The lingual landscape of the British Isles is far more diverse than many people realise. According to Matej Bel University: “The British Isles have 13 living native languages of which two have been revived in the last 100 years, Cornish and Manx.
“There are the Celtic languages of Wales, Ireland and Scotland along with the Romance languages of the Channel Islands.”
In addition, as Open Democracy notes, “there are the three sign languages native to the UK – British Sign Language, Irish Sign Language and Northern Irish Sign Language.”
That alone demonstrates the rich diversity of languages in this region of the world and that is without even addressing extinct ones such as Brythonic, Pictish or Norn in the Orkney Islands etc. As the most widely spoken language worldwide, it is no surprise that we tend to only associate the British Isles with English and not its sister language Scots Leid or neighbouring Celtic tongues such as Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Manx or Welsh.
Regardless, they exist all the same and some, like the Scots language, also have dialects like Doric while others like Irish have mysterious tongues such as Shelta which reportedly is fused with English to create a ‘secret language’ for Irish travellers. In the era of anglicisation, it goes without saying that most of these heritage languages are endangered and struggling to exist within their own heartlands.
For simplicity, in this article we will dissect the ‘main’ spoken languages of the British Isles and not those of the channel islands/ crown dependencies or traveller communities. Others like Ulster-Scots, which the Ulster Scots Language website dubs as a “regional variety of Scots”, may be assumed as falling under its closest linguistic parallel.
For each, we have outlined an introduction to the language, its history, current status and a few phonetic examples so you can try speaking them for yourself.
1. Irish (Gaeilge)
Irish is from the Goidelic branch of Celtic languages. It is largely spoken in the Gaeltacht or Western part of the Republic of Ireland but is also officially recognised in Northern Ireland. According to Údarás na Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht Authority): “Irish is one of the oldest written and historical languages in the world. It was seen for the first time in Ogham form in the fifth century. Today it can be found in up to 4,500 books, on television, radio, newspapers, magazines…” The Census 2022 revealed that 1.9 million people identified as Irish speakers but, unfortunately, only 10% claimed to be able to do so ‘very well’. The majority of speakers (55%) said they did not speak the language ‘well’, raising concerns about its survival. To say “hello” in Irish try saying dia duit (“dee-ah gwit”) which is literally ‘may god be with you’, a casual bye is slán (“slawn”) and to self-introduce try is mise (“iss misha”) then your name.
2. Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig)
Scottish Gaelic is another Celtic language from the Goidelic branch. It is mainly spoken in the Highlands and western islands of Scotland. According to the Highland Council: “Settlers brought Gaelic to Scotland from Antrim in Ireland over 1500 years ago and it quickly spread from its initial base in what is now known as Argyllshire. At one time Gaelic was the language of the Scottish court and of the majority of the country's population.” In Scotland’s 2011 census, 57,375 people (1.1% of the population aged above 3 years old) claimed they spoke Gaelic with 87,056 in total recorded as having some ‘ability’ in the language. To wish someone a good morning in Gaelic you can say madainn mhath (“mah-teen vah”), to ask a friend how they are try ciamar a tha thu (“kim-mer uh ha ooh") and in response you can say tha mi glè mhath (“ha mee glay vah”) with that “glay vah” simply meaning very good.
3. Welsh (Cymraeg)
Known as Britain’s oldest language, Welsh is also Celtic in origin but of a distinct branch. It evolved from Brythonic which was widely spoken across the British Isles prior to the Roman occupation. Now, it is mostly spoken in Wales but there are Welsh-speaking communities in other regions like England and even Argentina. According to Historic UK: “Thought to have arrived in Britain around 600 BC, the Celtic language evolved in the British Isles into a Brythonic tongue which provided the basis not only for Welsh, but also Breton and Cornish.” The Welsh Government’s Annual Population Survey for the end of 2022 estimated that around 900,600 people were able to speak Welsh. To say “welcome” in Welsh its croeso (“croy-so”), good morning is bore da (“bor-eh daah”) in which the “daah” component simply means good, or to say something like “how are things” you can say shwmae (“shoo-mai”).
4. Cornish (Kernewek)
Cornish is another Celtic language, it shares common ancestry with Welsh. It is mainly spoken in Cornwall which is tucked onto the end of England's south west peninsula. According to the Cornwall Guide: “The Cornish language (Kernewek) dates back to pre-Roman times and the celtic races that inhabited this part of Europe. The Cornish language faded out towards the end of the 18th century but several Celtic languages still survive and Cornish has undergone a revival over the past 100 years.” In their article entitled ‘Cornish Making a Comeback’, the Language Magazine tells us that with “thanks to online learning programs, community initiatives and apps, Kernewek is being learned by more than 4,000 pupils in 23 schools across the county.” In Cornish, good day is dydh da (“div dah”), thank you is meur ras (“moor rass”) and how are you is fatla genes (“Fat-lah guinness”).