At work the other day I was told by a confused colleague that he had heard that some parts of the UK don’t speak English as their primary language. He was puzzled by this as he had always thought that the UK was an English-speaking country.
First up, I set him straight on the meaning of the UK. A lot of people (including UK citizens!) get confused by this – the UK is an acronym for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland and Wales.
Once we’d got that straight, I explained to him that yes, England is where the English language originates and it has spread to the neighbouring countries becoming the de facto official language of all the UK, as it is spoken by 90% of the population as their only language. However, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own languages also. Here’s a quick overview:
The 2001 Census revealed that about 20% of the Welsh population speak Welsh (shown in green on the map), although the actual figure is less certain. The Welsh language is protected by law, and is now commonly taught in schools in Wales, after a long period when it was repressed by policies of the British Government. Welsh can look very confusing to English speakers, especially with place names such as Ystradgynlais (it’s pronounced Us-trad-gone-lice).
Scottish Gaelic (sometimes referred to as Scottish, blue on the map) is a Celtic language with approximately 60,000 speakers (2001 Census). Like Welsh, it has been suppressed in the past but with devolution the Scottish Government has moved to protect and promote the language. Scottish Gaelic has an 18 letter alphabet, compared to the 26 of English.
In Northern Ireland, Irish is recognised as a minority language, and the dialect spoken is called Ulster Irish (shown in yellow on the map). The 2001 Census showed that about 10% of the population spoke some Irish. Ulster Irish is from a similar Celtic family to Scots Gaelic.
So, now you know if you’re in certain corners of the UK and you hear a language that isn’t English, there’s no need to be confused!
In addition to these main languages, there are also some other minority languages spoken, such as Cornish. To learn more about languages spoken in the UK, check out BBC languages.