History of the Welsh language

Welsh is one of the oldest languages in Europe. It evolved from Brythonic, the main language spoken in Wales, England and Southern Scotland when the Romans invaded in 43AD.

Welsh began to emerge as a distinctive language sometime between 400 and 700 AD – early Welsh poetry survives from this period. 

Over the following centuries, Welsh flourished and became the language of culture, law and everyday life.

Welsh continued as an official language during the early Middle Ages, despite the Anglo-Norman conquest. 

welsh woman history
  • 1535

    By the 15th century, English was increasingly used and in 1536, in Henry VIII’s Act of Union, Wales was legally incorporated into England, with English as its sole official language. 

  • 1588

    The Bible was translated into Welsh by Bishop William Morgan in 1588. The travelling Sunday Schools of preacher Griffith Jones in the 18th century ensured Wales was one of the few European countries to have a literate majority – writing and reading in Welsh. 

  • 1760

    The Industrial Revolution brought massive changes, both in terms of population movement and communications. 

  • 1911

    The 1911 census recorded the highest number of Welsh speakers – 977,366, 43.5% of the population. However, for the first time in 2,000 years Welsh was now a minority language.

    The First World War accelerated a decline of Welsh. It has been estimated some 20,000 Welsh speakers died in the conflict.

  • 1921

    The 1921 census showed a further decline, as the number of Welsh speakers fell to 37.1% of the population.

  • 1962

    The 1962 BBC radio lecture Tynged Yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), given by playwright Saunders Lewis, foresaw the demise of the language. The lecture had a major impact and led directly to the formation of pressure group Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society) which campaigned for reforms. 

  • 1967

    The Welsh Language Act of 1967 gave people the right to present evidence in Welsh in Wales’ Courts and to have official forms in Welsh.

  • 1977

    Welsh language radio station BBC Radio Cymru was established in 1977 

  • 1982

    Welsh language TV channel S4C followed in 1982 - Welsh had become a language of mass media news and entertainment.

  • 1993

    Alongside the growth in Welsh-medium education and legal reforms, including the 1993 Welsh language Act and Welsh Government’s 2003 Iaith Pawb – A National Action Plan for a Bilingual Wales, there has been a stabilisation in the numbers speaking Welsh.