Preserving Welsh, Hawaiian, and Cantonese.

James Griffiths writes for CNN about efforts to preserve the languages listed in the post title; he includes a grim description of how Welsh was originally suppressed:

“The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales, and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people.” So concluded an 1847 report prepared for the UK government in the wake of widespread social unrest in Wales which much of the English press blamed on the “lack of education of the Welsh people.” “It is not easy to overestimate its evil effects,” the report said of the country’s native language, adding “there is no Welsh literature worthy of the name.”

In the wake of the report, Welsh Nots, planks of heavy wood that were hung around students’ necks if they were caught speaking Welsh in school, became a common sight across the country. As one teacher wrote in his school’s log book in 1870: “Endeavored to compel the children to converse in English by means of a piece of wood. Offenders to be shut in after school hours.”

These attitudes, along with increased immigration to England, helped lead to a staggering drop in the use of Welsh. By the time Plaid Cymru — the Party of Wales — was founded in 1925, the number of Welsh speakers had fallen to 37% of the population and appeared headed into terminal decline.

Welsh, of course, has done much better since, and similar efforts are working for Hawaiian; the piece ends with the current difficulties of Cantonese:

“What is happening with the renaissance of Welsh is the polar opposite of Cantonese,” said Marco Kwan, editor of, a website dedicated to documenting how the city’s language is used in daily life. “To preserve or promote or kill a language is largely dependent on educational policy.”

While he says many defenders of the language overstate the risk it faces, Kwan is wary of a “top-down aversion to Cantonese.” He says this is largely down to city officials and schools seeking to curry favor with the Chinese government by promoting Mandarin teaching in its stead.

On the other side of the debate, he pointed to a “worrying tendency to frame Cantonese as an integral part of the separatist movement, or a revolutionary element, which will make it harder to garner funding and be all the more detrimental to its development.”

My favorite part of the piece is the audio clips of each language, accompanied by written texts where the parts being spoken light up in red — a very nice feature which should be used more often. Thanks, Kobi!


  1. The Chinese empire, ever fond of grand-scale projects, is attempting the grand-scale elimination of Cantonese, not to mention Uyghur.
    I don’t know a word of Cantonese, but I love listening to it. May it persevere.

  2. I learned a little Cantonese when I was living in Taiwan, out of simple perversity. I second your sentiments.

  3. I’ve been learning Welsh for the past 3 months because I’m going to Wales this weekend for a week, though I don’t know how much opportunity I’ll have to use it, especially since I’m not going to the north.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    More people speak Welsh than you might suppose (perhaps not a very high bar); especially among older people, in-yer-face Welsh speaking to strangers is not a thing, so you tend not to realise how many people do speak Welsh unless you either eavesdrop or take the initiative.

    Even in Swansea I’d say as many as 10% of people over 65 or so can speak Welsh. Just up the road in Carmarthen it’s a lot higher; it’s not just the north.

    I’m never quite sure what to say about younger people speaking Welsh and the wholly praiseworthy push towards Welsh in schools. I remain pessimistic about the future, but (I hope) that’s just because I’m superstitious and don’t want to jinx it. Also because Misery is one of the central tenets of Calvinism.

    I very much doubt that anyone will mind you speaking Welsh to them, even if they can’t respond in kind.
    At the very least you will be able to appreciate our wonderful road signs (“Have you ever actually seen a Slow Araf?”)

  5. Stu Clayton says

    Calvinists must be very sociable, since misery loves company.

  6. I’ve been learning Welsh for the past 3 months because I’m going to Wales this weekend for a week

    If I lived 150 years ago and were a rich, eccentric bachelor, I can easily imagine dedicating all my time to being a language tourist. There are worse things to be.

  7. Thanks, David.

    When I say “learning” I just mean using Duolingo every day and a few other online resources, plus going twice to a Welsh language group that meets once a month here in Washington, DC (there seems to be only one native speaker who attends). Still, it’s been interesting.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Unfortunately, tourists have access only to sights and sounds (apart from cheeseburgers and fried locusts, of course). What a country has for the mind is hard to find, and hard to appreciate even when it’s been located – without mastery of the language, that is, and prior familiarity with mœurs, usages, coutumes, traditions.

