Trydar y Cymry! The Welsh Language Thrives Online

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

“Trydar y Cymry” means “the twittering of the Welsh” or “the Welsh twitterers” (the verb “trydar” now being used in connection with Twitter) and is an example of the Welsh language adapting and developing as it is used online.

Global Voices has spoken to blogger and researcher Rhodri ap Dyfrig (@Nwdls) about Welsh-language blogging and tweeting, how Welsh compares in this regard to other minority languages, and the challenges Welsh speakers face online.

Global Voices (GV): First of all, can you give us an idea of how many people speak Welsh? And what is the official status of the language?

Rhodri ap Dyfrig (RD): According to the 2001 UK census 582,400 (20.8%) people over 3 years of age are able to speak Welsh, with 661,526 (23.6%) people able to understand spoken Welsh. (Percentages refer to the population of Wales.) Although the UK has no official language written in law, the Welsh Government passed a measure in 2010 to give Welsh official status in Wales. However, although it receives a degree of official and state support it remains a language which the UNESCO Atlas of World Languages has designated as “unsafe”. Most Welsh speakers are bilingual in that they are able to speak English too, but many feel more comfortable communicating in their first language.

Rhodri ap Dyfrig (photo reproduced with permission)

Rhodri ap Dyfrig (photo reproduced with permission)

GV: How large is the Welsh-language blogosphere? Are all Welsh bloggers in Wales?

RD: Numbers range from 200-300 blogs, although some of those may not be active. The Welsh tech wiki Hedyn has started compiling a list of blogs which has reached 260 so far, noting that 37 new blogs have appeared in 2011 already. Most bloggers live in Wales but there are many from the Welsh diaspora or who are Welsh learners elsewhere. There are or have been Welsh-language blogs from the USA, Australia, Spain, Argentina, Japan and China. There is a very small Welsh-language colony in Patagonia, Argentina (7,000 speakers) but at present only one blogger writes from there and she is from Wales, working there as a Welsh teacher in a primary school.

Y Blogiadur is the only Welsh-language blog aggregator, which pulls through new posts from nearly all Welsh-language blogs as they are published. There was a time when all Welsh-language blogs would link to each other but as the blogosphere has grown it has become more difficult to keep track of all blogs being written. The amount of new Welsh blogs a year has grown consistently although there is a general feeling that more people could and should be blogging if compared with the amount of activity in say Iceland (over 11k tweeters according to this) who have just under half the amount of speakers as us. I guess it shows what having the backing of a state does for a language in terms of normalising its use online (or offline for that matter!).

GV: What kind of topics do Welsh-language blogs look at? Is there a sense of them filling a gap, doing what mainstream media is not doing?

RD: Welsh-language blogs cover a range of topics that you would expect any other blogs in other languages to cover, from technology and personal blogs through to baking and music. However there is a definite slant towards political blogs. The reason for this I would hazard is that the Welsh press (in both languages) is relatively weak, leading to a gap in discussion of political events. The irony in Wales is that as we have become more responsible for our own governance, with a devolved government established in 1999 with many powers to change the lives of the people of Wales, the media has seemed to wither on the vine. Plurality in television news has diminished, and the printed press is suffering from dwindling circulation. Into this gap have stepped many excellent and committed bloggers who, although often commenting upon stories generated by the traditional press, can give a wide variety of political standpoints, enriching the public sphere.

GV: How much Welsh content is there online? What are both the challenges and the opportunities that you can see for Welsh developing on the internet?

RD: It’s difficult to know exactly how much Welsh-language material is out there. Search for material in a specific language is not yet at the stage where we can say, “I want to find everything about Barack Obama that’s in Welsh” and see a list of pages in Welsh about Barack Obama. Finding the right material in the mass of online content is not a question limited to minority languages, but it is more difficult. The sheer scale of the English-language web is such that there are innumerable filters, aggregators etc. that can help to direct you to what you want to find. In Welsh that is not the case yet. There are a few aggregators but still there is much that remains undiscovered by most Welsh speakers who probably surf the web according to the patterns (and languages, which create patterns) laid out by search and content platforms.

