Beyond English: The Other Languages of the UK
When we think of the United Kingdom, we often associate it with its iconic landmarks, rich history, and, of course, English — the most spoken language in the country and the most influential language in the world. But what about the other languages of the UK?
The linguistic tapestry of the UK is a true marvel, where native languages and immigrant languages intermingle to create a unique and diverse linguistic landscape.
And, while English is undoubtedly the dominant language, several other native dialects deserve recognition for their historical and cultural significance.
Today, we delve into the lesser-known languages of the UK so we can understand how they bring depth and complexity to the nation’s identity.
Let’s start with Welsh, a Celtic language with a long history. Welsh originated from the Brythonic branch of the Celtic languages and has been spoken in Wales for over 1,400 years. Despite facing challenges and periods of decline, efforts to revive the language have been successful in recent decades.
Today, around 562,000 people in Wales speak Welsh, and it holds official status in Wales, along with English.
For Welsh people, their language is an integral part of their identity and provides a sense of community among its speakers and serves as a powerful unifying force for Wales.
If you want to hear the sounds of Welsh, be sure to check out the traditional Welsh folk song, Sosban Fach (or ‘Little Saucepan’):
Mae bys Meri-Ann wedi brifo,
A Dafydd y gwas ddim yn iach.
Mae’r baban yn y crud yn crio,
A’r gath wedi sgrapo Joni bach.
Mary-Ann has hurt her finger,
And David the servant is not well.
The baby in the cradle is crying,
And the cat has scratched little Johnny.
Another Celtic language that plays a significant role in the linguistic landscape of the UK is Scottish Gaelic. With its roots dating back to the 4th century, Scottish Gaelic was once spoken throughout Scotland.
However, due to the expansion and dominance of English, its use has been in decline over the years. Despite this, Gaelic is still spoken by around 60,000 people in Scotland today, and it’s been one of the official languages of the UK since 2005, an enormous recognition of Gaelic’s role in shaping Scotland’s culture and history.
Also, since 2008, the BBC operates a Gaelic-language radio station Radio, named Nan Gàidheal, as well as a television channel, BBC Alba. So, if you want to hear one of the most beautiful languages of the UK as spoken in 2023, tune in now!
Lowland Scots, a Germanic language closely related to English, is spoken in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland. With its origins tracing back to the Middle Ages, Lowland Scots is the collective term for a group of dialects spoken in the Lowlands, such as Doric and Lallans.
Today, Lowland Scots is still widely used, particularly in rural areas. It has a strong literary tradition and many authors have drawn inspiration from its rich vocabulary when writing poetry or prose. The first surviving major text in Scots literature is John Barbour’s The Brus (1375), and later great works include Robert Burns’ famous poem Auld Lang Syne (Old Long Since) (1788). Here’s an extract from the latter:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
Do you see how similar to English this language is? We don’t even need to include a translation!
Cornish, a Celtic language native to Cornwall in southwest England, also holds a significant place among the official languages of the UK. Historically spoken by the Cornish people, Cornish went through a period of decline and was considered extinct by the late 18th century. The reason for this decline was the spread of English as well as migration from Cornwall to other areas in England.
However, the language has made a remarkable recovery over the years, and active efforts to protect the language have been underway since the early 20th century, leading to its revival and recognition as a minority language.
While the number of fluent speakers remains relatively small, the Cornish language is still very much present in literature and other forms of art. If you want to hear the sounds of this beautiful language, we strongly suggest watching Enys Men (Stone Island), a folk horror film directed by Mark Jenkin which, in 2021, became the first major feature film to be promoted with posters and ads in Cornish.
Moving across the Irish Sea, we find one of the most beautiful languages of the UK: Irish, a Celtic language predominantly spoken in Ireland. With a history spanning over 2,500 years, Irish was the dominant language of Ireland until the 18th century, when it began to decline due to invasion and colonization.
Today, though the influence of Irish may seem negligible in comparison to that of Germanic languages, the list of English vocabulary of Celtic origin is quite impressive. Words like ‘banshee’, ‘hooligan’, and ‘whiskey’ all come from Irish.
If you want to add a few great Irish-language music to your Spotify profile, be sure to check out the Irish versions of “Heroes and Ghosts” by The Coronas, “Jump Around” by Des Bishop, and “The Parting Glass” by Ed Sheeran
British Sign Language (BSL):
Lastly, we come to British Sign Language (BSL), a visual language used by the Deaf community in the UK. With an estimated 151,000 people in the UK who use BSL as their primary language, it plays a vital role in ensuring accessibility and inclusivity for the Deaf community.
Like most sign languages in the world, British Sign Language resorts to hand gestures, facial expressions and body language to present meaning. It is a rich language that has been passed down through generations of Deaf people in the UK, and it continues to grow in complexity and speakers as people incorporate new words and nuances into their daily conversations.
British Sign Language has been recognised as an official minority language in the UK since 2003, and its influence can be seen in various areas of life, from law to education. It is also an important symbol of pride for the Deaf community, and it serves as a vital link between them and the rest of society.
Explore the Languages of the UK with Language Trainers
As you can see, the languages of the UK are incredibly diverse and each one plays an important role in the cultural landscape of the country. Whether you’re looking for a way to connect with your Celtic roots, have meaningful conversations with your family in their mother tongue, or simply want to appreciate the beauty and richness of these dialects, exploring one the official languages of the UK will enrich your life beyond words.
Would you like to start learning today? Contact Language Trainers and get started on your journey!
For more than 20 years, we have been offering a range of language courses tailored to suit all levels and learning styles. No matter what your current level and learning goal is, our experienced tutors will guide you every step of the way, leaving you feeling confident in your ability to speak another language with ease.
Are you looking for face-to-face Welsh lessons in London? Or, perhaps, Cornish courses in Liverpool? Well, don’t wait any longer! Start learning today with Language Trainers and discover a whole new world of possibilities!