Thursday, May 28, 2009

Welsh in Nantmel Parish

The more one looks at the rapidity of language shift in Radnorshire, the more one is reminded of Ireland. Research there shows that it took around 50 years for Irish districts to move from a situation where 100% of children grew up as Irish speakers to one where the figure had fallen to zero, and perhaps a 100 years for the language to disappear altogether.

Something similar certainly seems to have happened in the large Radnorshire parish of Nantmel. Writing around 1818 Jonathan Willaims remarked that the inhabitants spoke both Welsh and English but that "the use of the aboriginal tongue is rapidly declining." Similarly a letter writer spoke, no doubt exaggeratedly, of a place between Llandrindod and Rhayader where there was no English at the start of a particular cleric's ministry but no Welsh by 1845. According to Ffransis Payne, Dolau Baptist chapel ceased it's Welsh services around 1840 and the denomination's historian John Jones writing in 1895 reported that the majority of chapel goers in Nantmel and Newbridge-on-Wye spoke Welsh in his youth but that now it was "not understood in these places except by a few aged people."

There is some census evidence for this rapid abandonment of the Nantmelians' native tongue. If we look at the languages spoken by folk born and still living in Nantmel parish at the time of the 1891 Census, we find 100% of those aged over 80 speaking both Welsh and English - the sample is very low however. For those in their 70s the figure declines to 21%, while for those in their 60s just 7% and less than 3% for those in their 50s. There is only one person under the age of 50 and born in the parish who can speak Welsh, Gertrude Price, the 16 year old daughter of the Breconshire born Baptist minister at Dolau chapel.

These figures suggest that the anecdotal evidence is correct, parents began speaking English to their children in the first decade or so of the nineteenth century and by the middle of the century the language had all but disappeared from the hearths of the parish. Something similar must surely have happened in parishes further east a little earlier and which subsequently remain untraceable in the 1891 census.

Why did this rapid shift happen? Let us turn to Ireland and the opinion of one John Moylan of Rathkeale who lived through the language shift in West Limerick. He cited a growing public feeling that Irish was a dying language, a mark of a degraded people who were not "decent."

A farmer, Stephen Evans, who died in 1914, might be considered the last Nantmel native to speak the traditional Radnorian Welsh learnt in Nantmel at his mother's knee, although, no doubt, one or two others who had moved away from the parish may have lived on later than this.

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