The popularity of the Welsh language

Hope and reality

The Welsh language appears to be very popular these days. Particularly thanks to this year’s World Cup, where the FAW’s adoption of ‘Yma O Hyd’ has helped catapult Cymraeg to a degree of prominence hitherto unforeseen, prompting a curiosity about Welsh culture and history that reaches far beyond this country’s borders.

Other trends have also emerged. In recent years Welsh has been the fastest growing language in the UK among users of the learning app Duolingo, making it ‘the ninth most popular language to learn in the country’. Welsh-language music is also enjoying an unprecedented renaissance, with Steven Morris of the Guardian noting that ’it is now commonplace to hear Welsh language music on mainstream UK stations including BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 6 Music’. 

Further afield, it also feels commonplace now for Cymraeg to make appearances in international mass culture. Wales-focused social media feeds and content aggregators are awash with instances of global celebrities referencing the language, most notably via the ownership of Wrexham AFC by the now-mononymically-ubiquitous Hollywood actors ‘Rob and Ryan’.

Of far greater importance though is the ways in which Cymraeg appears to be growing into a normalised aspect of modern Welsh culture that transcends any linguistic division. To cite a personal example: to witness, as I have this season, Newport County warming up to the soundtrack of fans enthusiastically singing ‘er gwaetha pawb a phopeth’ (led on one occasion by the man himself) would have been totally inconceivable even a year or two ago.

It would seem that the hard-won progress of the past few decades to distribute the sense-perception of the language, from roadsigns to broadcast media to education – has successfully developed an aesthetic field in which multilingualism has become an accepted – integral, even – aspect of common consciousness throughout Wales.

One can only by heartened by the story of a minoritised community that’s spent centuries under the threat of extinction experiencing such new-found acceptance. It’s no wonder Dafydd Iwan had tears rolling down his cheeks at the Cardiff City Stadium in March: after four decades of singing ‘bydd yr iaith Gymraeg yn fyw’ to despairing ears, such a revival must be beyond all hope.

It may have may have come as a shock for many, then, to learn that ‘the number of Welsh speakers has fallen in the past decade’, according to the 2021 UK Census, to such an extent that ‘the percentage of people able to speak Welsh recorded in 2021 is the lowest ever recorded’.

While there are many possible gaps in these findings – it reveals little about what Simon Brooks calls the ‘hidden diaspora’ of ‘the Welsh of England’, for instance – and plenty of caveats (or excuses, if you’re feeling less charitable), on face value it appears to grossly contradict the received wisdom regarding Cymraeg’s newly elevated significance as a ‘structure of feeling’ palpable throughout all facets of Welsh culture.

There is clearly a deeper story to be told here, one that reveals a lot more about the material conditions that drive such an apparent decline. We need to examine this on two levels: firstly, why the use of Welsh is apparently continuing to dwindle despite this recent revivalist trend; and secondly, what this tells us about Welsh speakers as a group, the precise ways in which those who wish – need – to keep the language alive have been failed, and why it might be that the language is so important to those who continue to advocate for its continued existence.

Policies and failures

Whatever further conclusions can be drawn, the Census strongly suggest that those in power who have tasked themselves with the responsibility of preserving and growing the language are patently failing. Consequently, those who already speak Welsh as the primary language of their daily lives are actively being failed by these political overseers.

The Welsh Government’s trumpeted ambition of ‘a million Welsh speakers by 2050’ is destined to be little more than a slogan, the latest in a litany of pseudo-radical initiatives proffered by Welsh Labour, falling well short of a meaningful policy programme, let alone an attainable goal. The Census findings are thus emblematic of the point at which high-minded rhetoric meets brutal reality, an all-too-familiar impasse in Welsh politics.

A language isn’t just a blanket to loosely throw over a country for its inhabitants to embrace: it needs frameworks, institutions, and social relations through which it can weave. If its use is declining, it suggests the breaking up of these supporting structures.

A polity isn’t going to acquire a new means of communication just because a national government professes to desire it. Cultural change has never worked in this way – even a cursory examination of Wales’ own history of linguistic shifts would tell you that. As Martin Johnes notes, changes in the common tongue have always been driven by practical, material factors, rather than official edict alone. Welsh has endured in its ‘heartlands’ despite English being (until very recently) the sole official language because, outside of the classroom, Welsh remained ‘the language of work, play and prayer and English was very rarely used or even heard’. And conversely, industrial South Wales grew to be a mostly-Anglophone region due to demographic phenomena:

‘By the end of the 19th century, large-scale migration from England was affecting a shift in community languages. English became something that could be learned not just in the classroom but in the workplace, the pub and the street. Surrounded by an increasing number of workmates and neighbours who could not speak Welsh, the dynamics of language were changing from migrants learning Welsh to the existing population learning English.’

