Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Decline of the Welsh language in Radnorshire - Language Shift

The first census to bother itself with the Welsh language was that of 1891, and of subsequent enquiries, only that of 1901 has so far been published in detail. By that time the process of language shift in most Radnorshire parishes was complete, but in order to gain some insight into how the process would have occurred we can examine the 1901 Census figures for the nearby Breconshire parish of Llanafanfawr.

The language of an area can change in two ways: by the replacement of the original population by newcomers, as has happened in Tasmania for example; or as in Tipperary, to take another example, by the original population ditching the old language in favour of the new. Despite some ridiculous claims to the contrary it is this second process that swept across the Radnorshire countryside in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The key to this shift is bilingualism, individuals must speak the new before they can turn their back on the old.

Turning to Llanafanfawr we find that in 1901 the parish could still be considered part of Y Fro Gymraeg with 72.6% of the population being able to speak Welsh. Yet the process of language shift was well under way with the 10% of the population unable to speak English already outnumbered by the 27% who claimed to know no Welsh.

If we examine those individuals speaking English we can see just how language shift occurs. In 15 households we find Welsh speaking parents bringing up their children to speak only English. If we add a further two households where locally born parents claimed, somewhat suspiciously, to speak only English, then these children account for 43 of the 117 English only speakers in the parish.

There are 7 households where a local partner has married a spouse from a nearby but already anglicised parish, here the children are again being brought up as monoglot English speakers. There are also 4 households where families from nearby anglicised parishes have taken farms in Llanafan. Together these account for a further 45 English speakers, mainly children. The fact that the local schoolmaster and his family are also listed as English monoglots is a further nail in the coffin of Welsh.

The reasons why families should want to switch to English are plain enough, after all it was the language of officialdom and, to an ever increasing extent, commerce. The schools, the Anglican church, the railways, the press were all factors driving out Welsh. At the same time bilingualism is largely achieved by day to day contact with the new language and it was the gradual tide of English spreading from Radnorshire and into the Irfon valley, which by 1901 had placed Llanafanfawr in the frontline of language shift.

It is interesting to note that there are 18 households employing English speaking servants. In a number of cases the only domestic servant in a Welsh speaking household was an English monoglot speaker. It seems to me that this may well have been quite deliberate, a means whereby the household could improve its grasp of the English language by daily contact with an English speaker. It is in these ways that the language shift that affected Radnorshire and then much of Builth Hundred would have been achieved.

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