6 Jul

Map of the Week: The Deterioration of Celtic Languages: A Welsh Case Study

By Sara Ryan

Celtic languages once dominated Northern European cultures. Acting as a branch of the Indo-European language family, Celtic languages were spoken during both the Roman and pre-Roman times. Currently, they are chiefly spoken in the UK and Ireland, as well as in the Brittany peninsula of northwestern France. The six modern Celtic languages are Irish, Manx, Scottish (Scots) Gaelic, Breton, Cornish and Welsh

The map above, included in the Welsh language in Wales (Census 2021), depicts the amount of people ages 3 or older in Wales who can speak native Welsh. Welsh is classed as a Brythonic (or Brittonic) Celtic language and is the most widely spoken of the Celtic languages. Colonization, mainly from the British Empire, forced the assimilation of Celtic cultures into Anglo-Saxon ways of life. They became rapidly replaced by Germanic languages such as English. Although Welsh was an extremely well-developed language, very early on (Wales was one of the first countries to use its own language to create laws and a functioning legal system; the word Cymry was used to describe its people as long ago as the seventh century) the introduction of the “Act of Union” by English King Henry VIII banned the use of Welsh in public administration and the legal system. 

These maps below by Maps on the Web showcase the deterioration of the Welsh language in Wales, comparing the proportion of Welsh speakers in 1961 and 2001.

Geography has played a major role in determining where the remaining Welsh language strongholds are located. Historically, locations farther from the Welsh border with England (located on the eastern border of Wales) have proven harder to assimilate into Anglo- Saxon cultures. To this day, as shown above, the deeply rooted loyalty to the native Welsh language has been most notably seen in northwestern Wales, with the region having the highest concentration of Welsh speakers.

Efforts from the Welsh government have led to an increase in Welsh speakers in some smaller regions particularly on the southern coast. A 2020 BBC article highlighted research published in the journal The Royal Society, predicting almost the entirety of Wales will be able to speak Welsh within the next 300 years.

Similar revival efforts have been made across Scotland and Ireland, where both Scots Gaelic and Irish (both Celtic languages of the Goidelic (or Gaelic) subgroup) are now taught subjects in schools. In Ireland in particular, revival efforts have caused an increase of 6% in Irish speakers since 2016. Although Celtic languages have taken a significant hit throughout history, they remain a vital part of Celtic culture and hold the key to transporting age-old customs into the future.