September 30, 2020 - 4:47pm

The idea that the Welsh language, a minority language even within Wales itself, should be an official language of the whole of Great Britain (which, along with the UK, does not have an official language) may seem absurd. In Wales, arguments about the Welsh language are often couched in terms of the rights of Welsh speakers, and closely bound up with issues of Welsh national identity.

But Welsh is not just a language of Wales: it is the surviving representative of a language once spoken throughout Great Britain. Could we turn the issue on its head and, instead of addressing the rights of Welsh speakers, address instead the right of all British people to know something of the indigenous language of Great Britain?

Several countries have official languages spoken only by a small minority of the population. The Irish language, for example, is spoken by under 2% of Irish people; the language is nonetheless critical to Irish identity. If British people want the Union to survive, is a similar linguistic symbol of British unity required? For historical reasons, non-Welsh people often see Welsh as a regional peculiarity, rather than part of the common cultural and linguistic heritage of Great Britain.

This has not always been the case. Under the Normans, Welsh stories popularised by Geoffrey of Monmouth featuring Arthur and other ancient ‘British’ kings came to dominate the national narrative, and the accession of the Welsh Tudor dynasty cemented the centrality of Welsh stories to the national myth. ‘British antiquities’ were the subject of intense historical interest, and it was only in the 18th century that the Welsh language ceased to be called ‘British’.

The idea of Wales as an ethnic backwater, rather than a cultural homeland for all Britons, is largely an Anglocentric creation of the 18th century. This image was accompanied by the erasure of distinctive identities within a Great Britain imagined as little more than a ‘greater England’. The ‘greater England’ model of national identity is clearly no longer good enough to hold England, Scotland and Wales together. Genetic evidence suggests that the vast majority of contemporary Britons are descended, not from early English settlers, but from an indigenous British population who would have spoken the ancestor of Welsh.

Furthermore, Welsh has never been restricted to the geographical boundaries of Wales; David Lloyd George, the best-known Welsh-speaker of the 20th century, was not born in Wales, and the Welsh communities of London, Liverpool and Birmingham are integral parts of Welsh culture rather than expat enclaves. At a time when the unity of Great Britain is threatened, should we be brave enough to tell an alternative narrative about Welsh as the common indigenous language of the island? Perhaps the realisation that a British language exists has the potential to unite Britain.

Francis Young is a UK-based historian and folklorist specialising in the history of religion and supernatural belief