The languages of the United Kingdom evolved some 2,000 years ago – a great mix of various words that were created, borrowed and handed down by the different tribes that occupied Britain through the course of its history. Still, while (British) English is now the dominant language, there remains many other languages that are spoken in different areas of the UK. Tracing the history of the country will give you an idea on where these other traditional languages came from and why they are spoken only in certain regions.
Before the arrival of the Romans in 55 BC, Britain's inhabitants spoke a Celtic language. These people crossed the English Channel before the Christian era. Not many Celtic words were left in the present-day English vocabulary although some of the places in the British Isles are Celtic in origin, such as the rivers Wye and Thames and places like Kent, Dover and London.
The Romans ruled the country for close to 400 years. They were instrumental in the building of roads, bridges and the creation of cities and country estates. Their reign began to crumble when the Roman soldiers were called back to defend their home country against the invasions of the Huns and the Germans. Even with the length of the Roman's rule in the Britain, there are only about 200 words with Roman origin that are left in the modern day lexicon, many of which were used by Roman soldiers and merchants, such as weall, belt, candel and win, which translate to wall, belt, candle and wine, respectively.
The last of the Roman legions left Britain in 410 AD and without the defensive forces the Romans provided, the country was gradually invaded. The arrival of three Germanic tribes in the 5th century started the history of the English language. The three tribes were the Jutes, the Saxons and the Angles, later joining forces to form the Anglo-Saxons. They were from northern Germany and what is now known as Denmark. These invaders pushed the Celts into the regions of Cumbria, Wales and Cornwall, where the Cumbric, Welsh and Cornish languages developed although the Celtic culture in the northeastern, southern and central England did not have any chance against the Anglo-Saxons.
The majority of the invaders were from Engla Land, which meant "land of the Angles," who came from the Angeln peninsula in the area of the Bay of Kiel, which is in the Baltic Sea. They spoke a language known as "Englisch." The region where the invaders came from became the origin of the name "England" and their language evolved into the present spelling: English.
The basis of Old English (450-1100 AD) were the Anglo-Saxon dialects and there are still about 400 texts that have survived. Many of these are highly enjoyable poems that tell stories of heroic journeys and wild battles. There are still about one-third of those Anglo-Saxon words that remain in constant use today, like the words be, sleep, night, sing, food, strong, house, water and earth.
Augustine headed the arrival of the Christian missionaries together with their very large Latin vocabulary in the form of the Bible and other religious texts, which led to people gaining literacy. This was the time when new words derived from Latin were formed, such as rose, tower, spider, spade, fork, monk, school, mass and altar. However, there was no spelling standard so the scribblers spelled the words just like how they sounded depending on what part of their country they came from. This brought about the formation of four major dialects: Kentish (southeast), West Saxon (west and south), Mercian (midlands) and Northumbrian (north). A large number of documents in Old English were written in the West Saxon dialect, which was commonly used in Wessex, the popular political center.
The Vikings came in the 8th century and for more than 100 years took control of a major part of Scotland, the Northern Isles such as Shetland and the Orkneys and the Hebrides. They stayed until the 11th century but during the last years of their reign they were pushed back by King Alfred the Great toward the North East section of Britain, where they continued to be dominant in the area called Danelaw. English language became the language of choice by King Alfred to develop a feeling of national identity.
The descent of the Nordic tribes brought about 2,000 new words, such as smile, skirt, silver, reindeer, muggy, freckle, egg, die, cake, awkward and anger. Grimbsy and Whitby are places whose names bore traces of the Scandinavian languages, so do other words in the Northern English dialects.
In the mid-16th century, another wave of invaders called the Normans came. They had a unique heritage, being descendants of Viking conquerors, while their culture was a mix of Roman Gauls and Salian Franks. They were quick to adapt and used Norman French as their language. The Normans made a huge impact on the linguistic and cultural transformation of England. They ruled the country for more than three centuries, with French as the language of English society's powerful people, the top political officials, aristocrats and royalty, many of which were actually non-English speakers. French became the language used in literature, in administration and in writing political documents. At the same time, scholars and the church used Latin. As a result, the English vocabulary was enriched by thousands of French words. Examples are governor, traitor, peasant, servant, duke, color, chess, romance, poet, art, banquet, beauty, gown, mansion, army, parliament, court, castle, and crown.
After the 100 Years War between France and England in 1337 until well into the 1450s, the English language gained momentum, with the establishment of the Cambridge and Oxford universities. Increasing literacy and the introduction of the printing press led to the formation of a standard language, spelling and grammar. Explorers and traders contributed new words into the English language, enriching its vocabulary with Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Turkish and Latin.
The English language today
These traditional languages that made their way into the United Kingdom are traditionally a part of the common Indo-European language family comprising about 455 languages and dialects. The distinctive languages that independently developed through the years in Britain were due to the fact that the people became cut off from their original homes.
Today the United Kingdom has several official languages. Predominant is English, while in Wales, the official languages are Welsh and English. Scots Gaelic and English are the official languages spoken in Scotland.
Scottish Gaelic, Manx and Irish originated from the Goidelic form of the Celtic language, while modern Welsh and the old Cornish language were formed from the Brythonic form of the Celtic language. Among these, Welsh came out as the strongest, with about one-fifth of Wales' population speaking it. In Skye, the Outer Hebrides and in some areas in North West Highlands, Scottish Gaelic is spoken by the majority. However, the number of speakers today is declining and some languages already lost their national language status. There are no longer any native speaker of Cornish and the last original native speaker of Manx, an official language in the Isle of Man, died in 1974. It is considered critically endangered, although there are efforts to revive it. The number of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland is also rapidly dwindling.
Although there were other additions to the languages spoken in the United Kingdom, the Normans were the last of the most important linguistic groups.
Living languages today
The United Kingdom is composed of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are part of the Crown Dependencies but not the United Kingdom.
English is spoken widely throughout the United Kingdom. Welsh is the official language in Wales. It is spoken in various parts of England especially near the border and in many communities in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London. Scots or Ulster Scots as it is called in Northern Ireland is used primarily in the Northern Isles, Caithness and Scottish Lowlands in Scotland and in the counties of Berwick-on-Tweed, Londonderry, Antrim and Down in Northern Ireland.
Majority of the speakers of the Irish language, which is also called Gaelic, Irish Gaelic or Ulster Irish are found in Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast, Newry and Derry. There are also high concentrations of speakers in southern Londonderry near Maghera, in central Tyrone between Omagh and Dungannon and south Armagh. There are also communities in Glasgow, London, Liverpool and Manchester that speak Irish.
There are still about 90,000 people in the United Kingdom who speak Angloromani, which is a mix of English and the language of the gypsies, Romani. Most of the speakers of this language are in Wales, Scotland and England. Scottish Gaelic on the other hand is mainly spoken in Scotland, particularly in the Hebrides and the Scottish highlands.
As of 2011, there are about 550 speakers of the Cornish language in Cornwall.
The United Kingdom is quickly growing as a favorite destination of immigrants and while English is still the main language, there is no stopping the formation of communities made up of various ethnic groups. Polish is on top of the list of most common immigrant languages in the UK followed by Punjabi, Urdu, several major other languages spoken in India, Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish, Italian, Somali, Lithuanian, Persian, Filipino and Romanian. Still, the main foreign languages in the UK are European languages: French, German and Spanish, with French being understood by 23 percent of the population.