As tourists drive west out of London towards Cardiff, they notice the sign "Croeso i Gymru" (Welcome to Wales). In Wales, many citizens are bi-lingual. Approximately 500,000 individuals still speak both the ancient Welsh language as well as English. The question confronting genealogists is, "Do I need to learn Welsh in order to trace my Welsh ancestry?"
The English conquered the last remaining Welsh strongholds in northwestern Wales during the reign of King Edward I (r. 1272-1307). A taste of Edward's barbarism towards weaker nations like Scotland is vividly portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie Braveheart. The English crown imposed its language on the inhabitants of Wales. In 1536, England and Wales formally united, two years before the commencement of parish registers in Great Britain. This turn of events had a significant impact on record keeping practices in Wales.
The majority of Welsh records of consequence to family history research are composed in English or Latin. These include parish registers, censuses, civil registration, probates, and court records. A law passed by the British government in 1733 ended the usage of recording baptisms, marriages, and burials in Latin. Before this date, entries in parish registers may appear in either Latin or English, both in Wales and England.
Genealogists will confront a few specific record types written in the native Welsh tongue. Nonconformity swept throughout Wales following the Protestant Reformation. Religious organizations, such as Baptists, Independents, Methodists, and Mormons kept their own chapel books recording congregation minutes, baptisms, births, emigrations, deaths, burials, etc. Instead of writing the information in English or Latin as in the established church, many nonconforming clerics filled out the forms in their registers in Welsh. If they used forms, only a limited knowledge of the Welsh language is required to translate these documents. In addition, newspapers and nonconformist chapel histories were often printed in Welsh.
Learning Welsh is an exciting and challenging pursuit; however, to search records of genealogical value, it is not essential to speak Cymraeg. Knowledge of Welsh can come in handy when speaking with the natives and help foreigners correctly pronounce and understand the definition of Welsh place names. Remarkably, however, persons of Welsh descent will find themselves better equipped to trace their ancestry if they study old English and Latin terminology rather than Welsh.
Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
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