Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Languages in the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has no official language. English is the main language and the de facto official language, spoken monolingually by an estimated 95% of the UK population. It should be noted that Norman French is still used in the Houses of Parliament for 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.
However, some nations and regions of the UK have frameworks for the promotion of autochthonous languages. In Wales, English and Welsh are both widely used by officialdom, and Irish and Ulster Scots enjoy limited use alongside English in Northern Ireland, mainly in publicly commissioned translations. Additionally, the Western Isles region of Scotland has a policy to promote Scottish Gaelic.
Under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which is not legally enforceable, the UK Government has committed itself to the promotion of certain linguistic traditions. Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Cornish are to be developed in Wales, Scotland and Cornwall respectively. Other native languages afforded such protection include Irish in Northern Ireland, 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", and British Sign Language.
According to the most recent 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, but like many other minoritised languages, Welsh has for a long time been strongly associated with nationalism, making it harder to get an accurate and unbiased figure for how many people speak it fluently.
Scottish Gaelic has about 60,000 speakers according to the 2001 census (roughly 1% of the population of Scotland). In Northern Ireland, about 7% of the population speak Irish Gaelic according to the 2001 census (around 110,000 speakers) and 2% regional forms of 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 (about 0.6% of the population of Cornwall). Scots is spoken by 30% of the Scottish population according to the 1996 estimate of the General Register Office for Scotland (approximately 1.5 million speakers). British Sign Language is understood by less than 0.1% of the total population of the UK.
Further complication arises from language ability. Some low ability learners/users record themselves as speakers of various languages, while some who are (near-)fluent may choose not to, due to the stigma attached to some minority languages.
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 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.
The main subject of debate is what constitutes language and dialect; for many this is clear, but public perception is still very much divided. Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are generally viewed as being languages in their own right rather than dialects of a single tongue, since they are not usually mutually intelligible, but the relationship of Lowland Scots and English is less clear, since there is usually partial mutual intelligibility. Recently the same has been true of Ulster Scots and Lowland Scots in Scotland, though in the political rather than the linguistic sphere, since there is almost absolute mutual intelligibility between contemporary speakers, and a common written form was current well into the 20th century. 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 Gaelic and Ulster Scots is sometimes politically loaded, despite both having been used by all communities in the past. Also, some resent Scottish Gaelic being promoted in the Lowlands, although it was once spoken almost everywhere, an exception being the extreme south-east of the country, which was annexed from the Northumbrian earldom. An area with mostly Norse-derived placenames (and some Pictish), the Northern Isles (Shetland and Orkney), was ceded to Scotland in lieu of an unpaid dowry in the 1460s, and never spoke Gaelic, its traditional vernacular Norn, a derivative of Old Norse mutually intelligible with Icelandic and Faroese, dying out in the 18th century after large-scale immigration by Scots-speakers. Gaelic was also never the main vernacular of Caithness, an area in the extreme north-east of Scotland to the immediate south of Orkney, although there was naturally some contact with Gaelic-speakers from surrounding areas. While the placename Duncansby incorporates a Gaelic personal name, the fact that the only lexical item is the Norse suffix -by, meaning 'town', confirms it was named by Norse-speakers. Although Sutherland also has many placenames derived from Norse, it was later supplanted by Gaelic in the area.
Scots within Scotland and the regional varieties of English within England receive little or no public support, and are often used for comedy purposes in British media . The dialects of Northern England share some features with Lowland 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.
Languages in the United Kingdom
- British Sign Language
- Cornish (revival efforts underway)
- English (British English)
- Irish Sign Language
- Scottish Gaelic
- Cumbric (extinct)
Languages of Channel Islands and Isle of Man
NB: The Channel Islands and Isle of Man are not in the UK, but are closely associated with it. And their languages are recognised (along with Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Manx and Lowland Scots (in Scotland and Northern Ireland)) as a regional language by the British and Irish governments within the framework of the British-Irish Council.
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