World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Languages in the United Kingdom

Article Id: WHEBN0007253946
Reproduction Date:

Title: Languages in the United Kingdom  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Cornish language, Northern Ireland, Welsh language, British Sign Language, Ulster Scots dialects, Regional language, Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek, Monolingualism, Foras na Gaeilge, Welsh Language Board
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Languages in the United Kingdom

Template:Languages of

The de facto official language of the United Kingdom is English which is spoken as the primary language of 95% of the UK population.[1] The Welsh language is also an official language in Wales,[2] is the only de jure official language in any part of the United Kingdom, and is the second most spoken language in the United Kingdom. Polish is the third most-spoken in England and Wales.[3] In addition, there are several other living languages indigenous to the territory, various regional dialects, and numerous languages spoken by recent immigrant populations and those who have learned them as second languages.

Native languages and dialects


The table below outlines living indigenous languages of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). Languages of the Crown Dependencies (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) are not included as they are not part of the United Kingdom.[4]

Language Type Spoken in Rank: no. of speakers in the UK
English West Germanic Throughout the United Kingdom 1: 58,100,000[5] (2005 data)
Welsh Celtic (Brythonic) Wales (especially west) and parts of England near the Welsh-English border; Welsh communities in major English cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. 2: Wales: 562,000 speakers, 19.7% of the population of Wales,[6] with 14.6% of the population (431,000) considering themselves fluent in Welsh (2011 data)
England: 8,200 first language[7] (2011 data)
Scots West Germanic Scotland (Scottish Lowlands, Caithness, Northern Isles)
Northern Ireland (counties Down, Antrim, Londonderry), Berwick-on-Tweed
3: 100,000 speakers (1999) reported Scots as their native language; it is often considered a dialect of English, therefore a more accurate number would be closer to 1.5 million.[5]
British Sign Language BANZSL Throughout the United Kingdom 4: 125,000[8] (2010 data)
Irish Celtic (Goidelic) Northern Ireland, with communities in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, London etc 5: 95,000[5] (2004 data)
Angloromani Mixed England, Scotland, Wales 6: 90,000[9] (1990 data)
Scottish Gaelic Celtic (Goidelic) Scotland (Scottish Highlands and Hebrides with substantial minorities in various Scottish cities; a small community in London) 7: 65,674 total,[10] (Scotland's 2001 Census) though those who have fluency in all three skills is 31,235[11]
Cornish Celtic (Brythonic) Cornwall (small minorities of speakers in Plymouth, London, and South Wales) 8: 2,000 fluent[12] (2008 data)
Shelta Mixed Throughout the United Kingdom ?: Fewer than 86,000 worldwide, exact numbers in UK unknown.[13]


Further information: English languages

Insular Celtic

Further information: Insular Celtic languages


Sign languages



(Note: Statistics may not fully indicate the language skills of the population. Some low ability learners/users record themselves as speakers of various languages, while some who are fluent or nearly fluent may choose not to, due to the stigma attached to some minority languages.)


The Welsh language is officially protected by the Welsh Language Act 1993 and the Government of Wales Act 1998, and since 1998 it has been common, for example, for almost all British Government Departments to provide both printed documentation and official websites in both English and Welsh. Both the English and Welsh languages have equal status in Wales according to law. On 7 December 2010, the Welsh Assembly unanimously approved a set of measures to develop the use of the Welsh language within Wales.[17][18] On 9 February 2011, this measure received Royal Assent and was passed, thus making the Welsh language an officially recognised language within Wales.[19]

The Welsh Language Board[20] indicated in 2004 that 553,000 people (19.7% of the population of Wales in households or communal establishments) were able to speak Welsh. Based on an alternative definition, there has been a 0.9 percentage point increase when compared with the 2001 census, and an increase of approximately 35,000 in absolute numbers within Wales. Welsh is therefore a growing language within Wales.[20] Of those 553,000 Welsh speakers, 57% (315,000) were considered by others to be fluent, and 477,000 people consider themselves fluent or "fair" speakers. 62% of speakers (340,000) claimed to speak the language daily, including 88% of fluent speakers.[20]

However, there is some controversy over the actual number who speak Welsh: some statistics include people who have studied Welsh to GCSE standard, not all of whom could be regarded as fluent speakers of the language. Conversely, some first-language speakers may choose not to report themselves as such. These phenomena, also seen with other minority languages outside the UK, make it harder to establish an accurate and unbiased figure for how many people speak it fluently. Furthermore, no question about Welsh language ability was asked in the 2001 census outside Wales, thereby ignoring a considerable population of Welsh speakers – particularly concentrated in neighbouring English counties and in London and other large cities.


