The Teaching REAL English Website

Celtic Languages spoken in the British Isles

Many students of English may assume that English is the only native language spoken in Britain, but this is very far from the truth. Visitors to the UK will hear languages from all over the world spoken, as the UK - and especially London and other big cities - is very cosmopolitan, with residents and visitors from every corner of the world. However, there are a number of Celtic languages which are (and in some cases, were once) indigenous to the British Isles, going back to before the time of the Roman Empire. These languages, inevitably, have suffered a decline in the face of the English language, but efforts are being made to inject new life into them through the broadcast media, literature, education and other means, and this can only be a good thing. Unfortunately, two of the Celtic languages which were once spoken in parts of Britain have died out, these being Cornish (Kernak or Kernewek), once spoken in Cornwall and whose last native speaker is thought to have been John Davey of Zennor, who died in 1891, and Manx, formerly spoken on the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea, and whose last native speaker, Edward Mandrell, died in 1974.

These "dead" Celtic languages and the living Celtic languages Welsh (Cymraeg), Scottish Gaelic (or Scots Gaelic, Gidhlig) and Irish ( or Irish Gaelic, Gaeilge) are all part of a closely-related linguistic family which also includes Breton (Ar brezhoneg), spoken in the north-western region of France known as Bretagne (Brittany in English, Breizh in Breton).

Below is some information and links to websites about Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, the two living Celtic languages still spoken by native speakers in Britain. Irish is one of the two official languages of the Irish Republic, the second being English.


From the SCOTTISH GAELIC entry, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur, Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-214183-X)

SCOTTISH GAELIC: The Celtic language of the West Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland. Gaelic-speaking Scots arrived from Ireland on the west coast of what is now Scotland in third to the fifth century AD. As they gradually gained power, their language spread throughout the country, though not the whole population; in the south-east, for example, it was probably used mainly among the ruling classes. With the increased influence of Northern English, the use and prestige of Gaelic began to decline and since the 12th century there has been a gradual retraction. Political factors, social pressures, and educational policies have combined to threaten the language with extinction. In the later twentieth century, more positive attitudes [...] developed and efforts are [now] being made to sustain Gaelic, encourage bilingual policies, and give it a valued place in school and pre-school education. Many, however, fear that these measures are too little too late. Gaelic is now used as a community language virtually only in the Western Isles. At the 1981 census, there were little over 80,000 speakers, with only a few hundred under the age of five and there are few monoglot speakers above this age.

Scottish Gaelic has an ancient literary tradition and paradoxically its literature flourishes in the twentieth century, with such poets as Sorley MacLean, Derick Thomson, and lain Crichton Smith (also a novelist in English). The formal literature of the medieval period was shared with Irish Gaelic, the two cultures remaining in close contact until at least the seventeenth century. Much poetry came from a bardic tradition of poets composing songs in strict metre in the service of their chiefs, a system which ended in the seventeenth century. However, the eighteenth century saw a golden age of less rule-bound poetry with a wide variety of subject matter: the songs of Donnchadh Bn Mac-an-t-Saoir (Duncan Bn Macintyre), Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald), and Rob Donn continue to be sung, and the twentieth century flowering continues with a younger generation of poets. Public performance and composition are encouraged by the National Mod, an annual competitive festival of music and poetry organized by An Comunn Gaidhealach/The Highland Association, founded in 1891 to support the Gaelic language and culture and the Highland way of life. Comunn na Gidhlig (the Gaelic Association) was set up in 1984 with the more specific aim of promoting the language.

There has been a considerable two-way traffic of words between Scottish Gaelic and Scots [Scottish English] throughout the centuries, with some words making more than one journey across the linguistic boundary: for example, Gaelic clann (the children of a family) became older Scots and then English clan (a local or family group under a chief and having a common name), recently taken back into Gaelic in the latter sense. Gaelic has also influenced the pronunciation and syntax of English in Gaelic-speaking and recently Gaelic-speaking areas. Gaelic borrowings from English and Scots are numerous and increasing, especially in technical and administrative fields: for example, teilebhisean television, ridio radio, and briogais trousers (from Scots breeks). The influence of English on Gaelic syntax is considerable and rapidly virtually now that virtually all adult speakers are bilingual [as they speak both Scottish Gaelic and English]. Pronunciation has been less affected, but phonemic changes based on English or Scots are noticeable in the speech of children of Gaelic-speaking immigrants to the cities. More of these children now speak Gaelic, because of a recent increase in Gaelic playgroups and schools. The language is taught in three of the Scottish universities, two of which (Edinburgh and Glasgow) have a chair of Celtic.

Listen to a sample of Gaelic speech

Further information:
The Scottish Gaelic Language (article on Wikipedia)
The Scottish Gaelic Language, Alphabet and Pronunciation (article on the Omniglot website)


From the WELSH ENGLISH entry, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur, Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-214183-X)

WELSH: The Celtic language of Wales, known to its speakers as Cymraeg. Welsh and Breton rae the only surviving members of the ancient British of Brythonic subdivision of the Celtic language family. The original British language was highly inflected, but its descendant, Modern Welsh, has lost some of these inflections. Once the principal language of Wales and a literary language since the sixth century, Welsh has been in decline since the accession of the partly Welsh Henry Tudor (Henry VII) to the English throne in 1485. There are now few monolingual speakers of Welsh and some 500,000 of the people of Wales are bilingual: that is, 25% of the population. The condition of Welsh at the end of the twentieth century is relatively stable, and it is being learnt by non-Welsh-speaking Welsh people and others, including immigrants from England. It is taught in all schools and is a medium of instruction in some. In the northern county of Gwynedd it is a language of local government and appears with English on road signs. Language activists, however, consider that much remains to be done.

The spoken language consists of several dialects and has had a significant influence on the English language as used in Wales, but has had little impact on English at large. [...] As in all Celtic languages, grammatical mutations occur, as in the noun ci (dog), where the initial sound is affected by the modifier [preceding word], as in dy gi (your dog), fy nghi (my dog), ei chi (her dog), and tri chi (three dogs).

Listen to a sample of Welsh speech

Further information:
The Welsh Language (article on Wikipedia)
Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg - The Welsh Language Board, with useful background information about the Welsh Language