The many languages native to Britain

There are around seventeen languages native to the UK. Some are on the verge of extinction. Much more should be done to save them - starting, in some cases, with the basic step of recognising that they exist.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
8 January 2014

OurKingdom discusses UK politics. We publish writing in English. Perhaps the second sentence seems to follow logically from the first? After all, isn't English the language in the UK? Well, it's a bit more complex than that.

By my count, there are something like seventeen extant languages native to the UK. This does not include dialects, though the line isn't always a clear one. It doesn't include the languages of recent, or even not-that-recent, immigrant communities. If you add in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, the number rises perhaps to 21, though this is a matter for debate.

On top of English, there are a number of officially recognised native languages – the languages for which the UK has signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. These can be split into the Celtic and Germanic.

Let's deal with the former first. There are two kinds of Celtic language. Our Brittonic languages are Welsh and Cornish (which sit in a family with Breton). Welsh is spoken by more than half a million people in Wales, and a few thousand more in England, the USA, Canada, and Patagonia. Cornish briefly died out, but has now been revived. There are a number of children being raised bilingually in Cornish and English, and there is currently an attempt to get a Cornish language nursery school going.

The other half of the Celtic family is the Goidelic languages: Scots Gaelic is spoken largely in the Highlands and the Hebrides by around 58,000 people (as well as a smattering in Canada). Around 10% of people in Northern Ireland, or 170,000, have some ability in Irish. These two sit in a family with Manx and some traveller languages, all of which I'll come back to.

Among the Germanic languages, Scots and Ulster Scots are formally recognised by the Charter. 1.5 million people said they regularly spoke Scots in the 2011 census, and 8.1% of Northern Irish people or around 140,000 or so people said they had some ability in Ulster Scots. There is, however, some controversy. Is Scots a separate language from Scots English (and therefore English) or is it just a collection of dialects? is Ulster Scots separate from Scots, or just the result of a tantrum from the Democratic Unionist Party about Catholics having their own language? Or are some kinds of Scots different languages in their own right? Ask different people, you get different answers.

Orcadian and Shetlandic, for example, take many of their words from the Scandinavian Norn language spoken on these archipelagoes until the 19th century. But do they have enough unique in them to make them a separate language? And should we count Norn itself? Some are trying to revive it, but so far, it's not in my seventeen.

Doric, spoken in Aberdeenshire, is often said to be more like Dutch than English. A friend of my brother is a nursery school teacher in a rural corner of the North Eastern county. She has a story about a local 3 year old asking for help cleaning himself after going to the loo. In the Doric sentence he used to make this request, with his trousers around his ankles, each word was shared in common with Dutch, but not English.

There is no right answer to these questions. But the government has opted for one Scots*, and a separate Ulster Scots, drawing its lines (or not) as much for political as linguistic reasons. I've only included their two on my list.

Missing from this government approved list, but included on the collection of native British languages are at least five traveller tongues. Angloromani, for example, is the main language of England's Romani community. It is thought to be spoken by around 90,000 people in the UK and 200,000 globally (with other communities in Australia, the USA and South Africa). But it is not recognised as a native language by the government.

Vlax Romani, another branch of the Romani family, is as native to the UK as it is to much of Europe. It is thought to be spoken by around 4,000 people here. (North) Welsh Romani certainly survived into the 1950s as a first language, and may still be a second language for some, though a history of persecution means that it is hard to record data on such questions. Or, at least, I've failed to find an answer. It is also sometimes categorised as a dialect of Angloromani, but Ethnologue counts it as separate, so I will.

Scottish Traveller Cant is spoken by around 4000 members of the traveller community in the Scottish borders. It is sometimes described as 1/3 Scots, 1/3 Gaelic and 1/3 Romani, though it's not clear that each third is the same size. Not mentioned on, is Beurla Reagaird the Traveller Cant spoken by the the luchd siubhail – the indigenous Highland travellers, who are not ethnically Roma, but a distinct group. It is said to be closer to Gaelic, and related to the language of the Irish traveller community – Shelta.