Main article: Languages of Scotland

According to the 2001 census Scottish Gaelic has 58,652 speakers (roughly 1% of the population of Scotland). In total 92,400 people aged three and over in Scotland had some Gaelic language ability in 2001[21] According to a 1996 estimate of the General Register Office for Scotland 30% of the Scottish population speak Scots (approximately 1.5 million speakers).

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, about 7% of the population speak Irish according to the 2001 census (around 110,000 speakers) and 2% speak Ulster Scots, seen by some as a language distinct from English and by some as a dialect of English, according to the 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (around 30,000 speakers). Alongside British Sign Language, Irish Sign Language is also used.


Main article: Cornish language

Cornish, a Brythonic Celtic language closely related to Welsh, was the dominant language of Cornwall throughout the Middle Ages but began to decline after the 14th century, especially after the Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549. It appears to have died out as a community language in the far west of Cornwall in the late 18th century. Today it is spoken to some extent by roughly 3500 people as a result of a revival initiated by Henry Jenner in 1903. Since 2002 the Cornish language has been recognised by the United Kingdom government as a UK official minority language under the Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.[22]

British Sign Language

Main article: British Sign Language

British Sign Language, often abbreviated to BSL, is the language of 125,000 Deaf adults, about 0.3%[8] of the total population of the United Kingdom. It is not exclusively the language of Deaf people; many relatives of Deaf people and others can communicate in it fluently. Recognised to be a language by the UK Government on 18 March 2003,[23] BSL has the highest number of monolingual users of any indigenous minority language in the UK.

Second/Additional Languages

Throughout the UK, many citizens can speak, or at least understand (to a degree where they could have a conversation with someone who speaks that language), a second or even a third language from secondary school education, primary school education or from private classes. 23% of the UK population can speak/understand French, 9% can speak/understand German and 8% can speak/understand Spanish.[24]

In general, 38% of UK citizens report that they can speak (well enough to have a conversation) at least one language other than their mother tongue, 18% at least two languages and 6% at least three languages. 62% of UK citizens cannot speak any foreign language.[24] These figures include those who describe their level of ability in the foreign language as "basic".


Certain nations and regions of the UK have frameworks for the promotion of their autochthonous languages.

The UK government has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of:

  • Cornish (in Cornwall)
  • Irish and Ulster Scots (in Northern Ireland)
  • Scots and Scottish Gaelic (in Scotland)
  • Welsh (in Wales)

Under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (which is not legally enforceable, but which requires states to adopt appropriate legal provision for the use of regional and minority languages) the UK government has committed itself to the recognition of certain regional languages and the promotion of certain linguistic traditions. The UK has ratified[26] for the higher level of protection (Section III) provided for by the Charter in respect of Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish. Cornish, Scots in Scotland and Northern Ireland (in the latter territory officially known as Ulster Scots or Ullans, but in the speech of users simply as Scottish or Scots) are protected by the lower level only (Section II). The UK government has also recognised British Sign Language as a language in its own right[27] of the United Kingdom.

A number of bodies have been established to oversee the promotion of the regional languages: in Scotland, Bòrd na Gàidhlig oversees Scottish Gaelic. Foras na Gaeilge has an all-Ireland remit as a cross-border language body, and Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch is intended to fulfil a similar function for Ulster Scots, although hitherto it has mainly concerned itself with culture. In Wales, the Welsh Language Board (Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg) has a statutory role in agreeing Welsh language plans with official bodies. The Cornish Language Partnership is a body that represents the major Cornish language and cultural groups and local government's language needs. It receives funding from the UK government and the European Union, and is the regulator of the language's Standard Written Form, agreed in 2008.


Language vs dialect

There are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, although a number of paradigms exist, which give sometimes contradictory results. The distinction is therefore a subjective one, dependent on the user's frame of reference. (See Dialect)

Scottish Gaelic and Irish are generally viewed as being languages in their own right rather than dialects of a single tongue, but they are sometimes mutually intelligible to a limited degree – especially between southern dialects of Scottish and northern dialects of Irish (programmes in these two forms of Gaelic are broadcast respectively on BBC Radio nan Gaidheal and RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta), but the relationship between Scots and English is less clear, since there is usually partial mutual intelligibility.

