Language revitalization in Wales

Jennifer Quincey

Historically, speakers of Welsh were heavily stigmatized by their English rulers, who saw the language as directly causing what they erroneously believed to be Welsh proclivities toward theft, laziness, and promiscuity.For centuries, Welsh was banned from official use, and in some 19th century schools, children caught speaking the language were beaten. A shift toward English accompanied the popular perception of Welsh as an impediment to social and economic advancement. Currently, the number of Welsh speakers in Wales stands at roughly 500,000 people, or 20.5% of the population.

These negative attitudes toward Welsh have changed dramatically within the past 15 years. Various pieces of legislation, the establishment of a devolved National Assembly for Wales, and campaigns by language activists have fostered an increase in the visibility, prestige, and salience of the language in everyday life. Today, Welsh in Wales shares co-official-language status with English, discrimination against Welsh speakers is illegal, and the language is a compulsory part of the Welsh national curriculum. The effects of these changes are reflected in the 2001 census, which revealed a slight rise in the number of Welsh speakers: this is the first such increase in over a century.

CYMRU [Wales] IS NOT FOR SALE. In-migration, most notably from England, is widely seen as triggering the current housing crisis and ‘dilution’ of Welsh-speaking communities affecting much of rural Wales. Photographed March 2006 near Blaenau Ffestiniog, north Wales, by Jennifer Quincey.

My fieldwork was funded by a NSF Dissertation Grant and by the Wenner-Gren Foundation.


My research traces the course of state valuations of the Welsh language and the diverse ways in which such ideological shifts play out in everyday language choices and behaviors. In addition to exploring the relationship between language and individual, regional, and national identities, this project addresses ethnic resurgence and linguistic nationalism, state intervention, and the trajectory of an endangered language in a globalizing Europe.