The speakers of Beurla Reagaird largely stopped travelling in the mid 20th century, and the language is said to be, tragically, approaching extinction. It's cousin, Shelta is also apparently spoken by some in Britain, and travellers must always have crossed the Irish border into the UK. Does that make it a native language too? Is it different enough from Beurla Reagaird to count seperately? I don't know, and have struggled to find out. So I haven't counted it, but perhaps I should. And perhaps this uncertainty tells us more than anything else.

Then there is Polari. It is/was spoken only as a second language by, according to Wikipedia, “actors, circus and fairground showmen, merchant navy sailors, criminals, prostitutes, Jews, and the gay subculture”, the latter particularly before homosexuality was legalised. The biggest part of its vocabulary is said to be Italian, and it is thought it may have its roots in a Linga-Franca of sailers around the Mediterranean, but no one is sure (see the map from Manchester University, below). It's also not clear how much it is spoken today, but records it as a native British language, so I have too.


map from

On top of this, there are the three sign languages native to the UK – British Sign Language, Irish Sign Language and Northern Irish Sign Language, though of course, OurKingdom couldn't write articles in them. Finally within the UK proper, Yiddish has been spoken since 1690, after Cromwell allowed Jewish people back into Britain, overturning their 1290 expulsion. Today, there are around 30,000 speakers of the language living here. So perhaps it has reached the point at which it should be counted as a native rather than immigrant language? I have included it, though these lines are all arbitrary. It may well be that there are other languages of immigrant communities which have been used in Britain for longer.

The UK has also ratified the Charter on Regional and Minority Languages on behalf of the Isle of Man, so its language, Manx Gaelic, could be counted on this list. And if we are including one Crown Dependancy, then why not the others? The Channel Islands would add the Norman languages of Guernésiais and Jèrriais – each still spoken by a few thousand people (though they are sometimes said to be dialects of French), and French/Jersey Legal French to the list.

Of course, all of this ignores the fact that there are numerous languages spoken by recent and not-so-recent immigrant communities. When does an immigrant language become a native one? Who knows. But there are certainly British communities whose first languages cover between them almost every linguistic root on earth, and many of whom have been here for countless generations.

Likewise, as an someone once said to Max Weinreich, “a language is just a dialect with an army”. The line between the two is never clear. I am sure you could easily double the length of my list, or eliminate some things from it if you chose to do so. Perhaps it doesn't matter – because every argument to protect a language is an argument to protect a dialect.

And they must be protected. Because every time a language dies, so too does a perspective on the world, built up over hundreds or thousands of years. Every time someone's mother tongue disappears, every poem ever recited in it is snubbed out, every song ever sung in it is silenced forever, every book ever read in it is shut. With the death of any language, a human culture is extinguished, a corner of our collective civilisation is cut out forever.

All too often, the folk memories that are erased, the little bits of history deleted, are the stories of past oppressions and struggles for liberation. Because the languages which dominate are the languages of those who dominate. The winners don't just write history, they choose the language in which it is penned. And sometimes, the history of the expansion of English across the British Isles has been brutal. There are numerous reports that people alive in the Outer Hebrides today remember being beaten as children for speaking Gaelic at school. Traveller communities have faced brutality for centuries.

None of this is to say that minority languages should just be about the past. It is not about forcing languages to remain unchanged, but allowing them to live and to be stretched by the lives of those who use them.

It should come as no surprise that most of the British minority languages for which no UK government has got round to signing the European Convention on Regional and Minority Languages are those of traveller communities. For these peoples have for centuries been some of the most oppressed in our country. Both Cornish and Manx have, happily, been successfully resuscitated after the deaths of their last respective first language speakers. Both now, quite rightly, receive international treaty protections. Both now, quite rightly, receive government funding. No such luck for some of our own traveller languages. They are allowed to die quietly.

Britain is often seen as a monoglot country. English is not just our majority language. It is also, arguably, the language of the world, the language of the biggest empire the planet has ever seen. And so it's easy to forget that it hasn't, yet, conquered every corner of the British Isles. And it would be a tragedy if it ever did.

So, yes, OurKingdom is an English language site. And English is a beautiful mother tongue. But it's important not to forget that there are many more languages in the UK than that which we speak – some of which have been heard here for longer than ours, some of which have arrived here in recent years. All are vital to the communities who use them. All enrich our country's shared culture. All deserve to be protected.

*If you want to hear and read various kinds of Scots, this excellent website lets you.

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