Since there is a very high level of mutual intelligibility between contemporary speakers of Scots in Scotland and in Ulster (Ulster Scots), and a common written form was current well into the 20th century, the two varieties have usually been considered as dialects of a single tongue rather than languages in their own right; the written forms have diverged in the 21st century. The government of the United Kingdom "recognises that Scots and Ulster Scots meet the Charter's definition of a regional or minority language".[26] Whether this implies recognition of one regional or minority language or two is a question of interpretation. Ulster Scots is defined in legislation (The North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) Northern Ireland Order 1999) as: the variety of the Scots language which has traditionally been used in parts of Northern Ireland and in Donegal in Ireland.[28]

While in continental Europe closely related languages and dialects may get official recognition and support, in the UK there is a tendency to view closely related vernaculars as a single language. Even British Sign Language is mistakenly thought of as a form of 'English' by some, rather than as a language in its own right, with a distinct grammar and vocabulary. The boundaries are not always clear cut, which makes it hard to estimate numbers of speakers.


In Northern Ireland, the use of Irish and Ulster Scots is sometimes viewed as politically loaded, despite both having been used by all communities in the past. According to the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 1999, the ratio of Unionist to Nationalist users of Ulster Scots is 2:1. About 1% of Catholics claim to speak it, while 2% of Protestants claim to speak it. The disparity in the ratios as determined by political and faith community, despite the very large overlap between the two, reflects the very low numbers of respondents.[29] Across the two communities 0% speak it as their main language at home.[30] A 2:1 ratio would not differ markedly from that among the general population in those areas of Northern Ireland where Scots is spoken.

Often the use of the Irish language in Northern Ireland has met with the considerable suspicion of Unionists, who have associated it with the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland, and more recently, with the republican movement in Northern Ireland itself. Catholic areas of Belfast have street signs in Irish similar to those in the Republic. However, Protestants who view the Irish language as having high symbolic value but low communicative value may feel that they are not welcome in those areas as a result. Approximately 14% of the population speak Irish,[31] however only 1% speak it as their main language at home.[30] Under the St Andrews Agreement, the British government committed itself to introducing an Irish Language Act, and it was hoped that a consultation period ending on 2 March 2007 could see Irish becoming an official language, having equal validity with English, recognised as an indigenous language, or aspire to become an official language in the future.[32]

Some resent Scottish Gaelic being promoted in the Lowlands, although it was once spoken everywhere in Scotland except the extreme south-east (that part of Scotland which was originally Northumbria) and the extreme north-east (part of Caithness).

Two areas with mostly Norse-derived placenames (and some Pictish), the Northern Isles (Shetland and Orkney) were ceded to Scotland in lieu of an unpaid dowry in 1472, and never spoke Gaelic; its traditional vernacular Norn, a derivative of Old Norse mutually intelligible with Icelandic and Faroese, died out in the 18th century after large-scale immigration by Lowland Scots speakers. To this day, many Shetlanders and Orcadians maintain a separate identity, albeit through the Shetlandic and Orcadian dialects of Lowland Scots, rather than their former national tongue. Norn was also spoken at one point in Caithness, apparently dying out much earlier than Shetland and Orkney. However, the Norse speaking population were entirely assimilated by the Gaelic speaking population in the Western Isles; to what degree this happened in Caithness is a matter of controversy, although Gaelic was spoken in parts of the county until the 20th century.


Scots within Scotland and the regional varieties of English within England receive little or no official recognition. The dialects of northern England share some features with Scots that those of southern England do not. The regional dialects of England were once extremely varied, as is recorded in Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary and the Survey of English Dialects, but they have died out over time so that regional differences are now largely in pronunciation rather than in grammar or vocabulary.

Public funding of minority languages continues to produce mixed reactions, and there is sometimes resistance to their teaching in schools. Partly as a result, proficiency in languages other than "Standard" English can vary widely.

Immigrant languages

Communities migrating to the UK in recent decades have brought many more languages to the country. Surveys started in 1979 by the Inner London Education Authority discovered over 100 languages being spoken domestically by the families of the inner city's school children.

South Asians in the United Kingdom speak dozens of different languages, and it is difficult to determine how many people speak each language alongside English. The largest subgroup of British Asians are those of Punjabi origin (representing approximately two thirds of direct migrants from South Asia to the UK), from both India and Pakistan, they number over 2 million in the UK and are the largest Punjabi community outside of South Asia.[33] The Punjabi language is currently the third most spoken language in the UK. Many Black Britons speak English as their first language. Their ancestors mostly came from the West Indies, particularly Jamaica, and generally also spoke English-based creole languages,[34] hence there are significant numbers of Caribbean creole speakers (see below for Ethnologue figures). With over 300,000 French-born people in the UK, plus the general popularity of the language, French is understood by 23% of the country's population. A large proportion of the Black British population, especially African-born immigrants speak French as a first or second language.

