This month Professor Rhys Jones of Aberystwyth University discusses “Mapping Welshness” as part of our #LoveMaps campaign.
I have always been fascinated by maps that try to depict the geography of the Welsh language. One of the first to attempt to do so was this map by JE Southall, which was based on the results of the census of 1891. Despite the fact that this was a period during which the absolute numbers and percentages of Welsh speakers were much higher than today, it is significant – and perhaps a little dispiriting – that one can recognise, even in 1891, the emergence of a differential distribution of Welsh speakers in Wales, with the higher percentages being located in what has been termed ‘y Fro Gymraeg’ or the Welsh ‘heartland’ and the lower percentages appearing in the south and east of the country. Part of the significance of this map – and other similar maps that have followed it – is that it has set in train a series of geographical imaginations of Wales, which have helped to shape how we think about the Welsh language; both in terms of public policy and popular debate.
In terms of popular debate, one can consider how a range of political parties and campaign groups have used maps such as these, and the statistics that lie behind them, to argue for the need to protect the Welsh heartland and the Welsh-speaking communities that comprise it. Starting with Plaid Cymru’s campaign during the interwar period for Welsh speakers to go ‘back to the land’, and continuing with the Welsh Language Society’s various language and property campaigns, various attempts have been made to use maps to argue for the significance of specific parts of Wales for the continuation of the Welsh language and, more broadly, a Welsh way of life. It is significant, too, that Welsh public policy has increasingly taken heed of such a vision. Over the past 15 or so years, additional governmental weight has been given to the need to protect ‘y Fro Gymraeg’ and the Welsh-speaking communities that lie within it.
And yet, despite the value of such maps, I have some concerns about the way in which they can channel and, inadvertently, mislead aspects of the political and public debate concerning the Welsh language. Three main issues deserve our consideration. First, the focus on maps of the percentages of Welsh speakers has led, almost inevitably over the course of the twentieth century, to a political and public focus on the overall decline of those percentages; and, of course, an associated retrenchment of ‘y Fro Gymraeg’. While this decline needs to be recognised and responded to, it can also lead to a certain fatalism in relation to the Welsh language. Why bother to speak it when every map, almost, shows its continual decline? It can also lead to certain curtailing of the possible policy responses in relation to language decline. What happens to our language policies when no parts of Wales contain 70% or above of Welsh speakers?
Second, maps such as this one can help to reinforce a potentially rather outdated version of how people live their lives. A map of Wales that is subdivided into distinct (almost bounded) language areas, and the associated focus on the need to protect Welsh-speaking communities and Welsh as a so-called community language, can reinforce a misleading impression that Welsh-speakers live and work in real-life versions of Cwmderi (the fictional setting for the Welsh-medium soap opera, Pobl y Cwm), where every person knows each other, where everyone bar a few exceptions speaks Welsh and where people rarely venture to other towns and cities to work, shop or be educated. Do these static language maps that we are so used to help to reinforce an unhelpful notion that Welsh speakers are community bound? Do they mask the more fluid, mobile and more complicated lifestyles that the majority of Welsh speakers actually live? In doing all of this, do they help frame policy options in inappropriate ways?
Third, the language maps that are so familiar to us can also help to draw our attention away from the challenges facing the Welsh language outside ‘y Fro Gymraeg’. I grew up in the town of Llanelli in south Wales during the 1970s and 1980s. While Llanelli, even back then, lay outside ‘y Fro Gymraeg’, I still lived my life almost exclusively through the medium of Welsh (attending Welsh-speaking schools and a Welsh-speaking chapel). And, therefore, I have a slight problem with these maps at a personal level since they, almost inevitably, give the impression that those areas outside of ‘y Fro Gymraeg’ are not really all that important for the language. To what extent do these maps – and the narrative they support concerning the need to support Welsh as a community language in ‘y Fro Gymraeg’ – once again encourage policy-makers and public alike to focus their energies on promoting Welsh in certain areas, possibly to the detriment of others?
In broad terms, therefore, this discussion shows the power of language maps to shape the public policy and political debate concerning the Welsh language. The question I have posed in this short piece is whether this power is necessarily helpful in every case. Do we need different maps of the Welsh language? Will these different maps help us to develop different policy and public responses to the challenges and opportunities facing it?
Rhys Jones (Aberystwyth University)
This post is also available in: Welsh