Photograph of the Andes mountain range in Patagonia
Andes mountain range, Patagonia ©

Andrew Morris

Y Wladfa is a unique Welsh-language settlement in Patagonia, Argentina. Dr Walter Ariel Brooks traces how the language has evolved in Argentina since its arrival in 1865.

Since I moved to Wales from Argentina nearly two decades ago, my life has developed trilingually. Spanish is my mother tongue and the first language that I speak at home. I also speak fluent Welsh and English socially and in the workplace.

Welsh is currently a minority language in Wales, spoken by just under 20 per cent of the population, according to the latest United Kingdom census. This led me take a role as Welsh language tutor for adult learners at Cardiff University.

It was an enjoyable experience, but one that left many of my students puzzled – how come an Argentinian from Patagonia was teaching Welsh citizens how to speak their own language?

The answer begins more than 150 years ago, with a group of Welsh pioneers travelling nearly 8,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. My great-grandparents were among them.

The Welsh language under threat

Though Welsh nowadays receives support from the UK government, the language has historically been subject to state discrimination. In the 16th century, King Henry VIII passed laws that decreed  that English was to be the only language of the courts in Wales, and those using the Welsh language were not to receive public office.

An education report  published by English government officials in 1847 drove the stigma even further, criticising the morals of the Welsh people and their Protestant beliefs as opposed to the established Anglican Church.

One of the many outcomes of the report was that the English language was promoted as the language of social and economic progress, whereas Welsh was associated with backwardness.

Emigration in the 19th century 

Throughout the nineteenth century, emigration from Europe to the Americas was on the increase. Wales was no exception. Welsh citizens settled in many countries in the anglophone world, including the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Most Welsh immigrants in these communities improved their lives and secured better jobs. But many were also concerned about the threat to their cultural heritage and sense of identity.

Despite efforts to build a network of Welsh chapels, celebrate the traditional eisteddfod language and culture festival , and support Welsh language publications, new Welsh diaspora generations were slowly losing their linguistic heritage while integrating into their wider English-speaking communities.

New beginnings for Welsh emigrants in Argentina 

Some Welsh citizens imagined a fresh start, where they would not be under the rule of the British Empire or at risk of their culture being diluted by surrounding English language influences. The Reverend Michael D. Jones set up several Welsh emigration societies for this purpose, and is today seen as one of the father figures of the Welsh nationalist movement.

The hope was for a place where citizens could live their lives entirely in Welsh – something that they were unable to do in Wales itself. 

Meanwhile, the Argentinian government was populating the vast territories that lay to the south of Buenos Aires, and openly encouraged European immigrants to settle there. The policy was included in the Argentine National Constitution , enshrining the opportunity for foreigners to arrive ‘for the purpose of tilling the soil, improving industries, and introducing arts and sciences’.

The first Welsh settlers arrived in Chubut, Argentina, on 28 July 1865. Walter Caradog Jones and Catherine Davies, my great-grandparents, joined the community not long after.

Challenging times in Argentina 

The hot, harsh South American environment was radically different from that of their native Wales. But by the 1890s the settlers had established several Welsh-language towns; a legally impossible challenge in their mother country.

Walter and Catherine had 13 children in Y Wladfa, who all learned to speak a new type of Welsh that combined characteristics of dialects from both North and South Wales. The language was also influenced by the Spanish taught in the national schools in Argentina.

The first Welsh-language primary and secondary schools in the world were founded in Patagonia. Government, business and social life was conducted almost exclusively in the settlers' native language, as were most letters and diaries, and all official record-keeping.

A language under threat... again

Welsh faded in importance  over the next century as more Spanish speakers from Argentina and Chile migrated into Y Wladfa, and World War I halted immigration and resources from Wales completely. 

We can track the pattern of change through local marriage records. The many unions of Welsh descendants and other South Americans allowed Y Wladfa to thrive and grow, but to the detriment of the Welsh language. At that time in history, Argentina was building a sense of identity through the medium of the Spanish language, and therefore bilingualism was not promoted or encouraged. 

According to sociolinguists including Joshua A Fishman , marrying within a single language community leads to the best chance of preserving a language. Conversely, marrying outside of your own language group can lead to language loss. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, almost all marriages in the Chubut region were between those with Welsh surnames. By 1940, only 25 per cent of the marriages were between members of the Welsh-speaking community, and a similar number were mixed-language marriages.

Reviving a culture outside Wales

The 1965 centenary celebrations of the first landing were a catalyst for language revival. Visitors from Wales arrived in large numbers, and saw that their distant cousins had preserved a unique variety of Welsh that was untouched by English, but influenced by Spanish.

