(Written by Callum Madle and Phoebe Harrison).
When discussing the languages of the British Isles that aren’t English, many people will assume you are referring to the melting pot of foreign languages widely spoken in the region due to immigration, particularly in big cities such as London, Glasgow, and Birmingham, where languages such as Polish, Urdu, Bengali, Arabic, Chinese and Tamil are often commonplace as a native or second language. Yet often overlooked are those languages native to the British Isles themselves, the descendants of the Brythonic and Goidelic branches of the Celtic Language family, first spoken on the isles thousands of years ago and now sadly mostly endangered. Here are the main ones.
Of all the minority languages native to the British Isles, Welsh (or Cymraeg) is somewhat unique – unlike its neighbouring languages, it is the only native British language to not be considered ‘endangered’ by UNESCO, and it still very widely spoken today. As of 2021, estimates show that around 884,300 people in Wales (29.2% of the population) can speak Welsh as both a first or second language, with an additional 110,000 speakers residing in England (as of 2011) and even pockets of around 1,500 speakers in Argentina in the Welsh colony of Chubut. A fairly ancient language, Welsh evolved from the Brythonic strain of the Celtic language tree, the Celtic tongue that was spoken in Wales, Southern Scotland, and England prior to the Roman invasion of 43AD. The Welsh that we recognise began to develop as its own language between 400 and 700 AD and continued to be the main language in Wales even after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Despite this, Welsh gradually became displaced by English as an ‘official’ language, a fact hastened by Henry VIII’s 1536 Act of Union, where Wales became incorporated into England. Despite these factors, Welsh was still widely used in both spoken and written language, and in the 1911 census, the highest number of Welsh speakers as a percentage of the population was recorded, with over 977,366 speakers, 43.5% of the populace. However, the Welsh language still declined due to growing population movement and communication. It was also still a minority language, with the devastation of the First World War claiming the lives of approximately 20,000 speakers, diminishing it further. Unperturbed by these hardships however, there was a large drive post-Second-World War to revive and maintain the Welsh language. The Welsh Language Act of 1967 permitted the use of Welsh in Welsh courts when presenting evidence, and official forms were also allowed to be written in the language. In 1977, BBC Radio Cymru – a Welsh-language station – was established, and in 1982 the creation of Welsh-language TV channel S4C followed suit, meaning that Welsh now had a place in media and entertainment alongside English. In 1993 and 2003, more measures were introduced (namely, another Welsh Language Act and A National Action Plan for a Bilingual Wales) to solidify the use of Welsh and maintain its use; since then, numbers of Welsh speakers have shown significant stability. Indeed, today Welsh is very often a compulsory subject in Welsh schools between the ages of 5 and 16, and there are also a growing number of Welsh medium schools that use Welsh as their primary teaching language across all subjects. In terms of its specific linguistic features, Welsh shares some similarities with Cornish and Breton, but has characteristics that distinguish it from the other Celtic languages like Gaelic. One of these distinguishing features is the use of consonant mutation, where the first consonant of a word will change depending on the grammatical context in which it is used. Some words and expressions in welsh include bore da (good morning), croeso (welcome), pob lwc (good luck) and iechyd da (cheers!).
Perhaps the other most widely spoken ‘minority’ language alongside Welsh, Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) is nevertheless considered ‘definitely endangered’ by UNESCO. According to 2016 figures, 1.76 million people in Ireland claim to speak Irish, with 73,803 doing so daily, 111,473 weekly and 586,535 less often. In Northern Ireland, Gaelic is an official minority language, receiving recognition for the first time under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, with a cross-border body promoting the use of the language in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It became an official language of the European Language in 2005. Irish is a member of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages tree and is related to Manx and Scottish Gaelic with a degree of mutual intelligibility between them. Historically, until the 17th century Gaelic was still the principal language of Ireland but was displaced by English between the 17th and 20th century because of British rule there. The language further declined as a result of mass immigration caused by poverty and famine in the 19th century. However, the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1922 meant that Irish was once again adopted as an official language alongside English. Irish terms also replaced English ones for the titles of official bodies and figures, such as the Police (Garda), the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and the Parliament (Dáli). There are three main existing dialects of Irish – Munster (An Mhumhain), Connacht (Connachta) and Ulster (Ulaidh). These three strains were combined in the 1950s and 60s to create a ‘standardised’ version of Irish that is now taught in most schools. Irish mostly uses the Latin alphabet for the written word, but occasionally Gaelic script (first used in the Medieval era) can be seen on road signs and public notices. Linguistically, Irish is a fairly difficult and unique language, with complex orthography (using letter combinations such as ‘mh’, ‘bh’ and ‘dh’ to name a few), a case system for nouns, and a sightly unique numeric system, with different disjunctive numbers used depending on the object in question ( three buses will not be counted the same way as three cows, for example.) Some common expressions in Irish include dia duit (hello) slán go fóill (see you later), and sláinte (cheers!).
