Languages of the British Isles

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English, in various dialects, is the most widely spoken language of the British Isles[1] however there are many regional languages also spoken throughout the archipelago and Channel Islands.

There are 11 indigenous languages spoken across the British Isles: 3 Germanic languages, 5 Celtic languages and 3 Romance Languages. There are also many immigrant languages spoken in the British Isles mainly within inner city areas; these languages are mainly from South Asia & Eastern Europe.

Below is a list of the languages of the British Isles in descending order by number of native speakers:

Germanic Languages[edit]

English[edit]

  • Speakers: 59,600,000
  • Native speakers: 58,100,000
  • National percentage: 98%
  • Area spoken: Across the British Isles
  • Language information: English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria. Following the economic, political, military, scientific, cultural, and colonial influence of Great Britain and the United Kingdom from the 18th century, via the British Empire, and of the United States since the mid-20th century, it has been widely dispersed around the world, become the leading language of international discourse. Historically, English originated from the fusion of languages and dialects, now collectively termed Old English, which were brought to the eastern coast of Great Britain by Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) settlers beginning in the 5th century – with the word "English" being derived from the name of the Angles. A significant number of English words are constructed based on roots from Latin, because Latin in some form was the lingua franca of the Christian Church and of European intellectual life. The language was further influenced by the Old Norse language with Viking invasions in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Norman conquest of England in the 11th century gave rise to heavy borrowings from Norman French, and vocabulary and spelling conventions began to give the superficial appearance of a close relationship with Romance languages to what had now become Middle English. The Great Vowel Shift that began in the south of England in the 15th century is one of the historical events marking the separation of Middle and Modern English.
  • Language group: West Germanic, Anglo-Frisian

Scots[edit]

  • Speakers: 200,000 / 1,500,000
  • Native speakers: -
  • National Percentage: 3% / 30%
  • Area spoken: Lowlands, Borders, eastern Scotland & Caithness
  • Language information: The Scots language originated from Northumbrian Old English. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria stretched from south Yorkshire to the Firth of Forth from where the Scottish elite continued the language shift northwards. Since there are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, scholars and other interested parties often disagree about the linguistic, historical and social status of Scots. Although a number of paradigms for distinguishing between languages and dialects do exist, these often render contradictory results. Focused broad Scots is at one end of a bipolar linguistic continuum, with Scottish Standard English at the other. Consequently, Scots is often regarded as one of the ancient varieties of English, but with its own distinct dialects. Alternatively Scots is sometimes treated as a distinct Germanic language, in the way Norwegian is closely linked to, yet distinct from, Danish.
  • Language group: West Germanic, Anglo-Frisian

Ulster Scots (Ullans)[edit]

Main article: Ulster Scots dialects

Celtic Languages[edit]

Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge)[edit]

  • Speakers: 1,860,000[dubious ] (110,000 in N. Ireland)
  • Native speakers: 538,283 (75,125 in N. Ireland)
  • National percentage: 42% (7% in N. Ireland)
  • Area spoken: Across the Republic of Ireland however mainly in the Gaeltachtaí regions.
  • Language information: Irish was the predominant language of the Irish people for most of their recorded history, and they brought their Gaelic speech with them to other countries, notably Scotland and the Isle of Man where it gave rise to Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Irish began to decline under British rule after the seventeenth century. The nineteenth century saw a dramatic fall in the number of speakers partly due to the Great Famine of 1845-1852 (where Ireland lost half its population either to emigration or death) and partly due to government language policies. Irish speaking areas were especially hit hard. By its end, while the language never died out, it was spoken by less than 15% of the national population. Since then, Irish speakers have been a minority except in some areas known as Gaeltachtaí, efforts have been made to preserve and promote the language.
  • Language group: Celtic, Goidelic

Welsh (Cymraeg)[edit]

  • Speakers: 750,000
  • Native speakers: 611,000
  • National Percentage: 21%
  • Area spoken: Across Wales however mainly in western & northern counties.
  • Language information: Welsh emerged in the 6th century from British, the common ancestor of Welsh, Breton, Cornish, and the extinct language known as Cumbric. Welsh is a member of the Brythonic branch of the Celtic languages spoken natively in Wales and by some along the Welsh border in England. There are also around 5000 speakers in the Chubut Valley in Patagonia, Argentina.
  • Language group: Celtic, Brythonic

Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig)[edit]

