Repost: Learning Welsh in the sixteenth century

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Originally posted here (June 2004).

I got round to reading some of William Salesbury’s A briefe and a playne introduction, teaching how to pronounce the letters in the British tong… today. Rather different to Welsh pronunciation guides (this one has audio files with examples) for all us suffering Welsh learners today. I’m not at all sure that ‘playne’ is the right word.

The introductory note ‘to the reader’ was a fascinating read. Here the author, William Salesbury, sets out the reasons he wrote the book. (I’ve changed ‘u’ to ‘v’ where appropriate and silently expanded some contractions, but otherwise the spelling is unchanged, barring any typos I might have missed.) After he had compiled ‘a little Dictionarye [1547] for the use and behove of my contry men’, he says,

there came came certayne persons unto me, whereof some where Englysh marchers bordering upon Wales: and some not skilled in the Walshe tonge, nevertheles havyng good and honeste occasions, eyther for their promotions and lyvynges, eyther els for trade of marchaudice and other their affayres to be conversante in the sayd contrye of Wales…

And some other were such Walshmen that had been brought up from their yoth and tender age, oute of the precincte of their native contrye, who thoughte it reproch to be utterly ignoraunt in their mother tong, having a mind also to come to some knowledge therin, wherby they myght ye rather (semyng lesse straung) renewe frendshyp and familiaritie with their contrye folke and frendes…

Nowe the other some, were such Englishe men as had not so urgente a cause, nor so earnest an occasion to travell in thys behalfe, but yet were they so fervent… as they (whom I spake of before) whom the Grekes with one propre terme cal Philoglottous, whose gentle herted disposition is alwaies addicte, bente, & geven to be sene in al languages, but speciallye of their owne felow subiectes and contrey menne, thoughe they purchase thereby but small gaynes, lucre, or wynnyng, which thynges be the honied swete baytes of the avaricious beastly misers, and contrarywyse the defiaunce of all liberal and noble stomakes. …

They asked Salesbury ‘whether the pronounciation of the letters in Walshe, dyd dyffer from the Englyshe soundynge of them? And I sayde verye muche.’ (I’ll say.) And so they asked if he would write a short guide setting out ‘a fewe englishe rules’ for Welsh pronunciation. To which he agreed, for ‘the encrease of mutuall amitie and brotherly love, and continuall frendshyppe, and some commoditie at the leaste wise, to suche as be desierous to be occupied thereaboutes.’

In practical terms, particularly relevant in considering the first group, it’s worth commenting that this follows shortly after the ‘Acts of Union’ (1536-43). That legislation (among other things) uniformly replaced most of the final vestiges of Welsh native law with English law, established the Courts of Great Sessions and boosted the influence and business of the Council in the Marches of Wales, based at Ludlow – which between them would have meant many new opportunities for clerks, administrators and lawyers, who might well want some way of communicating with the largely Welsh-speaking population without always having to rely on interpreters. Businessmen, too, might have seen new opportunities across the Welsh border if the legislation was successful in one of its primary aims, reducing Welsh lawlessness and disorder.

But there’s clearly more to it for Salesbury, a true Renaissance man, than that. I’m intrigued about those Welsh exiles, for a start. Were they perhaps the children of Welsh emigrants to London and other English cities (and it’s interesting that they remained attached to their ‘roots’)? The ‘London Welsh’ certainly already existed. Or could they even have been from Protestant families who went into exile to avoid persecution under Henry VIII, now returning following the succession of the far more enthusiastically Protestant Edward VI?

And then there’s Salesbury’s final group: Englishmen (any women, one wonders?) who were eager to learn for the love of learning and to increase ‘mutuall amitie and brotherly love’ with their Welsh neighbours; clearly, a truly noble enterprise. Salesbury was far from being the only highly educated and intelligent, polyglot Welshman in mid-Tudor England (another well known case is John Dee). The Cecils remained interested in their Welsh origins; even the Tudors did on occasion (usually when it suited them politically, it has to be said). Did men like Salesbury help to stimulate English interest in Welsh literary culture and the language? Shakespeare was certainly interested in the ancient ‘British’ (ie, Welsh) past. It would be fascinating to know whether any of Salesbury’s would-be Welsh learners were successful in their quest… and whether anyone ever used his little

book effectively (it does seem to depend on knowing several classical languages before you even begin, which might further suggest that it was his third, already deeply learned, group for whom it was primarily intended. His translation of the New Testament was also aimed at a scholarly audience).

William Salesbury is primarily celebrated in Wales for his part in the Tudor ‘Welsh Renaissance’ and his contribution to Welsh language and literary culture: for his dictionary, for his pioneering Welsh translation of the New Testament (1567) and Prayer Book (1567). Quite right, too. All of these are indeed major achievements. But I’m beginning to wonder if he should also be celebrated as a pioneer in Welsh language teaching for adults, who did not merely champion his language amongst his own people, but also strove to give it wider currency (not least by harnessing the power of print) and to aid those who wished (even for ‘lucre’!) to learn it.

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