Welsh in Aberdeenshire?!

Apr 1, 2010 by

Knowing something about the world’s languages, at least those spoken on one’s home turf, turns out to be a useful skill even for people whose jobs, seemingly, have nothing to do with linguistics. According to a BBC news item, “people living near an Aberdeenshire building site in 2006 were mystified when a sign apologising for the inconvenience was written in Welsh as well as English”. Welsh?! In Aberdeenshire?!

Aberdeenshire is located on the east coast of Scotland; an attentive reader of this blog will know that the languages spoken there are Scottish English and Scots. Those two are Germanic languages, not even that close to Welsh. My guess is that Welsh appeared on that sign because of a confusion with Scottish Gaelic, which is – like Welsh – a Celtic language. Still, Scottish Gaelic is not that closely related to Welsh, as they are members of distinct branches within the Celtic family: Scottish Gaelic is a member of the Goidelic branch, while Welsh is in the Brythonic branch. Here is the beginning of “Our Father” prayer in Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Scots.

Scottish Gaelic: Ar n-athair a tha air nèamh: gu naomhaichear d’ainm.
Welsh: Ein Tad, yr hwn wyt yn y nefoedd, sancteiddier dy Enw.
Scots: Our fader that art in heuenis, hallewit be thi name.

So perhaps the sign reported by the BBC would be more useful some 400 miles to the southwest, in Wales, where Welsh is spoken by about 600,000 speakers (according to the 2004 Welsh Language Use Survey). Welsh as a first language is largely concentrated in the north and west of Wales (see map) and most Welsh speakers are bilingual in Welsh and English. Still, 62% of those who claimed to speak Welsh in the 2004 Welsh Language Use Survey also claimed to speak it daily, and 88% considered themselves fluent in Welsh. So among the Celtic languages, Welsh has the strongest status: it draws support from organizations such as the nationalist political party Plaid Cymru and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), founded in 1962, television channel S4C, which broadcasts Welsh language shows during peak viewing hours since 1982 and a Welsh-language radio station, BBC Radio Cymru, which was launched in 1977. Local councils and the National Assembly for Wales use Welsh as a quasi-official language, issuing their literature and publicity in Welsh versions, and most road signs in Wales are in English and Welsh. Since 2000, the teaching of Welsh has been compulsory in all schools in Wales up to age 16, and that has had a major effect in stabilizing and to some extent reversing the earlier decline in the language.

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