The language-eating giant and the 12 dwarfs

Britain is more multilingual than its image suggests, but at the same time too monolingual for its own good. What are its prospects?

ScotsWhat would have happened to ‘the Scots leid’ if the Yes side had won the referendum? It has been officially recognised as a language separate from English since 2001, when Britain ratified the Charter for Minority and Regional Languages. But would Scottish independence have changed the character of Scots? Could the language have become less, well – English?

That’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. Norwegian and Danish were once considered a single language, but two fairly different standard languages emerged after Norway’s breakaway in 1814. Bosnians spoke Serbo-Croatian before independence (1992), but Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian nowadays. There’s little to distinguish the three of them yet, but check back in a century.

Unlike the Bosnians, who historically spoke one language, the Scots would have had history on their side. Until the 16th century, Scots was markedly different from English and well on its way to developing a standard of its own. It stopped doing so after the Union of the Crowns (1603), when Anglicisation set in. Still, a Yes win could have turned the tables yet again.

Scots, of course, has always shared an island with the mass murderer among the modern world’s languages, so how could it have survived unscathed? Still, it has got off lightly compared to many languages overseas, in former British colonies. That’s where English has done most of its killing: several hundred indigenous tongues are thought to have gone extinct since the first freckled settlers appeared on the shores of North America and Australia. And if today’s 6 to 7 thousand languages drop to half that in a century, as UNESCO and others have predicted, English, now the world’s linguistic capo, will again have to answer for many of the casualties.

Remarkably, this killer tongue has never managed to finish off its domestic competitors entirely. In the UK, there are currently between five and twelve traditional minority languages in everyday community use. Whether it’s five, twelve or something in between depends on one’s definition of such concepts as ‘language’, ‘everyday use’ and even ‘UK.’

Let’s do a quick roll call. Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are each the pride of a Celtic people. Two sign languages, the British (BSL) and the very different Irish (ISL) varieties, have gained recognition since the 1970s, when linguists overcame age-old prejudices and discovered that these are indeed full-fledged languages.

The other seven are more problematic. Norman French has only a few thousand speakers left in the – technically non-UK – Channel Islands. The equally self-governing Isle of Man is home to Manx, a close cousin of Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Dying for decades in the 20th century, it was yanked back from the brink by revivalists. Cornish, also Celtic but closer to Welsh, lay dead during the whole nineteenth century, but was then given the Lazarus treatment. Still, it would be bold to claim that it is “in everyday community use”.

Such a claim would be entirely justified, on the other hand, for Scots, Ulster Scots, Shelta and Anglo-Romani, the last two spoken by different groups of Travellers. But are these languages in their own right or dialects of English? It’s not a linguistic, but a political question. Unlike Scots and Ulster Scots, Shelta and Anglo-Romani haven’t been recognised.

But why bother with minority languages in the first place, you may wonder. What’s the use of Welsh and Cornish, or, for that matter, of Polish, Arabic, Bengali and other migrant languages? If so, you probably grew up in an English-only household. My sympathy. You’ll find it hard to believe in the benefits of using two languages from childhood on, especially if one is as economically useless as Manx or Norman. Science and personal experience show, however, that there are several such benefits: a sense of belonging, a cognitive head start, a later onset of Alzheimer’s, probably a heightened sensitivity to cultural differences and most obviously: a superior linguistic nimbleness. The number and subtlety of differences between any two languages are almost unimaginable to the monolingual, whereas bilinguals are alive to the fact that in things linguistic, nothing can be taken for granted. That’s why they acquire a third language more easily – bilingualism is the royal road to multilingualism. These skills, of course, make them an asset for Britain as a whole. You can’t have missed the complaints about the UK losing many billions of pounds a year in exports for lack of foreign language proficiency.

Assuming then that minority languages are good for Britain, will they survive in an environment dominated by a world language? The giant is obviously safe, but how about the twelve dwarfs?

This raises a more fundamental question, namely what makes minority languages survive at all, in Britain as elsewhere? Many western countries, with a long tradition of compulsory education and ubiquitous media in the national tongues, still have a whole slew of minority languages within their borders. Why do so many French children grow up with Corsican or Alsatian, why do Italian parents in some regions speak Greek or German to their offspring, why is Sutsilvan Romansh (spoken by 1100 Swiss villagers) still alive rather than long, long dead? What makes some communities stick to their lingos?

Isolation, that’s what. We learn our first language in our childhood community: family, relatives, neighbours, classmates. And if this community is in some degree isolated from the outside world, it can hold on to its linguistic variety for a mighty long time.