    Gotta start somewhere, though.

    Exoticism once floated my pea-green boat, but it’s been in dry-dock since Owl became a martyr to lumbago. When I look around me, I can’t understand why anyone would want to visit Germany – or anywhere else for that matter. The things I value are invisible to the curious eye. Everyday life just tootles along, but it ain’t mine.

  9. David Eddyshaw says


    I agree.

    I remember entertaining my parents-in-law when we lived in Ghana. We showed them the sights one day after they’d had a chance to settle in; the next day they were asking what to see next, to which the answer was “That’s it, you’ve seen everything.”

    In particular, if you’ve seen one bit of savanna, you’ve seen it all. “Just imagine more of that, until you get to the desert.”

    On the other hand, if you are at all interested in (non-material) culture and language, the place is paradise. The interest never ends. But you can’t see that as a tourist.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    ByTheWay, I think I’ve been conned by a German expression into writing “but it ain’t mine”. Is this colloquial youfspeak ? Sometime a few years back you started hearing Meins ist es nicht here. It may even already be on the way out.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    The Welsh language is […] a manifold barrier to the moral progress […] of the people.

    Ah! A slogan to increase the popularity of Welsh among the young. “Learn Welsh – the language of immorality!”

    Just off to sacrifice a black goat. There will be dark orgies, and deeds impossible even to name in English. Back soon.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I guess “Welsh, the progress-impeding language of the moral status quo” would not sound as good from a marketing perspective?

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I prefer to think of the language as more actively immoral. (Perhaps in an Arthur Machen sort of way.) And there is indeed the marketing angle to consider. Nobody goes for passive immorality these days. Kids have no patience. I expect it’s the Internet.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    “‘Some kinds of love,’
    Margarita told Tom,
    ‘Like a dirty French novel,
    The absurd courts the vulgar.'”

    I feel that for some generations the conventional view in the Anglophone world has been that French is the best L2 to master if your interests are immoral (despite some no doubt valiant efforts by German authors). Welsh definitely needs to boost its marketing budget.

  15. John Cowan says

    It would be easy to mistake Luveh-Keraphfese for Welsh at a distance, at least in written form. And indeed we find that back in the 1940s the librarian at Miskatonic was named Cyrus Llanfer.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Although apparently 21st century readers who for some reason are looking for explicit (let’s suspend judgment on moral v. immoral) medieval lady poets are sometimes directed to a Welsh exemplar:

  17. Aka Gwerful ferch Hywel Fychan; Welsh Wicipedia quotes a bit of her “Cywydd y Cedor” (Poem to the Vagina):

    Gado’r canol heb foliant
    A’r plas lle’r enillir plant,
    A’r cedor clyd, hyder claer,
    Tynerdeg, cylch twn eurdaer,
    Lle carwn i, cywrain iach,
    Y cedor dan y cadach.

    Knowing about her would definitely have made my Welsh study less desultory.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    The medievalist from whom I tried w/o success to master the rudiments of Old Irish grammar (it was the last semester of my undergraduate career and I was probably even more distracted than usual) taught that in odd-numbered years and Middle Welsh in even-numbered years. But I don’t know what texts were on the syllabus for the latter …

  19. AJP Crown says

    There are some notable Welsh goats. I think there are some Markhor goats wild in Wales on a mountainside. I’ve forgotten how they arrived and whether it was from India or Pakistan. There’s also a Welsh or Welch regimental goat whose founding father was rescued by a sentry during the siege of Sevastopol in 1854ish.

  20. Are these all trochaeic lines?

  21. David Eddyshaw says
  22. Oh, dear.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    This is bit more detailed, without going overboard:

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Dafydd ap Gwilym is justly celebrated for having renewed Welsh poetry by popularising the dead-simple cywydd form.

  25. David Eddyshaw says


    You’d have thought that John Cale could have tipped Lou Reed off as to the real language of loucheness. A historic missed opportunity.