In the analogue age, being a Welsh-language media supplier in a limited spectrum made you a big fish in a small pond with a captive audience. Now that the paradigm of scarcity is gone, Welsh-language content is having to fend for itself, and that is a tough place when competing for audience.

I carried out some research with Dr. Daniel Cunliffe of the University of Glamorgan into the Welsh language on YouTube (to be published in a forthcoming book by Multilingual Matters) and one of the immediate conclusions was that YouTube does not make it easy to find material in languages other than those supported by the platform. Mutations in the Welsh language mean that searches are often blunt tools, and internal searches rely on association between tags and titles rather than any linguistic analysis. Often videos are badly tagged or described, which means they are more difficult to find. It is for that reason that I created, which filters the best of Welsh-language video online. There really is some great stuff out there.

Rhodri introduces (in Welsh) the website which gathers the best of Welsh-language video.

GV: Welsh is one of the languages featured on Indigenous Tweets. What connections have Welsh speakers made with speakers of other minority languages? Do you see similarities with other language communities?

Welsh 'Twitter dragon', based on the dragon that appears on the national flag. Image by Flickr user Foomandoonian (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Welsh 'Twitter dragon', based on the dragon that appears on the national flag. Image by Flickr user Foomandoonian (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

RD: I would say that if looking to make comparisons then the most similar in sociolinguistic and demographic nature is Euskara, the Basque language. They have roughly the same size population and percentages of speakers meaning that they are often the place to which we compare ourselves. It is of course important to see what the other Celtic languages are doing but their languages are all in very different positions to Welsh and make valid comparison difficult. This is not to say that lessons aren’t shared and learned, and festivals such as the Celtic Media Festival play an important role in learning from each other, though I have argued that the festival is yet to fully embrace internet media in its widest context. It is still mainly a festival for broadcasters to network, and I wish it would broaden out to include creators of amateur online media too. There has been some collaboration between minority language online media, especially for language-learning tools developed by the BBC, who cover Welsh, Gaelic and Irish for instance, but on a non-professional level it tends to be seen as too difficult to coordinate. I have however, through connections made in my previous job, been able to cooperate with a Basque company on some exciting software.

GV: Speaking of tweets, how many people are tweeting in Welsh? Can you tell us something about your involvement with Umap (the project you just mentioned)? How is this connected to your current research?

RD: Use of Welsh on Twitter has really taken off in the last year and a half. I am responsible for Umap Cymraeg, which is a Welsh-language tweet aggregator. The site, which was developed for the Basque language initially but was subsequently implemented in Catalan and Welsh, aims to provide a Welsh-language Twittersphere. I felt that Welsh discussions and tweets can get lost in the sea of English tweets, but through language-recognition algorithms and some clever software, this was a chance to see what the true nature of the Welsh discussion was, and maybe see if any interesting patterns emerged. The site filters tweets and calculates trending topics and a “top news” feed created by counting the outgoing links with most mentions. I guess one of the main uses initially is as a place to find Welsh speakers on Twitter. The site now follows over 2,000 Welsh language tweeters and gives a leaderboard of those who are most active in the language. I’ve heard that Welsh-language TV producers are also using the site to monitor buzz around their shows and that is great to hear.

My PhD looks at online participatory media and collaborative content production, specifically in minority languages such as Welsh. I’m going to be looking at Umap and developing other platforms to see what the dynamics are when dealing with internet phenomena such as collective intelligence that thrive on a large scale, but in reality can only achieve small scale due to the potential number of speakers/users. I hope that the results will enable me and others to better understand how to improve the level and quality of online participation and collaboration in smaller languages.

Whatever the results though, Umap Cymraeg has already shown me that the language is alive online, and in a completely natural way. Although much of the trending topics relate back to Wales, Welsh politics or the language, it is obvious that the language is used to discuss nearly everything that goes on in people’s lives, and in a variety of registers and dialects. I hope Umap goes some way to showing that Welsh is a living language, with no sign of retreating into obscurity any time soon.

Rhodri will now be covering Welsh-language blogs for Global Voices – watch this space!

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.


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