The lesson here for our own time is obvious: any hopes for the preservation and growth of Welsh as a ‘living language’ cannot be realised if the wider socio-economic system is not capable of supporting it. Under current conditions, any potential for the increased community proliferation of the Welsh language is utterly undermined by the politics of austerity and the wider cultural logic of neoliberalism. Angharad Tomos paints a stark picture in her contribution to The Welsh Way: Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution:

‘Too much is being left to fate. The Million Welsh Speakers by 2050 rings hollow here. Every week, a hundred teenagers come to the local youth club. They talk Welsh naturally to one another. It’s a Language Commissioner’s dream. Gwynedd’s policy? We cannot support youth clubs in Gwynedd, there is no money there. We have a lively library, as many villages in the county have. Here, in a public space, people communicate and meet one another. It’s a vital place where the Welsh language is naturally used. Yet, this library and others have been under the threat of closure due to economic puts. Schools, post offices, libraries, youth clubs – all the organic, working-class public sphere where Welsh is being used as a natural medium of communication, exactly the right conditions you need to produce your vital percentage of the million Welsh speakers, they are all under threat.’[1]

Thus the apparent decline of Welsh as a spoken language is, above all, a symptom of the destruction of communities, the ripping up of social bonds, and the dissolution of language as a tissue of culture. ‘Every natural language’, Ross Perlin writes, ‘is the evolved product of a specific history, the unconscious creation of a community’. And so it goes that the death of a language ‘represents the passing into nothingness of a culture’, as David Shariatmadari puts it. These are our stakes. No amount of sloganeering can arrest this decline or even address the core of what these Census findings seem to signify.

Language as commodity

So with all this bleakness in mind, why is there such an apparent abundance of Cymraeg in popular culture? You may think that such a rising prominence is despite its apparent decline as a living language, but it is in fact a direct symptom. The Welsh language is dissolving into the world as a free-floating cultural artefact to which all manner of meaning can be affixed precisely because it is losing its foothold in living communities. It is melting into air. We know that capital subsumes into itself all existing social relations, and of course Welsh society is not immune. ‘Popeth breiniol a sefydledig a dry’n fwg’[2].

In modern Wales, the housing market is out of control, the basic necessity of human shelter transformed into a commodity-relationship in which parasitic landlords and property developers contribute to the chronic impoverishment of much of the population. In Welsh-speaking communities this most often manifests through an industry of ’second homes’ and holiday lets. In a society where house prices are tied to their value of exchange, desirable ‘property’ becomes extremely lucrative, turning communities into business opportunities for those with the means of turning a profit. This often results in the exclusion of existing residents who lack the requisite purchasing power. Colin Williams describes the situation as follows:

‘It’s easy to see why Wales, with its stunning coastline and rural landscapes, has become a favoured location for holiday homes. But the growth in second homes is having a corrosive effect on the Welsh language. In some places, the concentration of second homes is so high that up to 46% of the local housing stock can be empty for parts of the year. In places like Gwynedd, one in every ten homes is a second home.’

The effect on the status of the Welsh language – and inherently on the community that uses it – is devastating, as Williams describes:

‘The rise of second homes is contributing to rising house prices. This is pushing out many younger Welsh speakers, who feel understandably aggrieved that they have to leave their home communities. As more communities become places for holiday lets, rural and village schools close. This in turn weakens the predominance of Welsh as the default language in particular communities.’

What’s occurring here is a process – inherent to the functioning of capitalism – that Deleuze and Guattari have termed ‘deterritorialization’: the way in which the flow of capital effortlessly disrupts and displaces existing modes of living, and reconstitutes them in such a way that allows for the continuation of capital accumulation, in turn making them more amenable to, and better placed to support, this economic system going forward. As Jeremy Gilbert helps explain, ‘capital’s deterritorialising, decoding force tends to disaggregate communities and codify human experience in terms of individuals, consumers and competitors’.[3]

So in our particular case, we can see how Welsh-language communities as they exist are a barrier to capital, in that displacing them unlocks the wealth-producing potential of their properties. As Brooks writes, under the auspices of the free market ‘Welsh as the basis for a cohesive group is a barrier to the free flow of capital, and cannot be tolerated.[4]

Under capitalism, all is reduced to its value-potential: all falls equal at the feet of the market, and all aspects of life subsumed. As such, local concerns and extant ways of life are co-opted into the needs of global modernity: Welsh is assimilated into the Anglophone world as social relations are assimilated into capital – ‘English being the lingua franca of globalisation’, as Meg Elis puts it.

