This tattered Welsh Bible
of 1620, in Llanwnda
church, was rescued from the hands of French invaders in 1797.
The language of the Welsh arguably originated from the Britons at the end of the 6th century. Prior to this, three distinct languages were spoken by the Britons during the 5th and 6th centuries: Latin, Irish, and British. According to T. M. Charles-Edwards, the emergence of Welsh as a distinct language occurred towards the end of this period. The emergence of Welsh was not instantaneous and clearly identifiable. Instead, the shift occurred over a long period of time, with some historians claiming that it happened as late as the 9th century. Kenneth H. Jackson proposed a more general time period for the emergence, specifically after the Battle of Dyrham, a military battle between the West Saxons and the Britons in 577 AD.
Four periods are identified in the history of Welsh, with rather indistinct boundaries: Primitive Welsh, Old Welsh, Middle Welsh, and Modern Welsh. The period immediately following the language's emergence is sometimes referred to as Primitive Welsh, followed by the Old Welsh period – which is generally considered to stretch from the beginning of the 9th century to sometime during the 12th century. The Middle Welsh period is considered to have lasted from then until the 14th century, when the Modern Welsh period began, which in turn is divided into Early and Late Modern Welsh.
The name Welsh originated as an exonym given to its speakers by the Anglo-Saxons, meaning "foreign speech" (see Walha) , and the native term for the language is Cymraeg'.
Welsh evolved from Common Brittonic, the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Celtic Britons. Classified as Insular Celtic, the British language probably arrived in Britain during the Bronze Age or Iron Age and was probably spoken throughout the island south of the Firth of Forth. During the Early Middle Ages the British language began to fragment due to increased dialect differentiation, thus evolving into Welsh and the other Brittonic languages. It is not clear when Welsh became distinct.
Kenneth H. Jackson suggested that the evolution in syllabic structure and sound pattern was complete by around 550, and labelled the period between then and about 800 "Primitive Welsh". This Primitive Welsh may have been spoken in both Wales and the Hen Ogledd ("Old North") - the Brittonic-speaking areas of what is now northern England and southern Scotland - and therefore may have been the ancestor of Cumbric as well as Welsh. Jackson, however, believed that the two varieties were already distinct by that time. The earliest Welsh poetry – that attributed to the Cynfeirdd or "Early Poets" – is generally considered to date to the Primitive Welsh period. However, much of this poetry was supposedly composed in the Hen Ogledd, raising further questions about the dating of the material and language in which it was originally composed. This discretion stems from the fact that Cumbric was widely believed to have been the language used in Hen Ogledd. An 8th century inscription in Tywyn shows the language already dropping inflections in the declension of nouns.
Janet Davies proposed that the origins of Welsh language were much less definite; in The Welsh Language: A History, she proposes that Welsh may have been around even earlier than 600 AD. This is evidenced by the dropping of final syllables from Brittonic: *bardos "poet" became bardd, and *abona "river" became afon. Though both Davies and Jackson cite minor changes in syllable structure and sounds as evidence for the creation of Old Welsh, Davies suggests it may be more appropriate to refer to this derivative language as Lingua Brittanica rather than characterizing it as a new language altogether.
The argued dates for the period of "Primitive Welsh" are widely debated, with some historians' suggestions differing by hundreds of years.
The next main period is Old Welsh (Hen Gymraeg, 9th to 11th centuries); poetry from both Wales and Scotland has been preserved in this form of the language. As Germanic and Gaelic colonisation of Britain proceeded, the Brittonic speakers in Wales were split off from those in northern England, speaking Cumbric, and those in the southwest, speaking what would become Cornish, and so the languages diverged. Both the works of Aneirin (Canu Aneirin, c. 600) and the Book of Taliesin (Canu Taliesin) were during this era.
Middle Welsh (Cymraeg Canol) is the label attached to the Welsh of the 12th to 14th centuries, of which much more remains than for any earlier period. This is the language of nearly all surviving early manuscripts of the Mabinogion, although the tales themselves are certainly much older. It is also the language of the existing Welsh law manuscripts. Middle Welsh is reasonably intelligible to a modern-day Welsh speaker.
The famous cleric Gerald of Wales tells, in his Descriptio Cambriae, a story of King Henry II of England. During one of the King's many raids in the 12th century, Henry asked an old man of Pencader, Carmarthenshire whether the Welsh people could resist his army. The old man replied:
It can never be destroyed through the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God shall concur. Nor do I think that any other nation than this of Wales, nor any other language, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall in the day of reckoning before the Supreme Judge, answer for this corner of the Earth.
This section needs additional citations for verification
. (December 2017)
Modern Welsh is subdivided into Early Modern Welsh and Late Modern Welsh. Early Modern Welsh ran from the 15th century through to the end of the 16th century, and the Late Modern Welsh period roughly dates from the 16th century onwards. Contemporary Welsh still differs greatly from the Welsh of the 16th Century, but they are similar enough that a fluent Welsh speaker should have little trouble understanding it. The Modern Welsh period is where one can see a decline in the popularity of the Welsh language, as the number of people who spoke Welsh declined to the point at which there was concern that the language would become extinct entirely. Welsh government processes and legislation have worked to increase the proliferation of the Welsh language throughout school projects and the like.
The Bible translations into Welsh helped maintain the use of Welsh in daily life. The New Testament was translated by William Salesbury in 1567 followed by the complete Bible by William Morgan in 1588.