Article Insects, us & the future

The rise and fall of minority languages in the UK and Ireland

Photo credit: Kat Dodd on Flickr

Growing up in rural west Wales, it was part of the curriculum that I would learn Welsh, a language that is steeped in history and mythology. Some schools taught it as a second language, while others taught every lesson through Welsh. At 7 years old, I was sent to a Welsh primary school and began my journey of speaking the language that I still speak today.

Welsh is considered a minority language, but isn’t the only native language still spoken in the UK and Ireland, although some of these languages are spoken to a lesser degree. I wanted to find out about Welsh and other languages and their relevance in today’s world.


The Welsh language was first in use in the 6th century and was derived from Common Brittonic, an ancient Celtic language that was once spoken in Britain. The language has undergone some changes in its time and began as Primitive Welsh until the 9th century. It was replaced by what is now called Old Welsh until the 12th century, Middle Welsh from then until the 14th century and Early and Late Modern Welsh, although there have been some changes in the language since then. Interestingly, the name Welsh came from the Anglo-Saxons and originally meant ‘foreign speech’.

The language has been spoken in Wales throughout recorded history but it was considered a minority language in 1911, when it was spoken by just 43.5% of the population.

One hundred years on, in the 2011 census, only 19% of the population of Wales were able to speak Welsh and, out of this percentage, 77% were able to speak, read and write in Welsh. Ten years previously, the 2001 census showed that 20.8% of the population were able to speak Welsh.

But plans to increase the number of Welsh speakers have been put in place and the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 gave Welsh an official status in Wales. This measure also made provisions for promoting and facilitating the use of Welsh and that the language should be treated equally to English. Prior to this, however, was the Welsh Language Act 1993, which was revolutionary in giving Welsh an equal footing with English in the Welsh public sector. It was at this time that the Welsh Language Board was set up and Welsh speakers were given the right to speak the language in court proceedings.

Although the numbers of Welsh speakers may have decreased, organisations such as Cymdeithas yr Iaith continue to campaign for the language and there are still many people in Wales who speak the language today.

Hannah Sams, an avid Welsh speaker and whose first language is Welsh, believes strongly in the importance of speaking Welsh.

She says, “For me, the ability to speak Welsh is an integral part of my identity. I strongly agree that being able to speak a language opens the door to the history and, most of all, the culture of that language. In my eyes, a person can’t be Welsh unless they can speak the language.”


Cornish was formed during the Iron Age and Roman period, after a spilt between Britons in the south west and those in Wales and Cumbria. It was, similar to Welsh, a language that evolved from Common Brittonic and was spoken in Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, West Devon and Exeter up until around 936, when the Saxon king Athelstan drove the Cornish out of Exeter and created a border between Devon and Cornwall.

By the 19th century the language had died as a spoken community language, although there were reports that it was still spoken by fishermen at sea. There have been efforts to revive the language since the early 20th century though, beginning with the teaching of the language in schools outside of the formal curriculum and by publishing books and magazines in Cornish.

There are four variants of the language which have been in use in the past but around ten years ago it was decided, that to properly reintroduce Cornish into schools and the community, there had to be a universally accepted standard form of the language. The Cornish Language Partnership was set up in 2005 and adopted a Standard Written Form in 2008.

Although the language was once considered extinct by UNESCO, this is no longer the case and Cornish is now taught in many schools. In November 2013, the Cornish Language Partnership surveyed 799 people about their ability to speak the language. Of this number, 54 people said they were fluent in Cornish and another 67 people were able to converse easily in the language. Although this survey was not inclusive of everyone living in or from Cornwall, the Cornish Language Partnership believed it to be representative of users at the time.

The survey showed that Cornish was still in regular use in some situations too, as 41% of people read Cornish either daily or weekly, 32% wrote Cornish, 36% listened to it and 38% spoke it.

Irish Gaelic

Irish Gaelic is traditionally spoken along the west coast of Ireland and is similar to Scottish Gaelic. It is an official language in the Republic of Ireland and the EU and an officially recognised minority language in Northern Ireland.

Irish Gaelic was the predominant language of the Irish for most of their recorded history and originated in Ireland. Over the years, the Irish migrated over to Scotland and the Isle of Man, taking the language with them, thus forming the beginnings of Scottish Gaelic and Manx.

The decline of the language as a majority language began under English rule in the 17th century, although there was a dramatic decrease in the number of Irish speakers in the 19th century, specifically after the Great Famine of 1845-1852. By the end of British rule in Ireland, less than 15% of the population spoke Irish and since then the language has been in the minority.

Irish is now spoken as a first language for a small number of people and also as a second language. It is taught in schools and, in a 2006 census for the Republic of Ireland, 85,000 people said they spoke Irish daily outside of education and 1.2 million spoke the language occasionally. In the 2011 census, however, 94,000 people reported speaking the language daily and 1.3 million spoke it occasionally.

Eoin Ó Conchúir, founder of the Bitesize Irish Gaelic website, which teaches Irish to people around the world, thinks that the language has a renewed energy of community that perhaps didn’t exist 20 years ago. Eoin believes that the Irish language helps people to make a connection with the old traditions and values of the Irish people.

He says, “It’s a person’s decision whether or not to want to speak the language, but I think it’s a way of making a deep connection with your identity.”

Although he says the communities currently speaking Irish are small and people may move away for jobs, the language is enjoying a renewed interest in Irish cities, including Belfast’s thriving Gaeltacht quarter.

He continues, “I think the future of the Irish language will be co-habited with English speaking communities in Ireland. Although the traditional Gaeltacht regions are very important and have enormous cultural wealth, they are not the only answer for the future of Ireland’s native language.”

Scottish Gaelic

Scottish Gaelic is very similar to Irish Gaelic, and it is said that many people can speak both languages and that speakers can almost understand each other. It has been an official language in Scotland since 2005 but not in the UK or the EU.

It is believed the language was brought to Scotland in the 4th century by settlers from Ireland, although that view is no longer universally accepted, since there is no archaeological evidence for this belief.

Gaelic developed as an independent language after the 12th century and replaced earlier languages, Cumbric and Pictish, becoming the language for most of Scotland.

A 2011 census showed a total of 57,375 people, approximately 1 percent of the population, were speakers of Gaelic at the time. This is a decline of 1,275 speakers since the 2001 census. Although not a large proportion of the country speak Gaelic, 87,056 people did have some knowledge of the language, down from 93,282 in 2001. The number of speakers under 20 has increased, however, and revival efforts are hoping to further increase the number of Gaelic speakers.

According to Bòrd na Gàidhlig, an organisation working to promote Gaelic in partnership with the Scottish government, the language is important for heritage and identity, cultural enrichment and strengthening diversity. It also provides Scotland and the rest of the world with access to a unique culture and has economic benefits. This is why the organisation has created a National Gaelic Language Plan, 2012-2017.

Dr Alasdair Allan, from Bòrd na Gàidhlig, says the language plan is needed to secure an increase in the number of people learning, speaking and using Gaelic in Scotland.

He says, “Gaelic belongs to Scotland. It is a valuable and enduring part of both Scotland’s heritage and current cultural life and, as such, a determined and focused effort must be made to secure and strengthen the place of Gaelic in Scotland.”

Although it appears that these languages may be in decline, the UK and Ireland seem to be very interested in their cultural history. The efforts, by some countries, to reintroduce and revive their historical languages are surely a positive step and only time will tell whether these efforts will be a success.

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