Welsh speak up for their ancient tongue

Language revival: Strike threat by poets is only part of renewed interest which nationalists hope will protect oral tradition
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The Independent Online
Poets are threatening to "strike" over it, footballers are going to night school to learn it and doctors may soon be asked to sit a proficiency test in it: the revival of interest in the Welsh language is gathering pace.

When tension in Bosnia was close to breaking point, the Royal Welch Fusiliers communicated in Welsh over the radio, thwarting eavesdroppers from the warring factions.

Around the same time, learner drivers in Wales were allowed to display "D" plates. (D for Dysgwr - Welsh for learner), ending a minor skirmish in the battle to sustain a language spoken by nearly one in five of Wales' 2.6 million people.

Bards, the Welsh poets regarded as the language's guardians, are threatening to boycott the successful BBC Radio Cymru station because they claim the language of broadcasters is going downmarket. The British Medical Association is miffed at the proposal by a leading health service manager, Dr Carl Clowes, for a proficiency test. The doctors' body says it is hard enough to recruit GPs without imposing a linguistic requirement.

For some, Welsh is an important rung on the career ladder - nowhere more so than in the media industry. More than 4,000 people work in the 100- odd independent television production companies; fewer than 600 work in Welsh coal mines.

Mark Aizlewood, the Welsh footballer capped 48 times, Nigel Walker, the black Cardiff XV winger and Ron Davies, Labour's spokesman for Wales, are among those who have taken the plunge.

For decades the language declined. In 1931, the Office of Population Census and Surveys recorded 909,000 speakers. Today, at around 500,000, the situation is stabilising and there are even hopes of an upturn.

For the past 15 years the Government has identified the language as a suitable case for treatment. The militant Welsh Language Society rocked the early Thatcher years. The threat by the veteran nationalist Gwynfor Evans to starve himself unless the Government established a Welsh language television service forced the Government to relent. Today, Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C) flourishes with an annual subsidy of pounds 63m. The Welsh Language Board, charged with sustaining the ancient tongue, collects pounds 2m a year from the Welsh Office. Dubbed "the quango for the lingo", its chairman is the nationalist peer Lord Elis-Thomas, once a left-wing Plaid Cymru MP.

Other government cash supports the eisteddfod, Welsh language publishing and Welsh education to the tune of pounds 10m a year. The language is a national curriculum subject, a cause of concern at schools along the Welsh side of Offa's Dyke which draw some pupils from England.

With the exception of John Redwood, who refused to sign official letters drafted in Welsh, successive Tory Welsh secretaries have handled the language question with a sensitivity that contrasts sharply with the approach to problems such as Wales' low-wage economy and the deprivations of the old mining valleys. As a bonus, the Government has kept the lid on nationalist protests to an extent not seen in Scotland, where language is barely an issue.

Controversy, a staple of Welsh life, continues. Lord Elis-Thomas says the language is no longer a political issue. But he adds: "We see evidence of a lack of confidence with regard to the future security of the language and in the extent to which people use Welsh - especially as regards reading, writing and dealing with officialdom."

Dr Tim Williams, an academic whose PhD on the decline of the language caused a furore a few years ago warned about being "misled by the statistics. Children are being used as the poor bloody infantry in an unwinnable battle," he said.

A fluent a Welsh speaker, Dr Williams' military analogy is as clear as the fusliers' message in Bosnia. Language is all about communication.