The Bengali speaking community in the UK consists of those largely of Bangladeshi origin mainly from the Sylhet region (predominantly Muslim), and small numbers of Indians from the West Bengal region (mainly Hindu). There are around 700,000 Bengali speakers, 550,000 of whom speak Sylheti,[35] which is either considered a dialect of Bengali or as a separate language. West Bengalis mainly speak the standard Bengali language, whereas Bangladeshis mainly speak Sylheti, which is generally not written, although children may receive some education in standard Bengali at school. Sylheti is not recognised as a language in Bangladesh, and there some debate to whether it should be recognised as a language separate from Bengali. The Bengali speaking community in the UK is highly concentrated in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.[36]

Most common immigrant languages

According to Ethnologue, the ten most common foreign languages used by Britons as a first language are as follows (with the number of mother-tongue speakers in brackets). Please note, these figures are likely to change over time (especially considering the migration from Central Europe and Eastern Europe to the UK in recent years due to the European Union).[37] The 2011 Census data shows that 107 languages are spoken throughout London (53 main languages and 54 variants of established languages), with Polish the most common language spoken after English.[38]

  1. Polish (546,000)
  2. Tamil (420,000) (most of them from European Union)[39]
  3. Urdu (400,000)
  4. Punjabi (373,000)
  5. Bengali (150,000)
  6. French (300,000 – 400,000)
  7. Cantonese (250,000)
  8. Malayalam (200,737)
  9. Greek (200,000)
  10. Italian (200,000)
  11. Southwestern Caribbean Creole (170,000)
  12. Gujarati (140,000)
  13. Kashmiri (115,000)

Current data as of 2011 census

  1. Polish (546,000) 0.6%
  2. Tamil (420,000) (most of them from European Union) 0.5%
  3. Urdu 369,000 or 0.3%
  4. Punjabi 373,000 or 0.3% (combined) Sikh
  5. Bengali (with Sylheti and Chatgaya) 221,000 or 0.4%
  6. Gujarati 213,000 or 0.4%
  7. Arabic 159,000 or 0.3%
  8. French 147,000 or 0.3%
  9. All other Chinese (excludes Mandarin and Cantonese) 141,000 or 0.3%
  10. Portuguese 133,000 or 0.2%
  11. Spanish 120,000 or 0.2%
  12. Turkish 99,000 or 0.2%
  13. Italian 92,000 or 0.2%
  14. Somali 86,000 or 0.2%
  15. Lithuanian 85,000 or 0.2%
  16. German 77,000 or 0.1%
  17. Persian/Farsi 76,000 or 0.1%
  18. Tagalog/Filipino 70,000 or 0.1%
  19. Romanian 68,000 or 0.1%

Norman French and Latin

Norman French is still used in the Houses of Parliament for certain official business between the clerks of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and on other official occasions such as the dissolution of Parliament.

Latin is also used to a limited degree in certain official mottos, for example Nemo Me Impune Lacessit, legal terminology (habeas corpus), and various ceremonial contexts. Latin abbreviations can also be seen on British coins. The use of Latin has declined greatly in recent years. At one time, Latin and Greek were commonly taught in British schools (and were required for entrance to the ancient universities until 1919, for Greek, and the 1960s, for Latin[40]), and A-Levels and Highers are still available in both subjects.

Languages of the Channel Islands and Isle of Man

The Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey are not part of the UK, but are closely associated with it, being British Crown Dependencies.

For the insular forms of English, see Manx English (Anglo-Manx), Guernsey English and Jersey English. Forms of French are, or have been, used as an official language in the Channel Islands, e.g. Jersey Legal French.

The indigenous languages of the Crown dependencies are recognised as regional languages by the British and Irish governments within the framework of the British-Irish Council.

The UK government has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages on behalf of the Manx government.

The Sercquiais (Sark) dialect is descended from Jèrriais, but is not recognised under this framework. Auregnais, the Norman dialect of Alderney, is now extinct.

Languages of British Overseas Territories

British Overseas Territories are possessions of the United Kingdom, but do not form part of the United Kingdom itself. Most of these contain a large degree of English, either as a root language, or in codeswitching, e.g. Llanito. Languages of these territories include:

Forms of English:

See also


External links

  • Sounds Familiar? — Listen to examples of regional accents and dialects across the UK on the British Library's 'Sounds Familiar' website (uses Windows Media Player for content)

Further reading

  • Trudgill, Peter (ed.), Language in the British Isles, Cambridge University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-521-28409-0

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.