Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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Contemporary Wales

6.1.2 Language and national identity

Making ourselves more aware of how we use language reveals its powerful role in establishing personal identities and in supporting feelings of solidarity and difference with various social groups. This is the case even among speakers of the same language. When there is a difference of language linked to another social identity, such as nationality, the effect is enhanced greatly. Few sociolinguists believe language difference in itself causes social conflict, but it is often implicated in conflict. As you read Extract 3, from Sapir, consider how and when, according to Sapir, language and national identity came to be so closely linked. What circumstances may lead to language-based conflict?

Extract 3

While language differences have always been important symbols of cultural difference, it is only in comparatively recent times, with the exaggerated development of the ideal of the sovereign nation ..., that language differences have taken on an implication of antagonism. In ancient Rome and all through mediaeval Europe there were plenty of cultural differences running side by side with linguistic ones, and the political status of Roman citizen or the fact of adherence to the Roman Catholic church was of vastly greater significance as a symbol of the individual’s place in the world than the language or dialect he happened to speak. It is probably altogether incorrect to maintain that language differences are responsible for national antagonisms. It would seem to be much more reasonable to suppose that a political and national unit, once definitely formed, uses a prevailing language as a symbol of its identity ...

Sapir, 1970 (1933), pp. 40–2

Here, Sapir maintains that the close association of language and national identity is a product of modern times. We will return to this when we look at the origins of the ideology of nationalism. He also points to the repression of minority languages as a potential source of conflict. Although he was certainly incorrect to suggest – even in the 1930s – that such repression was limited to Europe, it has certainly been a feature of state building there. Indeed, the Welsh language experienced centuries of repression: Henry VIII banned Welsh from all official usage in Wales with the Act of Union in 1536. In subsequent centuries, the language was systematically stigmatised, most famously in the 1847 Report into the State of Education in Wales, which pronounced the language a ‘great evil’, holding it responsible for the supposed economic and moral degeneracy of the Welsh people (Roberts, 1998). This report, also referred to as ‘Brad y Llyfrau Gleision’ or ‘The Treachery of the Blue Books’, was prepared by three English barristers, none of whom could speak or understand Welsh. Possibly the most devastating action against the Welsh language was forbidding its use in schools, a prohibition that continued into the early twentieth century.

Although the centralising activities of the English state successfully eliminated virtually all the administrative, legal and other institutional differences between England and Wales, the Welsh language remained the language of the majority of the population of Wales and most of its communities through the nineteenth century. However, as Figure 11 shows, the percentage of people speaking Welsh declined steadily through the twentieth century. The reasons for the decline are complex, but can be linked to the economic and social position of Wales within an increasingly powerful British state.

Figure 11 Percentage of Welsh population able to speak Welsh, 1891–2011
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