Although English is the official language of the British Isles, minority languages dating back hundreds of years are still spoken in some communities. The British minority languages have official status in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and are known as Brittonic. Brittonic languages can be broken into two groups known as Insular Celtic languages and Goidelic languages. So when you arrive in Britain, do not be surprised if you are greeted by the words ‘Croeso’ or ‘fáilte’ instead of ‘welcome’.
Welsh is one of the main minority languages in Britain. Although there are now very few monoglot Welsh speakers, the Welsh language known as Cymraeg continues to play and important role in Wales and has recently seen a revival in schools. There are an estimated 580,000 speakers while around 20% of the population of Wales speaks Welsh fluently. Dating back to the 6th Century, Welsh is one of Europe’s oldest languages and evolved from the Celtic language of the Britons. In an attempt to prevent the Welsh language from disappearing, the Welsh Language Board was established. They introduced a Welsh TV channel and radio station, road signs in Welsh as well as the promotion of books and music in Welsh. All children learn Welsh in schools up until the age of 16 and many adults take Welsh courses for work or social reasons. Many of the regional authorities offer bilingual services and issue documentation in Welsh. There are a few English words of Welsh origin such as ‘car’, ‘coracle’ and ‘gull’. Different varieties are spoken in North and South Wales. However, English is still more common than Welsh and many Welsh speakers believe the country must fight to protect their language from dying out.
Cornish is also an Indo-European language that is similar to Welsh. However, Cornish is believed to have peaked in the 1300s when there were 39,000 speakers. At this time, in many areas of Cornwall people did not understand a word of English. However, by 1800 the use of Cornish had declined and today it is often declared a dead language. However, a revival in recent years has led to the opening of nurseries that teach Cornish through songs and games and a vote to add Cornish names to street signs. In fact there are now believed to be around 300 Cornish speakers. Moreover a standard written form of Cornish has been agreed, drawing on the four Cornish varieties Unified Cornish, Unified Cornish Revised, Common Cornish and Modern Cornish. It appears that the Cornish language did not die, but was merely sleeping.
Irish is an official minority language in Northern Ireland, and a constitutional and official language of the Republic of Ireland. It is also known as Irish Gaelic or Gaelic. It has the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe. Evidence of the Irish language was found in the early Medieval writing system Ogham. Interestingly, there is no equivalent of ‘no’ or ‘yes’ in the Irish language so you have to reply in verb form. Ulster, Connacht and Munster are the three main varieties of Irish. Although an estimated 1.2 million people have some knowledge of Irish, only 10,000 use it as their daily spoken language.
Scottish Gaelic and Manx both have roots in Irish Gaelic. Irish settlers arrived in Scotland in the 4th Century, bringing their language with them. There are thought to be around 58,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland. As with the other minority languages, it has recently seen a revival in the media and education systems.
Manx is the language spoken on the Isle of Man and until 1765 it was spoken by almost the entire population. In the 20th Century it suffered a decline as people considered it would prevent job opportunities and those who attempted to speak Manx in the local pub were likely to provoke a fight. Today, Manx is considered highly important to the heritage and culture of the Isle of Man. Following the 20th Century when the last native speaker of Manx died, people began to learn it as a second language. Manx uses slightly different grammar to Irish and Gaelic as it is less inflected and simplified.
Scots is often described as a dialect of English but it has the status of an official regional language. Scots is still a very vibrant language and is renowned for being the language of the famous poet Robert Burns as well as novelists Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott.
Like English it is descended from Old English but has many different words as shown below:
Scots – English
Puggled- tired out
Other differences from standard English include the pronunciation, the orthography which includes differences such as ‘auld’ for ‘old and ‘haund’ for ‘hand’. The modal verbs also differ. For example ‘canna’ and ‘dinna’ for ‘cannot’ and ‘did not’.
These revival and renaissance of these minority languages indicates that people are becoming more aware of the importance of languages, both as a part of cultural heritage and as a valuable skill for life. In our next article, we take a look at the regional dialects of Britain and how they differ from standard English.