Power at Last to Legislate on Our 1,500-Year-Old Language; as the National Assembly Gains the Right to Make Laws Relating to the Welsh Language, Alun Ffred Jones Traces the Trials and Tribulations in the History of Our National Tongue

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Byline: Alun Ffred

THIS week the long-debated Legislative Competence Order for the Welsh language appeared on the agenda of the Privy Council.

Its approval will at last open the way for Wales to frame its own laws for the language. And this in itself marks a significant step forward.

Nearly five centuries ago, Henry VIII's Statute of Wales in 1536 abolished official use of Welsh in the courts and declared that those using the language should not hold public office.

Yet in earlier times Welsh enjoyed a legal pedigree dating back centuries. The Law of Hywel, promulgated in Whitland around the year 930AD, was produced in Welsh with Latin adaptations; and was itself based on much earlier laws.

The language proved itself a flexible vehicle for social life, just as today it is an effective medium for mathematics, science and technology.

Even after conquest and subjection after 1282, Welsh law and the Welsh language continued in use alongside Latin, Norman French and English.

The attempt to stamp out official use of Welsh was all about politics - the desire to create a uniform kingdom with no challenge to central authority in the public life or religion.

English delegates to the 15th century Council of Constance expressed the view that "difference of language... by divine and human law is the greatest and most authentic mark of a nation and the essence of it".

That view permeated the views of the ruling class. The 1536 Act meant that English was installed as the language of the courts; with its preamble talking of the intention of "utterly extirpating" the "sinister usages and customs differing from those in use in England".

The eminent historian John Davies points out that this legislation did not necessarily mean the government was seriously set on abolishing Welsh as a spoken language.

In 1563 the bishops of Wales and Hereford were given four years to ensure Welsh Bibles and prayer books were available in every parish church in Wales.

This too was a politically driven decision, although taken more than a decade after hasty provision was made for the King's French-speaking subjects in Calais and the Channel Isles.

Making Wales a Protestant country at a time of religious strife was more achievable with a Bible in a language that the people could understand.

But the 1536 law, described as the "Act of Union" in the 20th century, set the tone for centuries of hostility or indifference by those in authority.

Of course the Welsh language lived on.

People got on with their lives and had to face the challenges that came with their infrequent dealings with authority. …