Wales tries to keep its Welsh tongue talking

The last sermon preached in the Cornish tongue was delivered in Cornwall, England, in 1678. The language has since died. Three centuries later, across the Bristol Channel from Cornwall, a sister language is in trouble: Welsh, spoken by only about a half million people and thought to be losing 200 speakers a week.

"We are in a period of crisis," says Edward Millward, senior lecturer in Welsh at the University College of Wales here and former Welsh tutor to the Prince of Wales.

For although it is probably the most robust of the Celtic languages (which include Cornish, Breton, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, and the all-but-vanished Manx), Welsh, he feels, is under pressure from several directions:

* The centralization of power in London. Following the Welsh Language Act of 1967, printed governmental forms in Wales are bilingual. But even in Cardiff, the capital of this principality, it is difficult to transact business solely in Welsh, since the language is hardly ever heard by superiors at Westminster.

* The "Anglicization-Americanization" of the culture. Mr. Millward points especially to television. Welsh-speaking children reaching their teens "tend to want to speak English," he chuckles, "because 'The Incredible Hulk' is in English."

* The proximity of England. English is the most widespread language in the world, with some 374 million speakers internationally.

* A history of persecution. Henry VIII's Act of Union proscribed the use of Welsh "within this realm of England" in 1536. In the 19th century, schoolmasters caned children heard speaking Welsh and shamed them by hanging a wooden sign called the "Welsh not" around their necks.

To many of the 80 percent English-speaking majority in Wales, the demise of Welsh foreseen by the turn of the century evokes little more than a shrug. But an increasing body of ardent Welsh-lovers is bent on saving this 1,400-year-old antique -- although Mr. Millward wouldn't put it quite that way.

"I never talk about preserving the language," he says. That reminds him of things in jars in a museum. Instead, he says, you must "talk in terms of creating adequate conditions for the language to live."

He wants it alive for several reasons. First, he sees it as an integral part of local culture, without which "Welshness" would not survive.

Besides, he says, it has "probably the oldest extant literature in Europe," with poetry dating from the 6th century. (English poetry, by contrast, essentially begins in the 14th century.)

Another reason is that poetry is central to Welsh culture. Tales still circulate of miners in the Rhondda Valley teaching each other the 24 strict meters of Welsh poetry while underground, writing in chalk on the backs of their shovels.

Those who prize the culture that named the Corgi, the cupboard, the terrier, and the rarebit are buoyed up by other examples of salvaged tongues. Finnish recovered its individuality after six centuries of Swedish domination. Romansch in Switzerland and Faeroese on the Faeroe Islands are official languages. And, of course, there is Hebrew, a language unspoken for 1,700 years and now the first language of some 3.6 million Israelis.

But how do you fight off extinction?

From their crumbling basement office here, the members of the Welsh Language Society think they have an answer.Secretary Clair Richards puts it simply: "People must see that Welsh has status."

Many disagree with their means, which include not only lobbying commercial firms to post bilingual signs (preferably giving Welsh priority) but also defacing English-language road signs, attacking television transmitters, and taking an active political role.

But Miss Richards notes a growing frustration with democratic action and an increasing interest in the Society or Gymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg as it is known in Welsh.

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