  • Speakers: 92,452
  • Native speakers: 58,652
  • National Percentage: 1.2% (61% in Na h-Eileanan Siar)
  • Area spoken: Inner & Outer Hebrides & Highlands (Gàidhealtachd)
  • Language information: Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language native to Scotland. A member of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages, Scottish Gaelic, like Modern Irish and Manx, developed out of Middle Irish, and thus descends ultimately from Primitive Irish. Outside of Scotland, a dialect of the language known as Canadian Gaelic exists in Canada on Cape Breton Island and isolated areas of the Nova Scotia mainland. This variety has around 2000 speakers, amounting to 1.3% of the population of Cape Breton Island.
  • Language group: Celtic, Goidelic

Cornish (Kernewek)[edit]

  • Speakers: 4,000
  • Native speakers: 350
  • National Percentage: 0.8%
  • Area spoken: Limited use across Cornwall.
  • Language information: Cornish is a Brythonic Celtic language and a recognised minority language of the United Kingdom, spoken in Cornwall. The language continued to function as the native language of Penwith in the far west of Cornwall until the late 18th century. The Cornish language was also used by some degree by fishermen in Mousehole (Porthynys) right up to the 1940s. The process to revive the language was started in the early 20th century, continuing to this day.
  • Language group: Celtic, Brythonic

Manx Gaelic (Gaelg)[edit]

  • Speakers: 1689
  • Native speakers: 56
  • National Percentage: 2.2%
  • Area spoken: Limited across the Isle of Man
  • Language information: The last native speaker, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974. In recent years, the language has been the subject of revival efforts. It is now the medium of education at the Bunscoill Ghaelgagh a primary school for 4- to 11-year-olds in St John's. Manx began to diverge from Early Modern Irish in around the 13th century and from Scottish Gaelic in the 15th. The language sharply declined during the 19th century and was supplanted by English.
  • Language group: Celtic, Goidelic

Romance Languages[edit]

Jersey Legal French (Français de Jersey)[edit]

  • Speakers: 17,000
  • Native speakers: -
  • National Percentage: 15%
  • Area spoken: Jersey, Channel Islands
  • Language information: Jersey Legal French, also known as Jersey French, is the official dialect of French used administratively in Jersey. Since the anglicisation of the island, it survives as a written language for some laws, contracts, and other documents. Jersey's two official languages are French and English with Jèrriais been recognised as a regional minority language of the Island.
  • Language group: Romance, Oïl French

Jèrriais[edit]

  • Speakers: 2,871
  • Native speakers: 113
  • National Percentage: 3%, 8% in Saint Ouen (15% understand)
  • Language information: Although Jèrriais is now the first language of a very small minority, until the 19th century it was the everyday language of the majority of the population, and even until the Second World War up to half the population could communicate in the language. The use of Jèrriais is also to be noted during the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War; the local population used Jèrriais among themselves as a language neither the occupying Germans, nor their French interpreters, could understand. However, the social and economic upheaval of the War meant that use of English increased dramatically after the Liberation. It is considered that the last monolingual adult speakers probably died in the 1950s, although monolingual speaking children were being received into schools in St. Ouen as late as the late 1970s.
  • Area spoken: Spoken across Jersey, Channel Islands however mainly in the N.W. of the Island.
  • Language group: Romance, Oïl Norman

Guernésiais[edit]

  • Speakers: 1327
  • Native speakers: -
  • National Percentage: 2% (3% understand the language)
  • Area spoken: Limited across Guernsey, Channel Islands
  • Language information: There is intercomprehension (with some difficulty) with Jèrriais-speakers from Jersey and Norman-speakers from mainland Normandy. Guernésiais most closely resembles the Norman dialect of La Hague in the Cotentin Peninsula (Cotentinais).
  • Language group: Romance, Oïl Norman

Sercquiais[edit]

  • Speakers: 30
  • Native speakers: 15
  • National Percentage: 3%
  • Area spoken: Limited use across Sark, Channel Islands
  • Language information: Sercquiais is in fact a descendant of the 16th century Jèrriais used by the original colonists, 40 families mostly from Saint Ouen, Jersey, who settled the then uninhabited island, although influenced in the interim by Dgèrnésiais (Guernsey dialect). It is still spoken by older inhabitants of the island.
  • Language group: Romance, Oïl Norman

Principal minority language areas[edit]

Welsh[edit]

  • Area: Sir Gwynedd (north west Wales)
  • Percentage speakers: 69% (76% understand Welsh)
  • Population: Gwynedd - 118,400

Scottish Gaelic[edit]

Irish Gaelic[edit]

Jèrriais[edit]

  • Area: Parish of Saint Ouen (north west Jersey)
  • Percentage speakers: 8%
  • Population: Parish of Saint Ouen - 3,800

Extinct British languages[edit]

Auregnais[edit]

Norn[edit]

Pictish[edit]

  • Area spoken: Northern & central Scotland
  • Extinction: 900 AD
  • Language group: not known

Cumbric[edit]

References[edit]