UK: Welsh is thriving, but still needs protection

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Feb 20 14:36:43 UTC 2009

Welsh is thriving, but still needs protection

Feb 20 2009 by Staff Reporter, Western Mail

IN RECENT weeks the Welsh language has been in the public eye, but
seen through a political prism – the push-me-pull-you debate over
whether the Assembly, rather than Westminster, should take the lead on
language policy. So it's a welcome change to see the language in a
different context, as part of a world survey of endangered languages.
Unesco rates Welsh as "unsafe", but that's not as worrying as it
sounds. It has several other ratings of various levels of danger,
right down to extinct. The UN body suggests Welsh needs further help
in order to be sure to survive, which is true enough. It also,
rightly, points to the upsurge in the use of Welsh since the 1960s as
an all-too-rare success story.

The rest of its survey of world languages is sobering. There are
around 6,000 languages worldwide, with 200 disappearing in the past
three generations. More than 1,500 are on the endangered list. Unesco
rates Manx as officially extinct and does the same for Welsh's close
cousin, Cornish. Understandably, speakers of those tongues are unhappy
with Unesco's assessment; the fate of those languages, however, is a
reminder of what could happen to Welsh if indifference or hostility
ever became the prevailing orthodoxy again.

The Welsh "model", if there is such a thing, is being copied
elsewhere. A three-pronged approach of Welsh-medium education,
official rights to receive public services and universally-available
radio and television has helped put the language on a safer footing.
Others are copying that model, with various degrees of success. If
Unesco is to be believed, it's too late for Manx and Cornish; the
launch of a Scots Gaelic BBC channel, on the other hand, suggests
there is hope.

Development of cross-party consensus on at least not attacking the
language, dating back to the 1980s, has also given Welsh space to
That consensus will be tested by the process of devolving powers over
the language to the Assembly. Few will genuinely question the idea of
allowing the devolved administration to have control of the issue; the
fun and games will come when the Assembly Government brings forward
specific plans.
The challenge for Welsh is to move beyond the successful model of the
late 20th century and draw up a framework for the 21st century.

Education will still be crucial, as will broadcasting, but the growth
of social networking, more fragmented digital media and population
flows from rural to urban areas will all need to be considered. The
survival and flourishing of the Welsh language is something we can all
be proud of and its future is probably safer than Unesco suggests. But
the fate of other Celtic tongues is a reminder that assuming no action
is needed will never be the right option.

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