Language oppression: The Treachery of the Blue Books

March 22, 2024 by Alison Tunley

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Prompted by the long dark evenings that dominate January and February in the UK, I am finally catching up and watching David Olusoga’s highly praised 2023 BBC series “Union”, which describes the historical origins and evolution of the country we refer to as the United Kingdom. Olusoga examines the threads of national identity that characterise the individual countries making up the Union and explores tensions that have arisen as a result of this coming together of England, Scotland, Ireland (now just Northern Ireland) and Wales. In one section on Wales, he briefly touches on an episode in the history of the Welsh language that sought to demote the status of Welsh and thus shape the identity of the Welsh people themselves.

In response to repeated instances of public unrest in Wales, in 1847 the British government dispatched three commissioners to write a report on the country to help them understand the causes of the upheaval. It was felt that providing better education to all levels of society would be essential to improve conditions for the working class population, and so the report was designed to evaluate the state of education in Wales. One of the key instigators of the public inquiry was himself a Welshman and Welsh speaker, William Williams, MP for Coventry, who was concerned about conditions in his homeland. But the three men appointed to research and write the report were monoglot English speakers, an arguably unfortunate choice given that most of the population in Wales at that time spoke only Welsh.

The report immediately gained notoriety in Wales for its disparaging remarks about Welsh society in general, characterising the Welsh people as “ dirty, ignorant, lazy, and immoral”. The authors also regarded the Welsh language as an impediment to the people of Wales, who — in their view — could surely only succeed if they mastered English. Perhaps the most infamous quote claims “the Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales, and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects.”

Not surprisingly, these slights on the national language and culture caused a furore in Wales. A satirical play about the government report published seven years later and entitled Brad y Llyfrau Gleision (the treachery of the blue books) so captured the public mood in Wales that the name became the default term for the reports.

The Blue Books are just one episode in a long history of policymaking by the English government that has failed to appreciate the value of the Welsh language as a vibrant and essential part of Welsh identity. In 1962, Welsh politician and poet Saunders Lewis delivered a radio lecture in Welsh entitled Tynged yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), in which he argued that “the English government […] has never wavered in […] excluding the Welsh language as a language of administration from office, court and legal writing.” Lewis cites an English school inspector, Matthew Arnold, writing just a few years after publication of the Blue Books and opining “sooner or later, the difference of language between Wales and England will probably be effaced … an event which is socially and politically so desirable”.

Saunders Lewis begins his assessment with a stark warning that “Welsh will end as a living language, should the present trend continue, about the beginning of the twenty-first century”. In fact, the latest census figures from 2021 show 17.8% of the population able to speak Welsh (compared with 26% in 1961). Indeed, although there is an overall decline, the figures for younger people are more stable suggesting the fate of the language is not quite as calamitous as Saunders Lewis feared. And the reasons for that are largely due to resistance to policies that relegated Welsh to second class status behind English.


Image: Pixabay 

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