A Look At The Minority Languages in the UK
As a whole, we Brits have an (often well-earned) reputation of being pretty terrible at languages. The signs are there from comic scenes featuring middle-aged holidaymakers in Spain shouting and waving their arms around in a vain attempt to be understood, to more serious recent headlines about the number of students taking language GCSEs being in decline.
While everything might seem to point to the idea that the UK is purely an English-speaking nation, the truth is actually quite different. So, to try and beat this crazy stereotype, we thought we’d take a look at the languages in the UK, minority and otherwise.
English is definitely not a minority language, but we’re kind of stating the obvious with that! As the official language of the UK, it has nearly 60 million speakers and is also of course the most widely-spoken language in the country.
Most widely known simply as Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language native to Scotland. A recent census showed that there are roughly 57,000 Gaelic speakers, which is equivalent to just 1.1% of the Scottish population. Brought to Scotland in the 4th-5th centuries by settlers from Ireland, it reached its peak in around 1018, following the conquest of the Lothians. Even though Gaelic is a language rich in culture, it was sadly suppressed by the English after being banned from the education system in the 1700s. Right now, Bord na Gaidhlig (the Gaelic language board) is working to promote the Gaelic language in Scotland, with backing from the Scottish government.
Although the UK government recently caused significant controversy by failing to recognise Irish as a minority language in the UK, Irish is spoken by 6.6% of the Northern Irish population (over 184,000 people). Right now, Conradh na Gaeilge (the Irish language association), is trying to get an Irish language act passed so that citizens of Northern Ireland can access services in Irish, and be taught it in school again.
Probably the most recognised language in the UK besides English, Welsh is spoken by over half a million people. Welsh is a Celtic language that developed from the language of the Britons, although its origins are somewhat of a mystery. It’s thought that Welsh has been around since 600 AD, with 4 main periods being noted, known as Primitive Welsh, Old Welsh, Middle Welsh, and Modern Welsh. Although Welsh is a minority language, support for the language has grown over the last 40-50 years, thanks to the rise of nationalist organisations such as Plaid Cymru. The Welsh Language Act has now seen the Welsh language be granted equal status to English in the public sector, with each public body required to have a Welsh language scheme.
Once a language becomes extinct, you tend not to hear about it making a comeback. But one such success story is that of Cornish. Just like Welsh, Cornish is a Celtic language originating from the language of the early Britons, which is native to Cornwall in South-West England. If you go back to 1010, the census reveals that the entire population of Cornwall then spoke Cornish, but by 1800 it had all but died out. That was until 1904, when Henry Jenner wrote a book entitled A Handbook of the Cornish Language. This led to language rules being introduced in the 1920s, with a dictionary following in 1938. Finally, in 2002 it was recognised as a minority language by the UK, with UNESCO confirming that the term “extinct” was no longer accurate from 2010.
Languages of the Channel Islands
Given its proximity to France, it’s no surprise that the Channel Islands also sport their own languages that are very similar to early French. In Alderney, there was Auregnais, which has unfortunately become extinct since the last native speaker died in 1960. There are, however, audio samples that were recorded in the 1980s which have allowed the language to be documented, at least.
In Jersey, you can find Jerriais, a Norman language with just under 2,000 native speakers. 18% of the population of Jersey claim to be able to speak the language to some extent. At present, there are a number of initiatives to try and give Jerriais an improved presence on the island.
And, last but not least, Guernesiais is the Norman language spoken in Guernsey. Right now, there are just over a 1,000 native speakers, with 70% of these being over 65 years old. In a bid to revive the language, a number of children’s story books have been published recently to try and get more young people speaking the language.
Although there are only 1,800 speakers of Manx on the Isle of Man, Manx is a Celtic language with the same roots as Gaelic. Although it’s not heard of too often, it has managed to make the news recently for fighting back at its “extinct” status. The Teesside Gazette, a UK local newspaper, published an article about Manx being extinct, which lead to children writing in, in Manx, saying “if Manx is extinct, what language are we writing in?”!
With the UK being home to so many immigrants, it’s no surprise that their culture has blended in so wonderfully with our own. Among the many benefits of immigration, one of them for language lovers has to be the increase in languages spoken in the UK. Right now, the most commonly spoken languages by immigrants are Polish, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Arabic, French, Chinese, to name just a few.