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Regional Languages of the Celtic Fringe

Bore da, madainn mhath, dzién dobry, su prabhat! In some UK regions or neighborhoods, you may hear these greetings – or a plain “good morning”. In our intro to languages in the UK, we talk about Standard English and dialects, about the languages of the Celtic Fringe and immigrant communities.
In some parts of the Scottish Highlands, you’ll see bilingual road signs – in English and Gaelic.

In addition to English, five other languages in the UK are now recognized and protected under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. One of them is Welsh. It has even become an official language in 2011, albeit limited to the territory of Wales.

Cymreag: Reviving the Past

Among the Celtic languages in the UK, Welsh (Cymreag) is the most common. Around 11% of Wales’s population can speak Welsh fluently. This makes for about 310,000 speakers within Wales. Another estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people with Welsh skills live across England, especially along the Welsh border or in the ever popular destination of Greater London.

The percentage of native speakers varies throughout Wales. In the border counties of southeast Wales, less than 10% of local residents may have some Welsh language proficiency. But if you spend your vacation in the beautiful northwest, you will notice soon that Welsh is far more influential here. In the rural areas of Gwynedd, more than two thirds of all residents speak Welsh on a daily basis.

As an expatriate resident, you are unlikely to need Welsh yourself. However, during a trip to Wales, you will see lots of bilingual road signs and come across the all-Welsh radio station of BBC Radio Cymru. If you think about moving to Wales, though, Welsh might impact your kids’ education.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, students would be punished for speaking Welsh in the classroom. Today, the regional government wants to keep the language alive by making it compulsory in schools. Since 2000, all students in Welsh state schools must attend Welsh classes – either in the native speaker section or courses on Welsh as a second or foreign language.

No Longer a Dead Language: Kernewek

Welsh is more or less closely related to Cornish (Kernewek). However, the original language of Britain’s southwest did not fare nearly as well as Welsh. Cornish was still in use as a community language in the 18thcentury, and you could find Cornish-speaking families well into the 19th century. Then the language was unfortunately declared extinct. However, this led to a strong revival movement by local scholars. Based on their research, they attempted to re-introduce a standardized version of Cornish.

While the language remains “critically endangered”, the Cornish revivalists have won a significant victory. In 2010, the UNESCO removed Cornish from its list of dead languages. In the same year, the first Cornish-language crèche welcomed eight toddlers and kids in the town of Camborne. Nowadays, over 500 people in Cornwall state that Cornish, not English, is their main language. Future developments remain to be seen.

Endangered Language and Controversial Dialects: Scottish Gaelic and Scots

Scottish Gaelic (Gaidhlig) has also profited from the renewed interest in local heritage and non-English languages. With around 57,000 native speakers (most of them on the Hebrides, off the Scottish coast), it is far less actively used than Welsh.

Unlike Cornish, Scottish Gaelic was never extinct, but the UNESCO classifies it as “definitely endangered”. Most children no longer learn it as their mother tongue at home. Still, the understanding and use of Scottish Gaelic are now promoted officially, e.g. in the media and in education. In 2015, over 3,500 kids attended a Gaelic primary school in Scotland. About 1,500 of them spoke only Gaelic in class.

Scottish Gaelic should not be confused with “Scots”, although both are regional/minority languages in the UK. Gaidhlig belongs to the group of Celtic languages. Scots, on the other hand, is a regional dialect spoken in most parts of Scotland. Some people think it’s an extreme example of an English dialect, while other linguists define it as a language of its own. 

A Sensitive Topic: Irish Gaelic and Ulster Scots

Languages that are somewhat similar to Scottish Gaelic and Scots, respectively, are spoken across the Irish Sea as well. In Northern Ireland, the descendants of Anglo-Scottish settlers often speak a local variety of Scots, the so-called Ulster Scots. The Celtic Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) is the last of the native minority languages in the UK. About 11% of the local population has some knowledge of Irish, although only 38,000 are completely fluent in the language.

Again, expats are not likely to require Ulster Scots or Irish Gaelic if they relocate to the Belfast area. However, Gaeilge is taught in some nurseries, state primary and post-primary schools across Northern Ireland. But even if you don’t have any kids, you should know that language – like religion – is a sensitive topic in Northern Ireland.

Ulster Scots is often associated with the Protestant unionist cause, while Irish Gaelic is identified with the Catholic nationalist movement. Both languages were recognized as valuable heritage in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a milestone of the Northern Ireland peace process. Nonetheless, if you are new in town, you’d better approach this subject with caution.


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