WALES AND THE STUDY OF WELSH1
Robert D. Borsley
It is sometimes
said that there is a new confidence in Wales. The country has had its own
assembly for two years. Its rock bands, actors, and film makers are increasingly
visible outside Wales,
and there is talk of ‘cool Cymru’. Naturally, the
Welsh language has an important place in this newly confident Wales, and the
prospects for the language are an important subject of debate.
situation one might suppose that Welsh would be increasingly prominent as an
object of academic study in Wales.
Sadly, this is not the case. A great deal of energy is devoted to teaching
Welsh, and to promoting its use, and also to studying how it is and has been
used, but there is little research on the language itself, its sound system and
its grammatical structure, how they are acquired by children, how they have
changed over time, and how they vary from place to place. Increasingly, such
research is carried out outside Wales
and by non-Welsh linguists. Consider the area of syntax. Probably the most
important recent work is French linguist Alain Rouveret’s
Syntaxe du gallois: principes généraux
et typologie. Other important work has been
carried out by linguists based in England,
notably Maggie Tallerman of Durham,
David Willis of Cambridge, and Louisa Sadler of Essex (see e.g. Tallerman 1998,
Willis 1998 and Sadler 1988). The situation is broadly similar in phonetics and
phonology. Probably the most important work here is that of Martin Ball in Ulster and Briony
Williams in Edinburgh.
Other important work on Welsh has come from scholars in the United States and Germany,
notably James Fife and Erich Poppe (see Fife and Poppe 1991).
There is clearly
nothing wrong with linguists who are neither Welsh nor based in Wales working on Welsh, but one would expect Wales to
produce linguists of her own. In fact, there are very few Welsh linguists.
There are a few whose main interests are in dialectology, notably Robert Owen
Jones and Glyn Jones in Cardiff and David Thorne in Lampeter. There are two others who have done important work
in a number of areas: Gwen Awbery in Cardiff and Bob Morris Jones in Aberystwyth
(see Awbery 1976 and Jones and Thomas 1977). All
these linguists began to publish in the 1970’s, and no comparable figures have
emerged since then.
One might argue
that it is too soon for the new Welsh confidence to have any impact in the slow
moving world of academia. This is probably right. It is important, however, to
appreciate how bad the situation is and how much it has deteriorated over the
2. Some details
One might expect
to find some research on the Welsh language in the Welsh departments of the
various colleges that make up the University
of Wales. However like
most English, French, German, etc. departments, these are largely literature
departments. They teach Welsh as a second language, but they do little to
promote linguistic research on Welsh. It was not always like this. Sir John
Morris Jones, was Professor of Welsh in the University of Wales Bangor in the second and third
decades of the 20th century. His A
Welsh Grammar (1913) and his posthumous Welsh
Syntax: An Unfinished Draft (1931) are still
useful sources of information about aspects of the language. Interestingly, the
former was published in the same year as The
Welsh Vocabulary of the Bangor District (Fynes-Clinton
1913), by O.H. Fynes-Clinton, Professor of French in Bangor. This is an
important source of colloquial Welsh data. Arguably 1913 represents the high point of research on Welsh in Wales. There
have been others in Welsh departments whose main interests were linguistic. One example was Melville Richards, who taught
Welsh in Swansea and Bangor
(and Liverpool) (see Richards 1938). Another
was T.J. Morgan, Registrar of the University
Of Wales in the 1950’s and Professor
of Welsh in Swansea
in the 1960’s (and father of Rhodri Morgan), whose Y Treigladau a’u Cystrawen (‘The Mutations and their Syntax’) (Morgan
1952) was a major study of the Welsh mutation systems. A further example was Arwyn Watkins, a lecturer in Aberystwyth, who in 1961
(‘Linguistics’) (Watkins 1961), a Welsh medium introduction to the subject.
Interestingly, he eventually had to move to University College Dublin to get a
chair. At one time there was also considerable work on Welsh dialects in the Cardiff department. See
especially Ceinwen Thomas’s three volume study of the
dialect of Nantgarw near Cardiff (Thomas 1993). However, Ceinwen Thomas retired some time ago, and such research is
largely a thing of the past. Now, it appears that research on Welsh in Welsh
departments is limited to philological studies and the writing of traditional
grammars (see Thorne 1993, Thomas 1996). The latter are useful resources but no
substitute for the detailed and precise descriptive work that is characteristic
of modern linguistics.