The arrival of volunteer teachers from Wales in the 1980s and the establishment of the Welsh Language Project in 1997 were part of a resurgence of the Welsh language and culture in Chubut.

Young Patagonians – not necessarily descendants of the first Welsh community – began learning Welsh as their first or second foreign language under free access schemes. Several earned scholarships to visit Wales to hone their linguistic skills further, and learn more about the origins of their community.

This new wave of Welsh-language enthusiasts became important to the modern Patagonian Welsh revival. They set up a fundraising committee and obtained government permission to start a bilingual Welsh-Spanish school for their children.

The modern Y Wladfa 

Today, there are three bilingual schools in Chubut. Tourists and youth groups from Wales regularly visit the region, and many of their Patagonian counterparts make the reverse journey to improve their language skills. 

Undergraduate placement programmes run by Cardiff University, Bangor University, Cardiff Metropolitan and other major institutions ensure a steady exchange of academic talent between the two cultures. Musicians, filmmakers and photographers have many crossover opportunities  thanks to organisations like the Arts Council of Wales. The modern eisteddfod festival thrives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Some linguistic differences between Patagonia and Wales

The history of Patagonian Welsh across the generations has created a linguistic mosaic. It is mutually intelligible with the modern Welsh spoken in Wales, but is also distinct from it.

Most Patagonians born before 1950 speak Welsh as a first language. They have the confidence of native speakers, while the softness of Spanish diction makes their plosives (p,t,c,b,d,g) less sonorous. The strong, guttural ‘ch’ sound is more mellow.

There are phrases that show how Spanish has influenced Welsh syntax.

When you are invited to enter a Welsh speaker’s house in Patagonia, you may be greeted with ‘Pasiwch i mewn’ (‘Pass in’, which comes from the Spanish ‘Pase’) instead of the usual ‘Dewch i mewn’ (literally ‘Come in’) from Wales.

The phrase for speaking with someone on the phone is not the usual ‘Siarad ar y ffôn’ you would expect in Wales but ‘Siarad dros y ffôn’ (from the Spanish ‘Hablar por teléfono’).

Almost all Patagonians born after 1970 who know Welsh as a second or third language have learned the language with tutors from Wales. They have typically used coursebooks from Wales, with a different variety from the Welsh spoken by their Patagonian ancestors. Most speak Spanish as a first language, which heavily influences their accent when speaking Welsh.

Bangor University and the National Welsh Teaching Centre are devising a unique ‘Patagonian Welsh’ course. 

New Welsh words in Patagonia

There are some Welsh words that were coined in Patagonia, from the need to adapt Welsh to a new environment.

In the Welsh-language newspaper Y Drafod, published in Patagonia since 1891, there were advertisements published by local shop owners. In many cases, those shop owners were not Welsh speakers, but since they wanted to attract the Welsh-speaking community, they translated the advertisements into Welsh.

They had to invent new words for some lexical items that did not exist in Wales. Many of those words end with the suffix ‘fa’ that in Welsh point to a ‘place’, ‘location’ or ‘venue’.

Some examples:

  • Arianfa: for ‘bank’. Arian is the Welsh word for money or silver.
  • Ymdrochfa: a translation of the Spanish balneario; basically a beach or a ‘place to bathe’.
  • Ymgynghorfa: this is a direct translation of the Spanish word consultorio (a ‘practice’ or ‘office’). So ymgynghorfa ddeintyddol was a dentist’s practice, and a translation of consultorio dental in Spanish.

One of my favourites is:

  • Oriadurfa a thlysfa: a direct translation of relojería y joyería in Spanish, the kind of shop where you can buy watches and jewellery.

Children and Welsh language learning

When I became a father, I saw first-hand how children learn languages from a very early age. My wife and I are both native Argentinians who studied English and translation in Buenos Aires, so are aware of the importance of multilingualism.

We speak Spanish, our children's mother tongue, to them at home, and choose Welsh-language nurseries and primary schools. They pick up English wherever they go; television, shops, music, and their friends. They seem to compartmentalise the three very well, with little of the mixing you can see in older learners.

Speaking Welsh as an Argentinian represents a direct connection with my great-grandparents and my Patagonian heritage, and is also a link to a modern and vibrant Wales. But through my children it is a projection to the future.

It is also about social justice, for Welsh and for the many minority and endangered languages around the world. Welsh is an official language of Wales, with English, and is treated equally in the public sector under the 1993 Welsh Language Act. We still have progress to make in protecting minority languages, but I like to think the original Patagonian settlers would be proud of where we are today.

Dr Walter Ariel Brooks is a Welsh-language expert and Education Manager for British Council Wales.

See also

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