  26. Owlmirror says

    The louche Welsh shell vessel seller shewed the slew of the Schwelle ¹ in the Seychelles swell.

    1: Railroad tie/railway sleeper

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    True; it was in all the papers here.

  28. Trond Engen says


    The cywydd consists of a series of seven-syllable lines in rhyming couplets, with all lines written in cynghanedd. One of the lines must finish with a stressed syllable, while the other must finish with an unstressed syllable.

    It’s a wonderful meter,
    You hardly notice it’s there.
    You order the lines in sets
    Made up of rhyming couplets.
    One line has to be female,
    The other line must be male.
    Then you just keep it flowing
    Until you have said your thing.

    Edit: I gave up on the cynghanedd.

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    Re missed opportunities: presumably there was some advice Cale tried to give Reed that Reed failed to take. And possibly vice versa as well.

  30. Other than the alternating final stress, are there any other stress prescriptions?

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    @Trond: where’s the cynghanedd!? You’ll never become an ofydd at that rate!

    [Edit: just saw your edit. Quitter!]

  32. David Eddyshaw says


    Yes, but not in a straightforward way. Stress interacts with cynghanedd.

  33. Is there an example of cywydd I can look at with stresses marked?

    What I am getting at is I’d like to know how to read aloud the excerpt from the Cywydd y Cedor above.

  34. Bathrobe says

    The lighting up of the text as it is spoken is a wonderful feature but I’m not sure how easy it would be to pull off on a mass scale. Even if there were some kind of app or software for it, it would certainly be very labour-intensive matching the speech to the script. (Doing things with web pages is hard enough).

  35. David Eddyshaw says


    I’ll try to do it for the extract this evening (typing on a phone just now: it would take forever …)

    Welsh stress is fixed on the penult if there is one, with just a handful of exceptions; the main problem with just mechanically applying the rule without knowing the language is that there are frequent unstressed proclitic monosyllables like the article y(r).

    Also i w can represent vowels or glides: foliant is disyllabic and accordingly stressed on the first syllable, for example.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    Gado’r canol heb foliant
    A’r plas lle’r enillir plant,
    A’r cedor clyd, hyder claer,
    Tynerdeg, cylch twn eurdaer,
    Lle carwn i, cywrain iach,
    Y cedor dan y cadach.

    – more or less.

  37. The alternation of stressed and unstressed rhyme syllables takes getting used to, but it’s piquant and pleasing. My favorite example is the Old Irish Pangur Bán (about the scholar and his cat), discussed at LH here.

  38. Trond Engen says

    That’s quite close to Skaldic alliteration, not the positional rhyme between the coupled lines outlined in Wikipedia’s example. Are the subtypes of cywydd distinguished by different rules of cynghanedd?

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t think so. I’m no sort of expert, though.
    Alliteration is the major feature of cynghanedd, to a degree that makes the Skalds look like Walt Whitman; nor is it confined to the beginning of stressed syllables:

    A’r cedor clyd, hyder claer,
    Tynerdeg, cylch twn eurdaer,
    Lle carwn i, cywrain iach,

    A poet like Dafydd ap Gwilym can make it look easy.

  40. Trond Engen says

    Oh, like that. I misinterpreted caesura to mean something other than caesura.

    Skaldic poetry did use something like that too, but I’ve never got a grasp of it. I didn’t mean to say that it’s like Skaldic poetry in the meter, but that the pl’s and c’s in some but not all stressed syllables within a couplet looked like Skaldic alliteration. But if it’s not described for the cyfydd, it’s quite likely just a coincidence. I doubt one could write poetry in Welsh without alliterating on c’s.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    O’th gerais â maith gariad
    Caru am garu a gad.

    So there!

    Not at all: this kind of multiple alliteration is not only described for cywydd, it is an essential part of it. That’s the most fundamental part of cynghanedd.

  42. Trond Engen says

    Oh, all right. It does alliterate, though, but on the g’s.

  43. And the th’s and r’s.

  44. Trond Engen says

    Yes, but it (irrelevantly) alliterates in the Skaldic sense on the initial g’s in stressed syllables.

