The Regionalisation of Y Fro Gymraeg

Simon Brooks examines the full census figures regarding Welsh language use

The figures regarding Welsh language ability at ward level, published 30 January, show that the traditionally Welsh-speaking communities of north, west and mid Wales have not disappeared but are becoming increasingly different to each other. In short the Welsh-language heartland has been regionalised. We now appear to have four distinct sociolinguistic regions crucial to the future of Welsh-speaking Wales.

[Take a look at a map which breaks down Welsh-language use by area from the Office of National Statistics here.]

The first region centres on the town of Caernarfon and its surrounding commuter villages. Remarkably, the Welsh language has strengthened over the past 10 years in the commuter belt: up 7% in Clynnog, 5% in Waunfawr, 2% in Llanllyfni. Llanrug with a Welsh-speaking population of 88% is now the most Welsh-speaking community in Wales.
The region crosses the Menai towards Llangefni, and cascades in the opposite direction down towards the Llŷn peninsula and northern Meirionnydd, areas where over 70% of the population speak Welsh, but where some 20 years ago the figure was closer to 90%. This can only be explained by very substantial in- and out-migration, and suggests that Gwynedd’s Welsh-speaking heartland may well break up linguistically over the next 10 to 20 years along a rural/urban fault line. In its own way, the crisis in Llŷn and Eifionydd is as substantial as that in Ceredigion.

The second region includes all of traditionally Welsh-speaking Wales to the south of Bala bar the coalfield. The percentage of Welsh-speakers here hovers around the 50% mark. This is too low a figure to maintain Welsh as a ‘natural’ community language, but does however hold out the possibility of maintaining a very strong and dynamic ‘networked’ Welsh-speaking community which could, in some areas, be quite dominant locally. We need to think very hard about the policy solutions which will enable the Welsh language to thrive in counties like Ceredigion which are now linguistically mixed.

The third region is the western end of the south Wales coalfield. Here the decline in Welsh as a community language over the past 20-30 years has been catastrophic. Even allowing for possible boundary changes, it is remarkable that only 56% of the population in a ward like Gwaun-cae-gurwen now speak Welsh, given that some 80% did so in 1991. Clearly there has been a breakdown in language transmission within the family, which has been made worse by the failure of local bilingual and mainly English-medium secondary schools to use Welsh properly in the education system. Perhaps Leighton Andrews ought to send the hit squad in.

The fourth region is Cardiff and the surrounding commuter belt of southern Rhondda Cynon Taf and Caerffili, and the eastern part of the Vale of Glamorgan. This is an area which has seen substantial in-migration by Welsh speakers as the development of an officially bilingual nascent Welsh state centred on Cardiff has sucked in professionals to fill jobs. The Welsh language is now part of the economic infrastructure of Cardiff in a way which is not true of counties like Carmarthenshire. It is highly symbolic that the most Welsh-speaking ward in Cardiff, Canton at 19%, has for the first time a higher Welsh-speaking population in terms of both percentage and absolute numbers than any ward in either the Rhondda or Cynon Valleys.

There are local statistics to add to this. There has been further decline at the extremities of Y Fro Gymraeg, for example to the west of Crymych in north Pembrokeshire, which seems to have fallen off the map, and in parts of upland Denbighshire. Language figures for our university towns are rendered useless because of the very large numbers of students recorded in the figures. The large rise in the percentage of Welsh-speakers in parts of eastern Monmouthshire, albeit from a very low base, probably reflects the psychological incorporation of this part of Wales into the devolution project.

It is wrong therefore to announce that the 2011 census figures show the final collapse of Y Fro Gymraeg, or some pyrrhic language victory for the capital city over the west. The Welsh language has not disappeared as a community language, however its use does seem to be fragmenting along regional lines. This will require considerable imagination and flexibility in terms of any public policy response.

The overall decline of electoral wards where over 70% of the population speak Welsh from 59 in 2001 to 49 in 2011 is less catastrophic than many feared, but it is still a policy failure, given the Welsh Government’s commitment in its 2003 language policy, Iaith Pawb, to arrest the decline completely. Furthermore, the wards where over 70% of the population speak Welsh are to the north of Llanuwchllyn. We can probably thank Gwynedd County Council, rather than the Assembly, for much of any good work which has been done.