Christ. They technically conquered the Silurians and the other tough tribes in the mountainous west (now Wales) but it was always rough going with them and there were always the more simple shepherds who preferred the old ways in the mountains rather than the city and fort creations of the Romans. Anyway, the Welsh language hung on as tough as those dark-haired Silurians, some still among us today. There was a lot of word borrowing from the Romans especially for the techno things the Welsh hadn’t really needed like windows and bridges, oh, and books to which they did take a strong liking, especially their sorcerers (inside Welsh joke).

With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the invasion of the Saxon fiends right around the year 500 AD, things got a little dark and confusing. But the Welsh hung on to their language even if it did get a bit fragmented in dialects valley by valley and kingdom by kingdom (pretty much the same thing). The oral traditions and the bardic poetry kept a standard form alive and the early written Welsh is archaic but still the basis of modern Welsh (the Saxons were still pre-Christian and pre-written English language at this point – they had to borrow their literary treasures from the Danes). The Vikings didn't make much headway in Wales because the rivers were not conducive to inland invasion.

King Offa of Mercia built the Dyke in the 8th Century which was a pretty strong cultural division between the Saxon and Welsh peoples and their language. The Saxons never did conquer the Welsh unless you count the Norman overlords led by Edward I who defeated Llewelyn the Last in 1282 pretty much by accident. And speaking of accidents, Llewelyn’s dad, Gryffudd ap Llwewlyn Fawr, had the classic origin of not-surviving-an-escape-out-the-window-with-bedsheets-tied-together as he tried that trick and fell to his death from the White Tower, Tower of London (true story! Look it up!)

Anyway, Edward had a bunch of castles built and English walled towns established in Wales but he, like Offa, kept the Welsh separate thus encouraging them to keep to their Welsh at home even if it was banned in markets or towns controlled by the overlords. There were a lot of Flemish weavers brought to south Pembrokeshire further confusing the language situation. But the weaving was good. And there was lots of wool because there are a lot of sheep in Wales. Sheep being a great mountain animal.

Some of the bi-or multi-lingual and wealthier of the Welsh found it advantageous to hook up with the Norman royals and gentry. This happened with the Tudors who hung around the widowed Queen Catherine of Henry V fame and started up the Tudor dynasty after a generation or so of failures they ended the War of the Roses with Henry Tudor becoming Henry VII and marrying Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV the best king the Yorkists ever managed (really blowing it badly with Richard III whose recently found bones confirmed he had a crooked back so Shakespeare wasn’t all wrong).

Henry VII’s son was the famous Henry VIII of the several wives and the lopping of heads and most importantly for our purposes, the promulgator of the Acts of Union which pretty much banned the Welsh language in all forms of public life and also inconsistently addressed the status of Monmouthshire as to whether it was in Wales or England. Basically, if you were English, you thought it was England. And if Welsh, you would think it part of Wales. Only in the past couple of decades was that straightened out to make it part of Wales but that was beyond the scope of our movie.

Manx is of the Goidelic-Celtic Branch. So, maybe I'm down to an A- on my audit for waffling.

See here for Part II of the History of the Welsh Language.

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