  45. Good, I gotcha. Go in peace!

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    My initial thought about the author of the 1847 abomination was that his characterisation of Welsh literature was simply the sort of vicious ignorance we so love in well-meaning imperialists, who always know better what is good for the natives than the poor ignorant natives could possibly know for themselves, and judge virtue entirely by the degree of resemblance to themselves.

    However, I wonder if he may not have been ignorant in the sense of simply being unaware of Welsh literature, but rather hostile to its tenor.

    Gwerful was no isolated aberration in combining highly wrought art with playfulness and … frankness. Dafydd ap Gwilym’s single most famous poem (probably) is about going to church entirely with a view to eyeing up the girls; it shows impeccable mastery of its highly wrought poetic form. I would think this particular combination would be ideally calculated to annoy the unimaginative heartless philistine prig responsible also for this:

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    Pangur was probably a Welsh cat, of course (as every schoolboy knows.)

  48. John Cowan says

    Well, the /p/ certainly suggests that, yes.

    I never knew that Auden made a version of it:

    Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
    Alone together, scholar and cat
    Each has his own work to do daily;
    For you it is hunting, for me study.
    Your shining eye watches the wall;
    My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
    You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
    I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
    Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
    Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

    Not very faithful, perhaps, certainly very Audenesque.

    unimaginative heartless philistine prig

    I think that is quite unfair. Symons was not to know back in 1849 how inhumane “rehabilitation” of prisoners would prove to be. All he knew was the lash and the pillory, and he was quite rightly against those.

  49. @David E.—Thanks very much!

  50. The Auden version was set by Samuel Barber as “The Monk and His Cat”; one performance here:

  51. David Eddyshaw says


    You may be right: I hereby amend my description to unimaginitive philistine prig..

    In fact, in both cases the UPP evidently meant well. (It’s never enough just to mean well, though to a limited extent it is to the credit of the well-meaner, I suppose.)

  52. Pangur Ban (both the poem, translated and un-, and the actual cat) feature prominently in The Secret of Kells. It is a masterfully animated film, in a Celtic style, and it features some wonderful moments, such as when the young protagonist tries to explain how he does not believe in any pagan superstitions, while talking to a fairy.

  53. The Secret of Kells sounds well worth seeing.

  54. John Cowan says

    It’s never enough just to mean well, though to a limited extent it is to the credit of the well-meaner, I suppose.)

    Indeed it is — just compare such people to those who mean ill, for example.

    There’s a biography, I believe of Margaret Mead (but Google is not helping me here), which begins, speaking of the subject’s parents, “Heaven knows they meant well” and ends with “Heaven knows she meant well — and did well, too.”

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve just noticed that the extract from Cywydd y Cedor contains in successive lines

    dorc and

    I have little doubt but that Gwerful would have thought this very funny, and would suspect her of having done it on purpose if she had been conversant with modern American.

  56. David Eddyshaw says

    just compare such people to those who mean ill, for example.


    I did have something a bit more concrete in mind: there is a moral responsibility incumbent on those who mean well to take such steps as they are able to to discover whether their actions are in fact benefiting the well-meanerees. In the case of the learned Symons I would provisionally concede that it might not have been possible in reality for him to anticipate the damage he caused; many have no such excuse.

    Africa is littered with the damage caused by the well-meaning. Not only is this bad in itself, of course, but it gives ammunition to the vile Daily Mail tendency and their campaign against all efforts to help, well-considered or not; it helps them in reassuring their moral-zombie readers that it’s all right not to care a bit.

    Again, I wouldn’t dispute that the damage caused by the malevolent is worse; I think I would maintain that worst of all is the damage caused by the indifferent.

  57. J.W. Brewer says

    Now there’s a slogan for future Davos-like assemblies of the great and good considering the vexed question of how to improve the human condition — “Malevolence: At Least It’s Better Than Indifference.”

  58. David Eddyshaw says


    … as opposed to Davos Original, which is the same, but without the “good.”

