The Welsh Not: How Welsh Language, and Welsh Culture was Nearly Killed

In Wales, Welsh school children were punished for speaking their own language, in the belief that the English language would solve all their educational problems.

Welsh is the oldest language in Europe, dating back at least 2500 years.

However, it nearly died out in the 19th century, due to a belief that English was superior, and was the only language which should be used throughout the British Empire.

A report of 1847, written by three English barristers who did not speak one word of Welsh between them, castigated Welsh culture in general, and Welsh schools in particular.

It largely ignored the problems of poverty, deprivation, and poor housing, but determined that the problem with under performing Welsh schools lay with the Welsh language.

In many parts of Wales, the use of the “Welsh Not” was used to discourage the use of the Welsh language. There is evidence of this practice dating back to the 18th century, but it came into wider use in the 19th century.

The “Welsh Not” was a board, usually a rectangle of approximately 10 cm by 6 cm, although each school had its own version, and so shapes and sizes vary, with the letteres “W.N.” carved into it.

Each morning, this was hung around the neck of the first child caught speaking Welsh, who had to hand it to the next child caught speaking Welsh, who in turn had to hand it to the next child. The unfortunate child wearing the Welsh Not around their neck at the end of the school day was punished. The punishment was usually a caning or detention, although the headmaster of Neuaddllwyd school, in Ceredigion, fined his pupils and used the money to pay for tobacco.

There is some argument over how widespread this practice was, (it was mainly used in eastern and south Wales,to a lesser extent in north and far west Wales). It was largely confined to primary schools. There is no evidence of its use in Grammar schools, however this was hardly surprising, as the children attending Grammar schools would already be inculcated in the use of English.

However, culturally, the practice reverberated throughout Wales, and even today, the “Welsh Not” is one of the most hated symbols of English oppression, although it was never part of official British Government policy.

This directly led to the Welsh cultural fightback, and now Welsh people have a genuine pride in their language and heritage.

Today the Welsh Assembly government has a bilingual policy, and Welsh inabitants are quite used to having both Welsh and English on all official documents, road signs, and public announcements. All children in Wales learn Welsh at school, and there are many schools in Wales which use Welsh routinely as a medium for instruction.

Sources:

  • The Welsh Not – BBC Wales
  • Casglu’r Tlysau – The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
  • Welsh Not – Ceredigion County Council
  • Welsh Not – Manuscripts Ebbw Vale Library

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