Survival of the Welsh Language
It is the eighth wonder of Wales that is the most wondrous of them all, the survival of the Welsh language in the face of almost impossible odds.
Sometime in the seventh century, a Welsh Bishop heard an Englishman's voice on the bank of the River Severn and was filled with foreboding at the sound.. He recorded his unsettling experience thus: "For the kinsman of yonder strange-tongued man whose voice I heard across the river. . . will obtain possession of this place, and it will be theirs, and they will hold it in ownership."
The bishop was wrong. More than twelve centuries have passed since the strange tongue of the Saxon was heard on the borders of Wales, centuries during which the ancient tongue of the Bishop and his fellow Britons had every opportunity to become extinct and yet which has stubbornly refused to die. The survival of the native language is truly one of the great wonders of Wales, to be appreciated and marvelled at far more than any physical feature or man-made object, and far more than the so-called seven wonders of Wales.
It is a something of a shock when visitors travel from England west into
Wales, for, almost without warning, he may find himself in areas where not only the dialects become incomprehensible, but where even the language itself has changed. The roadside signs "Croeso i Gymru" (accompanied by the red dragon, the ancient badge of Wales) let it be known that one is now entering a new territory, inhabited by a different people, for the translation is "Welcome to Wales" written in one of the oldest surviving vernaculars in Europe. For amusement with the language, after getting used to names such as Pontcysyllte, Pen y Mynydd , or Glynceiriog, one can take a little detour off the main route through Anglesey to Ireland and visit the village with its much-photographed sign announcing the now-closed railway station:
To account for the abrupt linguistic change from English into Welsh, one must journey far, far back into history.
It was about 1000 BC that the Celtic languages arrived in Britain, probably introduced by small groups of migrants who became culturally dominant in their new homelands, and whose culture formed part of a great unified
Celtic "empire" encompassing many different peoples all over Northern
Europe. The Greeks called these people, with their organized culture and developed social structure Keltoi, the Romans called them Celtai.
In spite of the fact that they were perhaps the most powerful people in much of Europe in 300 BC, with lands stretching from Anatolia in the East to Ireland in the West, the Celts were unable to prevent inter tribal warfare; their total lack of political unity, despite their fierceness in battle, ultimately led to their defeat and subjugation by the much-better disciplined armies of Rome. The Celtic languages on Continental Europe eventually gave way to those stemming from Latin.
The Celts had been in Britain a long time before the first Roman invasion of the British Isles under Julius Caesar in 55 BC which did not lead to any significant occupation. The Roman commander, and later Emperor, had some interesting, if biased comments concerning the native inhabitants. "All the
Britons," he wrote, “paint themselves with woad, which gives their skin a bluish color and makes them look very dreadful in battle" (De Bello
Gallico). It was not until a hundred years later, following an expedition ordered by the Emperor Claudius, that a permanent Roman settlement of the grain-rich eastern territories of Britain begun in earnest.
From their bases in what is now Kent, the Roman armies began a long, arduous and perilous series of battles with the native Celtic tribes, first victorious, next vanquished, but as on the Continent, superior military discipline and leadership, along with a carefully organized system of forts connected by straight roads, led to the triumph of Roman arms. In the western peninsular, in what is now Wales, the Romans were awestruck by their first sight of the druids (the religious leaders and teachers of the
British). The historian Tacitus described them as being "ranged in order, with their hands uplifted, invoking the gods and pouring forth horrible imprecations" (Annales)
The terror was only short-lived; Roman arms easily defeated the native tribesmen, and it was not long before a great number of large, prosperous villas were established all over Britain, but especially in the Southeast and Southwest. Despite defeats in pitched battles, the people of mountainous Wales and Scotland were not as easily settled; their scattered settlements remained "the frontier" -- lands where military garrisons were strategically placed to guard the Northern and Western extremities of the
Empire. The fierce resistance of the tribes in Cambria meant that two out of the three Roman legions in Britain were stationed on the Welsh borders.
Two impressive Roman fortifications remain to be seen in Wales: Isca
Silurium (Caerleon) with its fine amphitheatre, in Monmouthshire; and
Segontium, (Caernarfon), in Gwynedd.
In Britain, at least for a few hundred years after the Roman victories on mainland Europe, the Celts held on to much of their customs and especially to their distinctive language, which has miraculously survived until today as Welsh. The language of most of Britain was derived from a branch of
Celtic known as Brythonic: it later gave rise to Welsh, Cornish and Breton
(these differ from the Celtic languages derived from Goidelic; namely,
Irish, Scots, and Manx Gaelic). Accompanying these languages were the
Celtic religions, particularly that of the Druids, the guardians of traditions and learning.
Though the Celtic tongue survived as the medium of everyday speech, Latin being used mainly administrative purposes, many loan words entered the native vocabulary, and these are still found in modern-day Welsh, though many of these have entered at various times since the end of the Roman occupation. Today's visitors to Wales who know some Latin are surprised to find hundreds of place names containing Pont (bridge), while ffenest
(window), pysgod (fish), milltir (mile), melys (sweet or honey) cyllell