Native British languages

How many languages are native to Great Britain, that are either still used or have just recently died out within a few generations or so?

I can think of Cornish, English, Manx, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and the one that used to be used on the Shetland Islands (related to Norwegian I think).

I heard that there are dozens of native languages, but I’ve never heard of them or heard anyone speak them.

Depends how far back you go. The roots of English, after all, were not native to England. Old English was brought over by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Of course, modern English has evolved mightily from the OE roots, but you can argue it’s an import.

The Celtic languages aren’t truly native to Britain - but anything pre-Celtic is now completely lost. Even Pictish languages, which are Celtic, are hard to reconstruct - there’s a good page here (Norn is the language of Shetland and Orkney that you were thinking of).

The divisions of surviving languages that we use fall much along political lines; my Grandad learnt Irish in Cork, and when he moved to Donegal claims he virtually had to learn Scottish to understand the local dialect.

The Ethnologue page for the United Kingdom lists these languages that might be regards as native to the UK (including the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which are strictly not part of the UK):

Spoken living languages
ANGLOROMANI
CORNISH
ENGLISH
FRENCH (in the Channel Islands)
GAELIC, IRISH (in Northern Ireland)
GAELIC, SCOTS
POLARI (“An in-group language among theatrical and circus people. Second language only”)
ROMANI, WELSH
SCOTS (closely related to English, and also called “Lallans”)
TRAVELLER SCOTTISH
WELSH

Extinct languages
MANX
NORN (Shetland and Orkney Islands)

Deaf sign languages
BRITISH SIGN LANGUAGE
OLD KENTISH SIGN LANGUAGE

It also lists ROMANI, VLAX and YINGLISH, which I would think of as being native to Romania and to the USA, respectively.

Apart from those you mentioned, there is Cumbric, which died out in the c.16th. All we have left of it the ability to count sheep.

Romani, or Romany, is the native language of the people called the Gypsies (though that term is considered deprecatory) and is a North Indian dialect, related to Hindi and Rajasthani.

Cornish has been extinct as a principal tongue since just before 1800, but is spoken by a fair sized population of native Cornishmen and -women who are avid on preserving it.

I’m not familiar with “Traveler Scottish” – anyone know anything more about it?

As has been discussed at length in other threads on this board, Scottish (AKA Lallans) is a Germanic language with a separate history than English but strongly convergent with English over the last three centuries, so that it’s effectively little more than an English dialect, even though it has as long a history and literature as English as a separate tongue.

There is some strong question about whether Pictish is a Celtic language, or even an Indo-European one. Not a huge amount is known about it.

To quickly map out the groups present:

With the possible exception of Pictish, the shopping list of languages mentioned above are all Indo-European. The Romany (“Gypsies”) are a group deriving from Northern India who have existed largely as itinerant traders and peddlers across Europe and Britain since the Middle Ages, and which have preserved their own native tongue for use among themselves.

Other than the Romany dialects, the languages of the British Isles are either Germanic or Celtic. Prior to the Anglo-Saxon invasions, most of Great Britain appears to have spoken Brythonic dialects, and Ireland and Man Goiledic dialects. The surviving Brythonic language in the U.K. is Cymric, AKA Welsh, with Cornish preserved as noted above. Breton, spoken in Brittany in France, is also derived from Brythonic, apparently largely due to a migration of Brythonic Celts to that peninsula at the time of the Anglo-Saxon incursions. The surviving Goiledic language is Gaelic, which is spoken in Western Ireland and taught throughout the Republic of Ireland, and in a separate dialect so distinct as to constitute effectively a separate language, spoken in the Western Isles and a few Highland areas in Scotland – hence known as Irish and Scots Gaelic respectively. Vannin (Manx) is preserved but not spoken on the Isle of Man. Cumbria, in northwesternmost England and adjacent Scotland, preserved a Brythonic language closely akin to Cymric until around the time of the Norman Conquest, give or take a century.

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes spoke old West Germanic dialects related to Frisian, Dutch, Flemish, and Plattdeutsch, particularly the first of these. They colonized and/or took over the east coast of Britain and most of what is today’s England, except for Cumbria. The northern end of this incursion, originally the Kingdom of Bernicia, became the basis for the Scottish nation and Scottish as a separate language. The remainder preserved dialects that were mutually intelligible and which converged on English as one approached Elizabethan times.

Better to refer to them as the Roma, which is what they generally prefer to be called.

Since we’re talking about some extinct languages, let’s not forget Norm, a Scandinavian language related to Old Norse, which was spoken in the Orkneys until a few hundred years ago.

To the OP: You have to define “native”, since everyone is an immigrant if you go back far enough.

As you might imagine, it’s a dialect of Scots/Scots-English spoken by Scottish Travellers.

I don’t think it’s really appropriate to call it “effectively a separate language”. It’s universally recognised as a separate language, and has been for quite some time. Also, the language spoken in Ireland is called Irish, only tourists and Nordies call it “Gaelic”.

Mostly correct, but there are actually children being educated in Manx immersion schools now.

This will come as a surprise to the The Gypsy Council (who have pretty firm ideas about the term) and the Scottish Gypsy Traveller Association.