  59. J.W. Brewer says

    I am not a native speaker of BrEng but had always understood the “good” in the BrEng fixed phrase “the great and [the] good” to be understood as ironic? Or is the second article mandatory to the fixed phrase, which would mean I screwed up my invocation of it.

  60. David Eddyshaw says

    No, your BrEng is impeccable. I was merely attempting satire. I should probably stick to my strengths.

  61. John Cowan says

    Again, I wouldn’t dispute that the damage caused by the malevolent is worse; I think I would maintain that worst of all is the damage caused by the indifferent.

    It’s one thing to let something go to hell in a handbasket; it’s another to be on the uphill side of the handbasket pushing it.

    I have always thought anapestic hexameter couplets (with occasional iambs) an excellent meter for English epic, but the trouble with any verse in couplets is that it’s hard to remember, because you can easily leave out one or more couplets without noticing. So I came up with the idea of having rhymes on the third beat that are independent of the end-rhymes and interlock with them. But it’s just too damn hard, at least for me.

  62. David Eddyshaw says

    Just watched The Secret of Kells and would certainly recommend it too.

    Is acher in gaíth in-nocht …

    The Scandinavians among us may feel that there is a degree of hurtful stereotyping in the presentation of their kindred.

  63. Griffiths’ piece has now been expanded into a book, just published. See review linked from Language Log.

  64. The mention of the problems Cantonese is facing reminded me of something I learned from a friend whose L1 is Jamaican Creole, but who is of Hakka descent. In the process of learning Hakka to reconnect with his grandmother, he came across and shared photos of a campaign in HK many decades ago to suppress Hakka and compel Cantonese-only. Unsurprisingly, he was of a somewhat “what goes around comes around” view of the current Cantonese problems

  65. I learned a little Cantonese when I was living in Taiwan, out of simple perversity.

    So where would you learn a little Welsh, out of simple perversity?

    {thinking} Ireland, perhaps.

  66. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Maybe Birmingham (UK, not Alabama)

    Or Patagonia (though I don’t think that there are many Welsh-speakers left there)

  67. David Eddyshaw says

    Not sure. My great-aunt (who was born there), visited Patagonia in the 1970’s, and she said that really only her own generation still spoke Welsh, but it sounds like there may have been something of a revival since then.

    There’s certainly a lot of interest in the language (with eisteddfods and the like) but I don’t know to what extent (if any) this has led to more actual everyday use of the language.

  68. Is it an absolute decline? Or is it just an increase in English speakers?

  69. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes. I wish I could say I was surprised.

    Governments can kill languages, but with the best will in the world they can’t preserve them, unless enough people really want them to be preserved and actively use them in everyday life. Using “minority” languages for real, as opposed to for tokenistic purposes, is seriously inconvenient. Sheer economics has harmed Welsh more than deliberate repression, and unfortunately I can’t see that changing. I wish I was wrong.

    As ever, it’s easier to see the problem than to suggest a good answer.

    Is it an absolute decline? Or is it just an increase in English speakers?

    I would guess, absolute. Wales tends to lose rather than gain people overall, especially relatively rural places like most of Carmarthenshire.

  70. @Y

    * In 2021, an estimated 538,000 usual residents in Wales aged three years and over (17.8%) reported being able to speak Welsh, which is a decrease since 2011 (562,000, 19.0%). [from the Gummint’s census bureau]

    * One of the main factors contributing to the overall decrease in the percentage of people who reported being able to speak Welsh between 2011 and 2021 was the decrease in children and young people aged 3 to 15 years who reported this skill.

    Quote from the Graun: some [young people] were denied job opportunities because they were not proficient in Welsh.

    Sounds to me like wishful thinking from the “prominent member of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society)”. Toni Schiavone is Welsh? The surname is “an Italian ethnonym literally meaning “Slavs” in Old Venetian:”[wp] So his family are prolifically peripatetic(?)