Scottish Gaelic is spoken by 57,400 people in Scotland, primarily in the Highlands, the Western Isles, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Inverness. The language is part of the Goidelic language family, the northern group of Celtic languages, which span from the Isle of Man to Scotland. Scottish Gaelic, as well as the Modern Irish language and Manx, all derive from Old Irish, the oldest form of the Goidelic languages. It might not be an official language of the UK, but Scottish Gaelic is one of the four recognised languages by the Scottish Government. It has also been classified as an indigenous language by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. According to the 2011 Census, an estimated 87,100 people aged 3 and over in Scotland had some Scottish Gaelic language skills, 37 per cent of this number had full Gaelic skills. Although the number of Scottish Gaelic speakers has declined significantly since the 18th century, devolution and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in May 1999 has boosted the languages’ chances of survival in the 21st century, thanks to the introduction of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005, the first legislation dedicated to the protection of the Scottish Gaelic language.
Basic Scottish Gaelic phrases:
- Hello – Halò
- How are you? – Ciamar a tha thu/sibh?
- Fine, thank you – Tha mi gu math, tapadh leat/leibh
- What is your name? – Dè an t-ainm a th’ ort/oirbh?
- My name is… – Is mise…
- Nice to meet you – ‘S toil leam gur coinneachadh
- Please – Led thoil / Ler toil
- Thank you – Tapadh leat/leibh
Unlike Scottish Gaelic, Scots, also known as Braid Scots or Broad Scots, is a West Germanic language spoken primarily in the Scottish Lowlands and Ulster, where the language is known as Ulster Scots. In total, the language is spoken by 1.5 million people in the UK, and is used as a first language by 89,200 people. The Ulster Scots dialect is spoken by an estimated 10,000 people in Northern Ireland. Scots is also one of the four languages recognised by the Scottish Government, and has also been classified as an indigenous language by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The earliest written example of the Scots language is a text from 1300 AD, about the death of Alexander III, King of Scotland between 1249 and 1286. Use of the Scots language declined in 1707 after the union between Scotland and England was established, but more recently, the language has been included in the new Scottish national curriculum and is protected under the 2015 Scots Language Policy. In fact, as of the 2011 census, 1.9 million stated that they could “read, write, speak or understand Scots”.
Basic Scots phrases:
- Welcome – Wylcome
- Hello – Hullo
- Goodbye – Guidbye
- How are you? – Hoo are ye?
- Where are you from? – Whaur ye fae?
- Thank you – Thank ye
- Have a nice day – Hae a guid day
Cornish is a Brythonic Celtic language, which shares its origins with the Welsh and Breton languages. Use of the Cornish language declined between the 16th and 17th century, due to the Prayer Book Rebellion, during which 4,000 Cornish Catholics were killed for resisting the anglicisation of the Church during the Reformation. Classified as an extinct language until its revival in the 20th century, Cornish has become increasingly popular. In 2002, the Cornish language was recognised by the UK Government as part of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. Additionally, Cornish is also used on signage in Cornwall, as well as being taught in some nurseries and schools.
Basic Cornish phrases:
- Welcome – Dynnargh dhis
- Hello – Dydh da
- How are you? – Fatla genes?
- What’s your name? – Pyth yw dha hanow?
- Where are you from? – A bleth os ta devedhys?
- Pleased to meet you – Da yw genev metya genes
- Good morning – Myttin da
- Good evening – Gorthugher da
- Goodbye – Duw genes
The minority languages of the British Isles seem to be divided into those that are very much ‘living’ (despite outside factors) and those that can be considered as ‘dying’ or even ‘dead’. Up until fairly recently, Manx fell into the latter category, though thanks to a concerted effort by speakers, it has been revived. In figures from 2011, over 1,823 people claimed to have some ability in speaking, reading and/or writing in Manx, and the current number of children fluent in the language is estimated to be around a few hundred, a growing number owing to many of these children now having grown up in Manx-speaking families. A Celtic language, Manx is primarily spoken on the Isle of Mann (Ellan Vannin)) and is closely related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, brought to the isle by settlers from Ulster and Galloway in the 5th century. Manx emerged as its own language in the 13th and 14th centuries after the collapse of the Norse kingdom of Mann, up until English control of the isle through the Stanley family. In 1765, the Revestment Act sold the island to the British crown and led to a sharp decline in Manx speakers as the economy collapsed and people emigrated, further aggravated through 19th century immigration to the North West of England. In 1974, the last native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell, died, and Manx was considered extinct. However, in 1985, the Tynwald (the island’s parliamentary body) passed a resolution that would give Manx limited official recognition for the first time. The Manx Gaelic Advisory Council and the Manx Heritage Foundation were also set up to help revive and preserve the language. Since then, the language has enjoyed a slow resurrection. Since 1992, Manx has been taught in schools on the Isle of Man, and since 2001 several playgroups and primary schools led and taught in Manx language have been set up. Manx classes for adults are popular, and there are also several Manx-language choir groups and a resurgence in the creation of Manx language materials, such as books and radio programmes. Some words and phrases in Manx include s’mie lhiam çheet dty whail (pleased to meet you), cair vie (‘have a good journey’) and slaynt (cheers!).
Despite the dominance of the English language in the UK, there has been a significant revival and legislation of protections to the indigenous languages in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Now, the once lost or extinct languages like Cornish or Manx, as well as the prominently used Welsh and Scots languages, are examples of the healthy state of indigenous language diversity in the UK. If you require translation or interpreting services in any language, you can get a quote here from Crystal Clear Translation.