It’s Diwrnod Shw’mae – Shw’mae Day, How’sthings Day, the day when we can all try to use a bit of Welsh. Even those of us who have hardly any. For us, it’s the unhealing wound at the heart of our identity: we are Welsh but we can’t use our own language with any sense of confidence or security.
It seems somehow appropriate that on Diwrnod Shwmae I’m looking at the sixteenth-century Acts of Union with my Foundations of Modern Wales class. The Acts of Union have often been blamed for consigning the Welsh language to oblivion. That’s certainly what Huw Edwards said in The Story of Wales – the poor old werin bobl, forced to defend themselves in law courts where only English could be used.
But was it ever really like that? The Acts of Union were designed to appeal to and placate the Welsh. Henry VIII and his adviser Thomas Cromwell knew they had to keep the Welsh loyal, or Wales would be vulnerable to invasion from overseas. And the Acts certainly were popular. Some historians argue that, although there was clearly no enthusiasm for religious reform in Wales, the Welsh went along with the changes of the sixteenth century because they had gained so much from the Acts of Union and they didn’t want to go back to being a colonised people ruled by outsiders.
The Acts certainly said that English was to be the official language. You could ask what language the courts were held in before the Acts – when the Marcher Lords could be bothered to hold them, that is. Law French and bad Latin, probably – so English was no worse.
But as well as appealing to the Welsh, the Acts also had to be drafted to placate the English. This was statute law so it had to get through an all-English House of Lords and House of Commons, full of people who thought the Welsh were a bunch of dangerous bandits. The idea of law courts being allowed to use Welsh would be a bit like suggesting that law courts today could use sharia law.
In fact, like so much other legislation, that section of the Acts was never really implemented. We know that the courts used interpreters, and pretty soon Welsh-speaking judges were being appointed. Even the Council in the Marches could use Welsh, as the President for much of the mid-sixteenth century was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, a man who was always happier in Welsh rather than English.
The Acts also led indirectly to one of the most important influences on the preservation of the Welsh language. The religious changes of the sixteenth century meant that it was important to get the Bible translated into everyday language so that ordinary people could read it (or more likely have it read to them). Church services were also translated. As a result the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were translated into Welsh, and this meant that for most people Welsh became the language of religious worship. This preserved the language for centuries, but now it has become a bit of a problem: Welsh is in some people’s minds associated with the old ways of doing things and with the repressive aspects of Welsh chapel culture, so there is less enthusiasm for using the language.
We also missed a trick in the translation of the Bible. One thing that a lot of Welsh learners struggle with is mutations, the way that the first letter of so many words changes in different ways according to some really complicated rules. One of the things that makes it difficult to understand is that these changes go back to the old forms of the language. As the language has developed, the mutations have become fossilised so that it’s difficult to remember them. For many native Welsh speakers, they are one of the most important and distinctive things about their language, but for learners they are a constant source of anxiety.
The most famous of the Welsh translators of the Bible was William Morgan, who produced the translation of the whole Bible in 1588. But the first person to tackle the job was William Salesbury. Like Morgan, he came from the Conwy valley in north Wales (must have been something in the water). In 1552 he translated some of the set Bible readings from the Book of Common Prayer and published them as Kynniver Llith a Ban. He went on to work with Richard Davies on the translation of the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer, both published in 1567.
William Salesbury was a Renaissance humanist scholar. He was acutely aware that Welsh is much closer to Latin than English, and in some of his translations he used spellings that made this clear – eccles instead of eglwys for ecclesia, church, and so on. He also felt that mutations belonged in the Middle Ages and tried to get rid of them.
Then along came the traditionalist William Morgan and put them all back in – and we are still struggling with them.