One might also
expect to find research on Welsh in a linguistics department in Wales. There is
in fact just one, in Bangor.
The department has produced a significant amount of work on Welsh over the
years. In the 1970’s and 1980’s Alan Thomas did important work in Welsh
dialectology (see e.g. Thomas et al.
2000, published some time after Alan Thomas’s retirement). In the early and mid
1990’s Welsh syntax was a central concern for Ian Roberts and myself (see Borsley and Roberts
1996). Among other things this led to the establishment of an annual Welsh
Syntax Seminar, which continues to this day.2 Now,
however, with Roberts in Cambridge after a spell
in Stuttgart and myself in Essex,
the department has no one working on Welsh.3
Thus, there is
very little research on Welsh in Wales and those departments that
one might expect to be promoting such research are doing very little.
3. Some arguments
In response to
the above, it might be argued that the situation is not so bad or that it as
good as one could expect in the circumstances. Someone might argue that those
university departments that might be involved in research on the language need
to focus on other matters because their students’ interests lie elsewhere.
Members of Welsh departments might argue that their students are interested in
Welsh literature and not in the Welsh language. Similarly members of the Bangor linguistics
department might argue that that their students are predominantly English and
are only interested in aspects of English. The obvious response to this
argument is that there is no reason why academics’ research activities should
be circumscribed by the interests of their students. This is illustrated inter alia by
Bob Morris Jones. He has made an invaluable contribution to the study of Welsh,
but he has never taught courses focusing on Welsh. It seems, then, that the
problem is not that students are not interested in the language but that
academics are not interested (or lack the expertise to pursue their interest).
also argue that the priority for those who are interested in Welsh must be to
teach it or to promote its use in various ways and that studying the language
itself is a luxury the country can’t at present afford. The trouble with this
argument is that promoting a language and studying it are not independent
matters. In the long run the possibilities of promoting the language will be
significantly reduced if the language is not an object of study. Consider a
teacher of Welsh with an advanced student who asks for a detailed description
of some aspect of Welsh syntax, something more detailed than a general grammar
provides. In all probability, there will be nothing that the teacher can point
to. Similarly, consider a computer scientist looking for precise descriptions
of aspects of the language to incorporate into some natural language processing
system. Again there is likely to be nothing suitable. Finally, consider a
speech therapist concerned with developmental disorders in Welsh speaking
children. He or she needs a clear picture of the normal pattern of development
in the language. There has been some research on the acquisition of Welsh as a
first language, but our knowledge of the normal pattern of development is quite
limited. In general, then, promotion of the language requires better
descriptions of the language than are presently available. Thus, the idea that
study of the language is a luxury the country cannot afford is not a tenable
satisfactory descriptions of the language were available for all practical
purposes, there would still be a good reason for studying Welsh. A good reason
for studying any language is to contribute to the development of a general
picture of what human language is like. This is the central aim of theoretical
linguistics. Welsh deserves to be as influential in this enterprize
as English, French, Japanese or any other language, but it will only have an
influence if there is a significant body of rigorous analytic work on Welsh.
Producing such a body of work should not be left to linguists outside Wales.
4. Some comparisons
There are a
number of comparisons that are relevant here. Wales is not the only small country
with an interesting language. Another is Iceland. In 1998 Iceland had a population of under
300,000, while Wales
had a population of nearly 3 million. More importantly, according to the 1991
census, the number of Welsh speakers in Wales was 500,000. Thus, there are
considerably more Welsh speakers than Icelandic speakers. In the circumstances,
one might think that there would be at least as much work on Welsh in Wales as there is on Icelandic in Iceland. In
fact, there is far more work on Icelandic in Iceland. Over the last 20 years
Icelandic linguists have produced a large body of sophisticated work on their
language and as a result Icelandic has had a major impact on linguistic theory.
