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April 14, 2012 / ABC Translation Services

Wales gets new Language Chief

Wales has become the first part of the UK to get its own official language tsar: this April native born Welshwoman Meri Huws started her job as the first ever Welsh Language Commissioner and said she would rule the Welsh linguistic expanse with all the vigor and determination she is capable of.

Educated in the University of Wales and Oxford University she was Chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (which means the Welsh Language Society) and, until becoming commissioner, also Chair of the now defunct Welsh Language Board, which is known accordingly as Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg.

The Welsh National Assembly last year introduced the post of commissioner in the Welsh Language (Wales) 2011 Measure. It is the  first piece of law relating to the language passed in Wales since the Act of Union with Britain in 1536. It proclaimed Welsh to be the official language of Wales. 

 

Paradoxically even English is not statutorily defined as the official language of the United Kingdom. It is, one might say, simply the historically dominant tongue of the kingdom.

 

The Commission started to work on the standards of Welsh usage by the local government, public sector bodies, businesses that receive public money, utility and energy companies. Ultimately, it is expected that the commissioner will be able to fine bodies that fail to provide an adequate Welsh language service up to £5,000. One of the purposes of the commission is to boost knowledge of Welsh.

 

Until the mid-1800s, more than 80% of people in Wales could speak Welsh. Incidentally, the true Welsh do not speak Welsh, which is an exonim and in Proto-German means “foreign speech” or “Celtic-speaker”. The native term for the language is Cymrae and Camru for “Wales.” Welsh is a member of the Brythonic branch of the Celtic languages, which belong to the Indo-European family.

Now, according to the Welsh government, there are 580,000 people in Wales who can speak the language, around a fifth of the population of about 3 mln. There is a net loss of 2,000-3,000 fluent Welsh speakers every year as a result of outmigration, death, etc.

 

Wales does not even have its own daily Welsh newspaper. The only language newspaper is Y Cymro (“The Welshman”) and is published once a week. BBC started broadcasting in Welsh only in 1977 and the first Welsh language television channel S4C was launched only in 1982. And all of that, as any true Camru patriot will tell you, is quite an illustration of political, economic and cultural subjugation, which is Wales subjected by imperial British masters.

 

Other parts of the UK,  namely Scotland and Northern Ireland are watching how Huws operates with a view to replicate her role. Some believe there could be an argument to establish commissioners in England as well to champion minority languages.

 

So far in the English speaking world similar positions were created only in two countries: Canada has language commissioners  to protect its bilingualism. In Ireland, a commissioner is reviewing how the country’s language laws are working on the ground.

 

Nationalist party Plaid Cymru hopes that the Welsh language renaissance will boost the argument and mood for Welsh independence. The anti-British camp is eagerly awaiting year 2014, when Scotland is set to vote on whether to remain part of the UK. Certainly, if Scotland makes the leap and leaves a rump United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland – or “Little Britain” as it has recently become known — the case for separation would be strengthened. But “yes” in the Scottish referendum is not a foregone conclusion. Besides, in Wales support for independence has never exceeded 10%, and has little echo in the most developed, English-speaking south-east of the country – Wales’s most populous region.

 

Welsh is not the only European minority language that has been suppressed for decades (for whatever reasons) by its bigger linguistic brothers. The former Spanish dictator Franco spent decades trying to stamp out the nation’s regional languages, but today Catalan is stronger than ever and Basque is also popular. The latter, by the way, is the only language in Europe that does not belong to any major world language family. It is an entity of its own.

 

For centuries, different French governments have striven to make that country linguistically uniform, but (even disregarding Breton, a Celtic language; Allemannisch, the Germanic language spoken in Alsace; and Basque) at least ten distinct Romance languages are still spoken in France, including Picard, Gascon, Provençal, and several others in addition to “French.”

 

The exact number of languages actually spoken in Europe is hard to define, because it all depends on the criteria one uses. The best known languages in Europe are those of the Indo-European family — the largest language family in the world to which English belongs.

 

According to UNESCO (The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Europe speaks 230 languages. And the world’s most widely spoken languages by number of native speakers and as a second language are: Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French.

 

But the Texas-based Summer Institute of Linguistics or SIL International, which publishes Ethnologue  – the most extensive catalog of the world’s languages — says that as of 2009 there are 6,909 distinct languages in the world. And only 230 are spoken in Europe (23 are official languages of the European Union), while 2,197 are spoken in Asia. The area of highest linguistic diversity is Papua-New Guinea, where there are an estimated 832 languages spoken by a population of around 3.9 million. The SIL International has a keen interest in translating the Christian Bible into all of the world’s languages. By now it says, at least a portion of the Bible had been translated into 2,508 different languages – still a long way short of full coverage.

 

For more information, go to www.translationsabc.com

 

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