Languages of the United Kingdom

Languages of
country = United Kingdom
official = English [Citation
title=United Kingdom; Key Facts
publisher=Commonwealth Secretariat
main = English >90%
minority = officially recognized

Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Lowland Scots, Cornish, Irish
indigenous = optional
immigrant = Punjabi, Mirpuri (Potwari), Polish, Urdu, Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Greek, Arabic, Hindi, Turkish, Gujarati, Bengali, Portuguese, French
foreign = French 23%, German 9%, Spanish 8% [Citation
title=Europeans and their languages
publisher=European Commission
sign = BSL, Irish Sign Language
NISL, Sign Supported English
keyboard = British QWERTY
The United Kingdom does not have a constitutionally defined official language. English is the main language (being spoken monolingually by more than 90% of the UK population) and is thus the "de facto" official language.


(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.) Fact|date=February 2007


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. According to the 2001 census, Welsh is spoken by about 20% of the population of Wales, giving it around 600,000 speakers. However, there is some controversy over the actual number who speak Welsh. Some statistics choose to include people who have studied Welsh to at least GCSE standard, not all of whom could be regarded as fluent speakers of the language. Unlike Scottish Gaelic, which is sometimes viewed as a regional language even in Scotland itself, Welsh has long been strongly associated with nationalism. This phenomenon, also seen with other minorised languages outside the UK, makes 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.


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 [ "News Release - Scotland's Census 2001 - Gaelic Report"] from General Registrar for Scotland website, 10 October 2005. Retrieved 27 December 2007] 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% Ulster Scots, according to the 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (around 30,000 speakers). Alongside British Sign Language, Irish Sign Language is also used.


Cornish is spoken by roughly 3,500 people as a result of a revival initiated by Henry Jenner in 1903. The Cornish were officially recognised as an indigenous national minority of the United Kingdom on the last United Kingdom Census 2001 and 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. [ [ BBC news 2002 - Cornish gains official recognition] ]

British Sign Language

British Sign Language is understood by less than 0.1% of the total population of the United Kingdom. It is not exclusively the language of people with impaired hearing; many relatives of deaf people can communicate in it fluently.


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

* In Wales, the Welsh Language Act 1993 requires English and Welsh to be treated equally throughout the public sector.
* In Scotland the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 gave the Scottish Gaelic language its first statutory basis; and the Western Isles region of Scotland has a policy to promote the language.
* In Northern Ireland, Irish and Ulster Scots enjoy limited use alongside English (mainly in publicly commissioned translations).

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 [] 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 Scotch 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 [Hansard, 18 March 2003] 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.

Kesva an Taves Kernewek, the Cornish Language Board, has local government involvement but does not enjoy statutory status.


Language vs dialect

There are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing "languages" from "dialects", although a number of paradigms exist, which render sometimes contradictory results. The exact 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 are sometimes mutually intelligible to a limited degree - especially between southern dialects of Scottish and northern dialects of Irish (programmes in each form of Gaelic are broadcast on BBC Radio nan Gaidheal and RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta), but the relationship of Scots and English is less clear, since there is usually partial mutual intelligibility.

Since there is a high level of mutual intelligibility between contemporary speakers of Scots in Scotland and 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 government of the United Kingdom "recognises that Scots and Ulster Scots meet the Charter's definition of a regional or minority language" [] . 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" [] .

Notwithstanding legal definitions, Scots and Ulster Scots are considered dialects of English by some.Fact|date=June 2008

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 being language in its own right, with a distinct grammar and vocabulary. The boundaries not always being clear cut can lead to problems in estimating numbers of speakers.


In Northern Ireland, the use of Irish and Ulster Scots is sometimes 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. [Northern Ireland LIFE & TIMES Survey: [ Do you yourself speak Ulster-Scots?] ] Across the two communities 0% speak it as their main language at home.Northern Ireland LIFE & TIMES Survey: [ What is the main language spoken in your own home?] ] The difference in ratio between Catholic and Protestant use of Ulster-Scots may be explained by Aodan Mac Poilin: [Aodan Mac Poilin, 1999, [ "Language, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland"] in Ulster Folk Life Vol. 45, 1999]

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 road signs in Irish as they are in the Republic, however some Protestants feel that they are not welcome in these areas as a result. Approximately 14% of the population speak Irish, [Northern Ireland LIFE & TIMES Survey: [ Do you yourself speak Irish?] ] however only 1% speak it as their main language at home. Under the St Andrews Agreement, the British government has legislated to introduce an Irish Language Act, and a consultation period ending on the 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. [ [ BBC News, Wednesday, 13 December 2006] ]

Some resent Scottish Gaelic being promoted in the Lowlands, although it was once spoken in the majority of Scotland.Fact|date=June 2008

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.

