Wednesday, August 22, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Reviving dying language is great Welsh success story

The Washington Post

That absurdly unwieldy name — Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, so long that the railroad had to print outsize tickets to make it fit — isn't the most unlikely thing about this friendly village in north Wales.

What's really remarkable is that just about all of the 3,400 residents can pronounce the name of their town in its full guttural grandeur.

"With the language program we've got in the schools," said Alan Jones, a longtime town councilman, "I'd say 60, 80 percent, maybe more, can say the name of the village now."

In fact, since the native language has become a mandatory subject in all Welsh schools, students the length and breadth of Wales can rattle off the country's most famous place name the way American kids recite the Gettysburg Address.

With the language's glottal consonants and heavy hissing sounds — that initial "Ll" is pronounced like an "H" on steroids — the name comes out sounding like a vacuum cleaner sucking up a pile of nails.

All those children proudly making this formidable noise are testament to one of the most successful efforts to revive a dying language.

In the past 10 years or so, a campaign has reversed a decline that probably would have led to the extinction of Wales' ancient tongue.

The British national census of 1911 reported more than 1 million Welsh speakers. By 1991, the number had fallen by more than half, and most were elderly.

But the 2001 census is expected to show a gain in the number of people who know Welsh and use it every day.

From road signs to rock songs, from cereal boxes to sitcoms to Web sites, Welsh is alive and well in the 21st century.

The revival is part of an effort to save local languages and lifestyles jeopardized by a globalized pop culture centered on English.

The European Union has issued the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages, declaring the use of one's local language to be a fundamental human right. That means speakers of Catalan, Basque, Gaelic, Breton, etc., can go to court to enforce the use and teaching of their native tongues.

Since 1536, Wales has been a constituent part of the United Kingdom, governed from London and overwhelmed in many ways by the English majority. Wales today has 3 million people; England has 49 million.

Unable to comprehend, much less pronounce, Welsh names such as Llanystumdwy (pronounced hyanu-tumdoo) or Pwllheli (pool-heely), the English suppressed the local tongue and outlawed its teaching until 1920. They anglicized ancient city names, turning Caerdydd into Cardiff.

It was a protest against those language restrictions that prompted a group of local patriots in 1870 to give their village a name no Englishman could pronounce. The name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch accurately describes various features found along the eastern bank of the Menai Strait; it means "The Church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel near the rapid whirlpool by the church of St. Tysilio of the red cave."

Nearly 500,000 tourists come every year to pose under the 15-footlong sign on the railway platform and to buy cups, caps, key chains and elongated-refrigerator magnets bearing the town's name.

Locals protested vehemently when the highway commission decided to use an abbreviated version — the minuscule Llanfairpwllgwyngyll — on road signs.

Mastering the town's pronunciation and meaning has become a basic checkpoint on the rugged road to learning a complicated Celtic tongue that adds seven tongue-twisting consonants to the regular Roman alphabet.

"We sort of drown our children in Welsh in the first few years," said Meriel Parry, principal of the Tregarth Primary School.

The Welsh-language instruction, begun in 1990 and required for all students up to 16, has been a central element in the language revival.

It has spread regular use of the language beyond the northwest corner of the country, traditional Welsh heartland, and into southern cities such as the capital, Cardiff, where most adults use English only.

The 8-year-old Welsh Language Board has set up adult-education centers everywhere. There are Welsh-language radio and TV stations, plus newspapers, magazines and comics.

A key factor in the revival has been a strategic decision to work toward a bilingual Wales, so Welsh and English could coexist. "It's an English world out there," said Rhys Davies, of the Welsh Language Board.


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