This isolation – which literally means ‘being an island’ – can take many forms. One is the etymologically apt form of a real island, as exemplified by the Outer Hebrides, which are the stronghold of Scots Gaelic, and by Shetland, where the last speakers of a Viking language, Norn, didn’t die until the 19th century. Being cut off from others by mountains, marshland or miles of emptiness has the same effect, which is why Welsh is more vibrant in rural areas than around Cardiff and Swansea. Deafness causes isolation from the speaking world, which is why deaf people develop and cultivate sign languages. Isolation can also spring from discrimination or mutual distrust, which is why Shelta and Anglo-Romani survive among Travellers. And sometimes, a mild form of isolation is self-chosen for the very sake of speaking a language, as with Cornish and Manx, resulting in a precarious language survival.

Seen in this light, the chances of survival for the twelve dwarfs are rather diverse. Three of them are alive merely because enthusiastic supporters will them to be: Manx, Cornish and Channel Island Norman. However high the hopes, the odds are long. The prospects for Shelta and Angloromani depend mostly on the social future of their speakers. As long as these have a sense of belonging to their linguistic community and frequently seek out each other’s company, they are likely to hand down their vocabularies to their children – which is the crux of language survival. Scots, without Scottish independence, is likely to become even more like English.

The UK’s three “big” Celtic languages will survive in the medium term, but the erosion of their native-speaker bases makes the longer-term prospects less secure. This is especially true for Scottish Gaelic, the smallest by far. Irish has a strong institutional position in the Republic, but relies increasingly on second-language learning – a much more precarious vehicle than parent-to-child transfer. Welsh seems to be alive and well in parts of Wales, but even it can’t be complacent about its future.

The same is true for the sign languages. Now that most British children born deaf receive cochlear implants (CIs), which leaves them ‘merely’ hearing-impaired, the important benefits of learning BSL have become less obvious to outsiders. Yet for several reasons, these children are better off when they learn BSL (and also English, of course). Having a first language is a basic need, and English cannot properly fulfil that role for them.

So in all, the future of Britain’s traditional minority languages seems far from assured. Migrant languages, mostly spoken in cities, have a way of disappear in the third generation or thereabouts, though new immigration will probably produce new bilinguals. On the whole, it doesn’t look as if bilingualism, that great first step to multilingualism, is on the rise; if anything, the opposite. Those potential export billions are not going to flow to Britain in a hurry.

4 thoughts on “The language-eating giant and the 12 dwarfs

  1. I point out that none of those concerned are ‘a Celtic people’ – in Ireland and Britain, Celtic is merely a linguistic classification. It has no ethnic or national components. None of the non-English nations of these islands ever described themselves as Celts. That sense of the term was imposed upon them during the 18th and 19th centuries – by the English. Their own terms, in their own languages, should be prefered.


    • Neither did the Germans, English, Dutch etc ever consider themselves to be ‘Germanic peoples’. Epithets like Celtic and Germanic were given to them later on, or forced upon them if you like, by linguists and other scholars, with the nationalist overtones so common in that era. Anyway, this whole matter of nations, peoples, ethnic groups and their relations to languages and borders is a can of venomous worms. I could have avoided it by using the word ‘community’ instead of ‘people’. I would now.


  2. I should also remind readers that Cymraeg has semi-official status within the workings of the EU – not official, nor a working language, but recognised enough for correspondence and communications within the EU (in particular the Committee of the Regions) to be exchanged in this language.

    It is also of course “protected” under the Minority Languages Charter signed up to by the UK (but not e.g. France – for obvious and historic reasons.)


  3. I agree with most of your comments here, Gaston – in particulat the still fragile nature of my mother tongue of Cymraeg/Welsh. However, you must also remember that this language is now de jure official in Wales and the National Assembly for Wales also recognises it as official alongside English in the debating chamber. All children in Welsh schools will come across it as a core subject in the national curriculum or as a 2nd language and some also learn othe subjects through the medium of Cymraeg.

    I never hesitate in reminding English speakers that English has no status in law (de jure) in England and it’s status there (outside Parliament, I believe) is de facto official only. Indeed, in the UK Parliament, it is the case that when a proposed new law, a bill, is sent from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, the clerk of the Commons writes “Soit bail as Seigneurs” on it – which means “let it be sent to the House of Lords” – in Norman French … and if the Queen gives her (Royal) Assent to it, it is also in Norman French: “La reyne le veult” i.e. “The Queen wishes it.”


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