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.


The status of Cornish is also highly controversial. For example, it is commonly claimed in literature to be dead. Or that the entire body of speakers are "learners", or are mostly of low proficiency.

Certainly, a number of children are being brought up to speak the language, and their Cornish may be viewed as being analogous to the position of the early speakers of the revived form of Hebrew. Cornish has also had problems with factionalism, which has led to some infighting.

There is some public resistance to Cornish as a dead language, something which also affects minority languages in areas they are no longer commonly spoken.

Languages and dialects in the United Kingdom



*English (British English)
**English English (as spoken in England)
***Northern English
****Tyke (Yorkshire)
****Scouse (Liverpool)
***East Midlands English
***West Midlands English
**** Black Country (Yam Yam)
**** Brummie (spoken in Birmingham)
**** Potteries (North Staffordshire)
**** Herefordshire
**** Warwickshire
**** Worcestershire
**** Cheshirian dialect
***Southern English English
****East Anglian
****Estuary English
****West Country dialects (Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset)
**Scottish English
**Welsh English
***Mid Ulster English
***Highland English
**Sign Supported English (a sign language based on English, not BSL)
*Scots ["The United Kingdom declares, in accordance with Article 2, paragraph 1 of the Charter that it recognises that Scots and Ulster Scots meet the Charter's definition of a regional or minority language for the purposes of Part II of the Charter." ]
**Ulster Scots ["The United Kingdom declares, in accordance with Article 2, paragraph 1 of the Charter that it recognises that Scots and Ulster Scots meet the Charter's definition of a regional or minority language for the purposes of Part II of the Charter."]

Insular Celtic

*Brythonic languages
**Cornish ["The United Kingdom declares, in accordance with Article 2, paragraph 1, of the Charter that it recognises that Cornish meets the Charter's definition of a regional or minority language for the purposes of Part II of the Charter."]
**Welsh"The United Kingdom declares, in accordance with Article 2, paragraph 2 and Article 3, paragraph 1, of the Charter that it will apply the following provisions for the purposes of Part III of the Charter to Welsh, Scottish-Gaelic and Irish."]
*Goidelic languages
**Scottish Gaelic

*Shelta (strongly influenced by English)


*Welsh Romani

ign languages

*British Sign Language
*Irish Sign Language
*Sign Supported English


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. Among the more widespread languages spoken are:

The 5 million South Asians residing in the UK speak dozens of different languages, and it is difficult to determine how many people speak each language alongside English. The majority of Black Britons speak English, as their ancestors in the West Indies and (to a lesser extent) Nigeria generally also spoke English as a first language, hence there are not large numbers of African or minor Caribbean language speakers. 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. Also, Spanish is one of the fastest-growing languages spoken in London and other parts of the UK owing to the 400,000-1 million-strong Latin American and Spanish population.

Historic languages of Great Britain

*Insular Celtic languages (since the Iron Age)
**Brythonic languages
***Southwestern Brythonic (hypothetical)
***Breton (post-Norman conquest)
***Cornish (extinct by 1777, but revival since 1904)
**Goidelic languages
***Galwegian Gaelic (Galloway)
**Ivernic (hypothetical)
**Pictish (hypothetical)
*Anglic languages (since the Migration period)
**Old English
**Middle English
***Yola language
***AB language
**Early Modern English
*Old Norse (since the Viking Age)
*Anglo-Norman (since the Norman Conquest)

Some UK placenames (e.g. Tardebigge) show evidence of a pre-Celtic language.Fact|date=July 2008

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 [ [ Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.16 ] ] ), 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.

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.

*Guernésiais (Guernsey, a form of the Norman language)
*Jèrriais (Jersey, Norman)
*Manx (Isle of Man, Goidelic, Celtic):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:

*Llanito or Yanito (Gibraltar)
*Cayman Creole (Cayman Islands)
*Turks-Caicos Creole (Turks and Caicos Islands)
*Pitkern (Pitcairn Islands)

Forms of English:
*Bermudian English (Bermuda)
*Falkland Islands English

External links

* [ Sounds Familiar?] — Listen to examples of regional accents and dialects across the UK on the British Library's 'Sounds Familiar' website

ee also

*Regional accents of English speakers
*British English
*British literature
*Languages of the European Union
*European languages
*Celtic languages
*History of the Scots language
*Gaelic road signs in Scotland


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

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