In such a context, it’s easy to see how the aforementioned wider ‘acceptance’ and general embrace of the language, when combined with the displacement of its social base, becomes an assimilation in which the minority is erased by the majority, as Brooks concludes:

‘Here the retreat of the Welsh-language community over the last fifty years is explained. Individual rights such as the right to receive services through the medium of Welsh can be reconciled with the market, and indeed have created a market, and rights have been granted. Welsh-medium education is promoted in an attempt to create linguistic stability but is made meaningless by the crucial axiom that capital must be respected. In Wales, capital decides who can procure property, and as capital in Britain is by and large in the hands of the majority community, the minority population is displaced.’[5]

Thus the Welsh Government’s approach to ‘growing the language’ is exposed to be neoliberal to the core: ensuring the markets can function, ensuring that people can be supported only insofar as it doesn’t disrupt the flow of profit generation, ultimately resulting in chronic social alienation and subsumption into capital.

If the government can do little beyond ‘[attempting] unsuccessfully to balance the fundamentally competing needs of capital and labour’, as Dan Evans describes it, they are left with little power beyond pursuing a meek policy of ‘bilingualism’: promoting parity between the Welsh and English languages without paying due mind to the social forces that underpin their contrasting uses and unbalanced power dynamics. In such circumstances, capital becomes the ultimate arbiter. Tomos provides a useful example of this at work in Welsh Government policy:

‘For decades, we had seen contractors buying land and building unnecessary housing estates with the sole purpose of making profits. These houses were beyond the reach of local people, and so the buyers were people from outside the area and this weakened the situation of the language. Now, the language would be a factor they had to consider. The weak spot? There was no legal obligation for them to do so. Worse than not implementing their own laws, they actively undermine them. The Policy Planning Wales (Welsh Government 2016a) document states that ‘policies must not introduce any element of discrimination between individuals on the basis of their linguistic ability, and should not seek to control housing occupancy on linguistic grounds’. Once more, a classic example of doublespeak.’[6]

Rather than saving the communities whose existence is predicated upon Cymraeg, the government is instead contributing to the individuation of the speakers of the language. The slogan of ‘a million speakers’ can be parsed as referring to a million individual people who ‘use’ the language, rather than constituting a singular group (or network of groups), bound together by mutual intelligibility.

We therefore seem to be reaching the situation that Johnes identifies, whereby, at best, there are ‘a million who can speak Welsh’ rather than ‘a million who do speak Welsh’. This is echoed by Williams’ recognition that Cymraeg-without-community will produce users, rather than speakers, who ‘see the language as a utilitarian skill…rather than as a language for social interaction.’

It is in this sense that the multifarious pressures of capital combine to transform a language into a commodity: something that takes on a value beyond its primary function. Flows of capital, together with government action, leads Welsh to be mined for its commercial value, the tongue of Welsh speakers becoming as valued an asset as their homes. Cymraeg becomes a commodity among commodities: a signifier of nothing beyond its own marketisation.

Concurrent with formal government policy, so too can we see ‘official’ Welsh culture instrumentalise the language for capital-generating ends. Whereas within Wales the language becomes a valued social commodity, internationally it becomes a brand: an aesthetic device that forms a key aspect of the state’s expression of ‘soft power’ as it attempts to insert itself into the global marketplace. We saw this prominently during Wales’ time at the aforementioned World Cup, with many branches of government and cultural organisations flocking to Qatar to ‘take Cymru to the world’.

Thus, as communities break up, its members atomised and alienated, that which binds them together – language, culture – becomes abstracted, untethered from that which produced it. If a minoritised language continues to exist when unfixed from its community, it must do so in another form, taking on a wholly different social function: proliferating throughout the wider population as an aesthetic, a social signifier. This is the trajectory that Cymraeg communities find themselves on, and with it the language – their language.

This is likely the ‘real’ story of these Census findings, and so the decline of the use of the Welsh language occurring against the backdrop of its rising ‘popularity’ is not incongruent at all: rather, the former begets the latter.

Pwy yw ‘ni’?