While the term Gypsy isn’t terrible accurate and not one used by Gypsies themselves, it is not seen as deprecatory in the UK.

I met Scottish guy that was traveling just last week (he had the whole suitcase thing going on) and he could’t speak it at all. :slight_smile:

The Gypsy Council doesn’t just represent Romanies, but all people classified as Gypsies by the Caravan Sites Act of 1968 and, later, the Criminal Justice Act.

It’s very, very complicated. But, in short, there are several legal definitions of what a Gypsy is. The one that was used until 1968 was that a Gypsy was a Romani person. The Caravan Sites Act redefined it to mean ‘people of nomadic habit’ or something like that. The Race Relations Act (or whatever it’s called) recognised Gypsies, in this case meaning Romanies, as an ethnic group in the late 1980s. The Criminal Justice Act of 1994 defined a Gypsy as being a person of nomadic habit, regardless of ethnic origin. There’s probably more, but I forget them at the moment.

So you have this bizarre thing whereby a Gypsy is not a Gypsy, but someone who isn’t a Gypsy is a Gypsy. And you can have Gypsies who are Gypsies who want to settle on a Gypsy site but by doing so they won’t be Gypsies anymore.

Oh, and Scottish Traveller dialect: Shitloads of Romani in it, too.

What about Erse? Is that just another name for Scots Gaelic?

Yeah, basically. “Erse” was the term the English and lowland Scots gave to Scottish Gaelic back in the days when it was still really just a dialect of Irish. It’s sometimes still used by the English to refer to Irish, but it’s quite out of favour and should not be used at all now.

Also worth pointing out that Scots Gaelic is pronounced “Gallic”, and Irish Gaelic is pronounced “Gaylic”. (Unless you are speaking in Gaelic, in which case it’s pronounced “Gaylic” in both languages. Go figure.)

So if you stick to the correct pronunciation you never need the Scots/Irish adjective. Or just call it Irish.

Does anybody even know what the people of Britain spoke before the Celts arrived? I mean, what language family was Pictish? Was it non-Indo-European? Was it related to Basque?

In his Nantucket Trilogy – a series of alternate-history novels of the “Connecticut Yankee” sub-subgenre – S.M. Stirling has the entire island of Nantucket, Mass., thrown back in time (by unexplained means) to 1250 B.C. To get food they have to send a trading expedition to Britain. There they find the island is ethnically divided – in the north and west live the “Earth People” or “Fiernan Bohulugi,” and in the south and east are the newcomers, the “Sun People” or “Iraiina.” I guess he took “Fiernan Bohulugi” from “Firbolgs,” the legendary people who were living in Ireland before the Tuatha de Danaan came, and “Iraiina,” of course, from “Aryans.” The Iraiina speak a language the Nantucketers recognize as resembling Lithuanian. The Fiernans speak something different – can’t recall if Stirling specified what language family.

In Stirling’s novels (Island on the Sea of Time, On the Oceans of Eternity, and Against the Tide of Years,) the Iraiina are patriarchal and warlike and mean, and the Fiernans are matriarchal and peaceful and free-lovin’ and (by comparison) scientific and intellectual. In short, a fictional rendering of the theory feminist Riane Eisler put forth in The Chalice and the Blade (1988), that there was a kindly and mentally healthy “gylanic” civilization in Europe and the Mediterranean before the nasty patriarchal Aryans came and overran it. Eisler obviously was implying that gylanic, non-patriarchal civilization is really the “natural” state for humanity – which does not explain why practically all known human societies at any level of development between the New Stone Age and the Industrial Revolution – whether their cultural origins were Mesopotamian, Indian, Chinese, Maya, Aztec, Inca – have been organized along patriarchal lines and have mostly denied women any rights or freedom. But now I’m hijacking.

Pictish is usually classified as Indo-European, being part of the Celtic Branch. The evidence seems to suggest that, but there’s also theories that say Pictish is somehow related to Basque. However, there not being much data of the Picitish language left, it’s hard to say one way or another.

Generally, though, Basque is considered an isolate, not being (knowingly) related to any other languages.

Everything weird gets speculatively related to Basque at some point, generally without much data to back it up :D.

I think the current thinking is that there are just enough non-Indo-European words known from old Pictish to make a reasonable assumption that it was originally a non-Indo-European language that gradually became Celticized. Certainly by the time Kenneth MacAlpin became Rex Pictorum it was a more or less a Celtic tongue.

Of course reasonable assumptions doesnt = absolute truth :).

  • Tamerlane

people in the Channel Islands had/have a patois which is a dialect of Norman French. Until the 1940s some did not speak English. In 1940 all the children were evacuated from the islands before the German occupation and in exile over the next five years they forgot the patois . Few people in the younger generation can speak it now.

No, if you’re speaking in Irish, it’s pronounced (approximately) gayl-geh. In any case, “Gallic” is not a useful term for the Scottish language, since its primary meaning in English is “relating to France/Gaul”.

I’m reluctant to nit-pick an excellent summary by Polycarp, but the term is “Goidelic”, and the Kingdom of Berenicia is not the origin of “Scottish as a seperate language”, but “Scots as a separate language”. Scottish originated in Dal Riada/Atholl.