One might argue
that Icelandic is in a rather different position because it is not under
pressure from any other language. Consider, then, the case of Basque. Like
Welsh, Basque is under pressure from a much stronger language (two languages in
fact given that some Basque speakers are in France). It has more speakers than
Welsh (660,000 according to the 1991 census) but the difference is not that
great. No doubt, then, Basques who care about their language
have every incentive to seek to promote its use in whatever way they
can. Nevertheless there has been considerable research on Basque in the Basque
country, and Basque like Icelandic has had a considerable impact within
There is a much
more specific comparison that is worth making. Wales is not the only country with
a single linguistics department. Another is the Irish Republic,
where the only department is that of University College Dublin. This is in fact
smaller than the Bangor
department, but two members of the department, Máire Ní Chiosáin and Cathal Doherty, are best known for their work on Irish, Ní Chiosáin for work on phonology
and Cathal Doherty for work on syntax.
Thus, a variety
of comparisons suggest that the situation could be much better than it is.
5. The future
What of the
future? It is fairly clear that the prospects for the study of Welsh in Wales are not
good. If there were good young scholars working on Welsh one might think that
there is some hope for the future. There were in fact two Ph.D. students at
Welsh Syntax Seminar in 2000. Both, however, were Germans, one based at
University College London and the other at the University of Bonn.
Similarly, David Willis has recently received AHRB funding for a project to
develop a large computerized corpus of Middle Welsh, and he has another German
linguist as his research assistant.
As far as I can
see, the only bright spot is the Bangor Psychology department, which has two
American psycholinguists, Marylin Vihman
and Ginny Gathercole, conducting ESRC financed
projects on aspects of the acquisition of Welsh. Both have Welsh Ph.D. students
working with them. Here, then, we have some good news. However,
psycholinguistics presupposes linguistics, and that remains in very short
It is hard to
see where exactly the blame lies for this situation. It seems, however, that
the Welsh Academic community has failed rather badly here. Iceland and the
Basque country have shown what small countries can do in the field of
linguistic research. There is no reason why Wales
should not do as well, but it will take some big changes to give the academic
study of Welsh the position one would expect it to enjoy in Wales.
THE RESPONSE OF SIMS-WILLIAMS
In a reply to
the published version of this article, Patrick Sims-Williams, Professor of
Welsh at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, took exception to my remark that
Welsh departments ‘do little to promote linguistic research on Welsh’ and
provided a cataloque of recent research on Welsh in
Welsh departments. However, his list simply confirmed my observation that that
‘research on Welsh in Welsh departments is limited to philological studies and
the writing of traditional grammars’. There is nothing wrong with philological
work or with traditional grammars, but Welsh, like every other language, deserves more. Philology is concerned with the past, and has
nothing to say about contemporary languages. Traditional grammars seek to
describe a language in a single volume utilising a descriptive apparatus
uninfluenced by the insights of modern linguistics. They can be useful
resources, but it is not possible to do justice to any language in a single
book, and it is not possible to do this without drawing on the insights of
modern linguistics. Like other languages, Welsh deserves
detailed and precise work on its grammar and phonology drawing on linguistic
theories (and contributing to the evaluation of these theories). As I indicated
in the article, such work is taking place but overwhelmingly outside Wales. As a
philologist, Sims-Williams would no doubt think it very odd if philological
research on Welsh was largely conducted outside Wales and barely existed within the
country. It is every bit as odd that linguistic research on Welsh is largely
conducted outside Wales
and barely exists within the country. I also noted in the article that the
situation in Wales contrasts
sharply with the situation in Iceland
and the Basque country, where Icelandic and Basque scholars have done extensive
linguistic research on their own languages. Anyone who says the situation in Wales is fine is saying that Welsh does not deserve the kind of attention in Wales that Icelandic and Basque are getting in Iceland and the
Basque country. I hope no Professor of Welsh would say this.
1. I am grateful
to Gwen Awbery, Bob Morris Jones, Ian Roberts, Janig Stephens, Maggie Tallerman
and David Willis for various helpful comments on this note. It should not be
assumed, however, that any of them agree with the views expressed here. A
shortened version has appeared in Planet.
2. See http://users.aber.ac.uk/bmj/Wss/cam1af.html.
3. There are
other linguists in Wales,
notably in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy in Cardiff. Not
surprisingly, Welsh is not a major focus of interest
for these linguists although some have done some work on the use of Welsh.
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