Ultimately, the key driver behind the decline of the Welsh language is the subsumption of all aspects of life into capital. If this encroachment becomes saturation it will die, as with anything we hold affection for or need in order to live a meaningful life beyond the realm of commerciality and profit.

In this sense it’s just one instance of debasement among an infinitude: there is nothing particularly unique or special about it. This is not to demean its inherent importance, but on the contrary to draw it into a wider, international fight against capitalism, through which its extinction can be averted. As A. Owen notes for Undod:

‘It is imperative to show that campaigning for the language can be a key example of the radical agenda that we need in Wales to stand up for community, equality and justice. And these are ultimately themes and causes, of course, that are global, and should serve to connect us with other peoples across the world.’

Indeed it is even possible, alongside the continued fight to save communities, for one to disrupt and repurpose the instrumentalisation of the language as it slips free from its communities. While its abstract appearances in mass culture are often banal, more encouraging is the ways in which Cymraeg is catalysing a cultural consciousness that threatens to greenhouse a new political radicalism, as its prominence in Welsh football fan culture is beginning to exemplify. In this sense, the language takes on a ‘hyperstitional’ function among its fragmented speakers: ‘a positive feedback circuit’ which ‘by its very existence as [an idea], functions causally to bring about [its] own reality’[7].

Thus the fight for the continued existence of the Welsh language can itself be a vector of class struggle. Its political value lies in the same phenomena that threatens to destroy it: its existence is antithetical to capital. Protecting it is important because it is not only a bulwark against capitalism, but is also a proxy conflict in the war against all forms of domination. A fight against the erasure of Welsh-language communities is thus a fight against capital, and all that entails: unaffordable housing, the degradation of social bonds and support networks, a life lived in bondage to labour and wealth-dependency.

Tomos notes that ‘the million Welsh speakers is not too radical a goal’, which ‘could be achieved, if the will was there’, yet ‘the present conditions make the goal totally impossible’.[8] So for this goal to be tethered to the reality of Welsh speakers’ lives, and to grow the language to an extent that all in Wales are empowered to access and advocate for it, existing material conditions necessitates a slight reframing: ‘a million anticapitalists by 2050’, perhaps. Then we might achieve the spirit of what Welsh language policy should be: protecting a minoritised group from the encroachment of capital, and equipping them to fight against it.

So, as the strains of ‘Yma O Hyd’ begin to fade, it’s worth asking to whom the ‘we’ in ‘we’re still here’ refers. Reza Negarestani writes that ‘Discursive practices as rooted in language-use and tool-use generate a de-privatized but nonetheless stabilizing and contextualizing space through which true collectivizing processes are shaped’[9]. That is to say, there is an inherent bonding experience through language and communicative practice – it binds citizen to citizen, interpellates one another as equals, as comrades. Such a phenomena, Negarestani continues, ‘harbors a genuine collectivity equipped with functional freedom referred to as ‘we’.[10]:

‘It should be reminded that ‘we’ is a mode of being, and a mode of being is not an ontological given, it is a conduct, a special performance that takes shape as it is made visible to others … By undergirding ‘we’, discursive practices organize commitments as ramifying trajectories between communal saying and doing and enact a space where self-construction is a collaborative project.’[11]

This is the vitality of language communities: they are formations which function as a mutuality, generating a collective consciousness in which one another’s needs and wants are reciprocal and co-operative. Keeping them alive as a ‘we’ empowers its members to construct for themselves new modes of living beyond the systemic forces capable of dominating and erasing them. ‘Er dued yw’r fagddu o’n cwmpas, ry’n ni’n barod am doriad y wawr’.

[1] Angharad Tomos, ‘Everything Must Change: Welsh Language Policy and Activism’ in The Welsh Way: Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution, ed. by Daniel Evans, Kieron Smith and Huw Williams (Cardigan: Parthian, 2021),pp. 150–161 (pp. 159–160).

[2] Karl Marx a Frederick Engels, Maniffesto’r Blaid Gomiwnyddol (Cyfieithiad Cymraeg: W. J. Rees):

[3] Jeremy Gilbert, Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics (Oxford: Berg, 2008), p. 184.

[4] Simon Brooks, Why Wales Never Was: The Failure of Welsh Nationalism (Cardiff: University of Wales Press), p. 135.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tomos, p. 156.

[7] ‘Hyperstition: An Introduction’, Orphan Drift <> [Accessed 11 December 2022].

[8] Tomos, p. 157.

[9] Reza Negarestani, ‘The Labor of the Inhuman’ in #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, ed. by Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014), pp. 425–466 (p. 434).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.