  71. If the change in the number of Welsh speakers in Wales is due to out-migration, then the news doesn’t really tell us anything about the total number of Welsh speakers. Of course, outside Wales, speakers are going to have fewer opportunities to use the Welsh language in conversation and are probably going to be less likely to pass it on to their children. However, at least in the remainder of the United Kingdom (to which doubtless many or most of the Welsh emigrants have moved), it would not be impossible to promote the use of Welsh. I doubt there is political interest in doing that (for the benefit of a Welsh-speaking population that may number less than a hundred thousand); yet maybe some day, Welsh could be a thriving language all across Britain!

  72. A cenedl once again, a cenedl once again…

  73. David Eddyshaw says

    Unfortunately, I think this is mostly failure of intergeneration transmission rather than migration of Welsh-speaking youth to heathen Lloegr.

    Welsh is quite strongly supported in the educational system, which is certainly good, but the effective part is really Welsh-medium schools, and many alumni do not seem to go on to use Welsh much in later life, or even in other contexts than school at that time. The teaching of Welsh to non-speakers is compulsory in early school years, but is unpopular with many of the pupils and of a remarkably low standard (I know of someone who got an A without knowing that Welsh has grammatical gender.)

    A problem which has dogged language preservation efforts for a long, long time, but which tends to be discreetly ignored, is that the support for it is largely a middle-class thing (note the increase in Welsh speaking in Cardiff – of all places.) Partly this goes back all the way to the days of extensive coal-mining in South Wales, where there was a great influx of non-Welsh miners and their families from England into the coal-mining areas, a thing which seems to have played a major role in undermining (sorry) the vitality of the language in South Wales. Many Welsh people in South Wales never were Welsh-speaking, and are not descended from Welsh speakers, and (understandably) have other priorities than the Welsh language, like the impoverishment of their communities now that extractive capitalism has no further use for them.

    A lot of the government pressure to use Welsh is resented, though people tend to be reluctant to come right out and say so. This is not helped by tokenist stupidities: a recent one that I was aware of was a diktat that letters from hospital doctors to patients must, by law, be available without delay in Welsh translation on demand (the very real practical difficulties in the way of achieving this being simply ignored), and that they must not be treated differently from the originals in any way, meaning specifically that a non-Welsh-speaking author of the letter is legally obliged to sign a translation into a language that they do not know and for whose accuracy they cannot vouch (the accuracy is in fact often low.) This is straightforwardly unethical, and it doesn’t help anyone. Unfortunately there is more where that came from. Good intentions are not enough, and a lot of harm is done with good intentions.

  74. David Eddyshaw: speaking as an outsider who does, however, know a great deal about matters of language planning in a certain former British colony on the other side of the Atlantic, my impression is that in both Wales and the Republic of Ireland the promotion of Welsh and Irish Gaelic (respectively) has been and remains driven chiefly if not solely by the identity politics of a basically monolingual English-speaking middle/upper class, with the manner of said promotion being (correctly) perceived by native speakers of each Celtic language as irrelevant (if not actively harmful) to their interests, which they see (again, I think, correctly) as QUITE separate from, if not wholly antagonistic to, the needs and/or self-image of the anglophone majority of both societies.

    My impression (for whatever that is worth, see above) is that in Wales and the Republic of Ireland alike what would be needed is a kind of “dual” language policy: one with the self-image of the anglophone majority as its core, and another with the needs, self-image and interests of the native speakers of the Celtic languages of each society as its core.

  75. PlasticPaddy says

    This is insightful. However, as you point out, in Ireland the two communities are disparate in outlook and identity (formerly in income, but this is not so true now, the urban middle class is being squeezed and there is more investment in the peripheral areas where Irish is the L1).

  76. John Cowan says

    A cenedl once again, a cenedl once again

    Yn nediwn seint yn llinghedig, yn nediwn seint yn cor.

    Or as RS Thomas wrote back in 2000:

    Perch ddef-eo yscrifer sig?
    Eo su kemruis, gwiddeth?
    Yn Comro pyr,
    Torb i llo few wuin.

    Sa’i riglafaf mui,
    dugef-mi afont mellt,
    Rhen ddyrid;
    Sulfent ill yn dawn,

    Eo mhod rhen parlar mew
    Llinghedig probr – Iesu,
    Llo pharol fon thud;
    E affor llo…

Speak Your Mind