Today the British Isles have thirteen living native languages of which two have been revived in the last 100 years, Cornish and Manx. There are the Celtic languages of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland along with the Romance languages of the Channel Islands. Finally, there are the languages of the traveling communities of the British Isles.
West Germanic languages
– English (59.6 million speakers)
– Scots (200 thousands of various dialects of Scots)
– Irish (95 thousands of speakers)
– Welsh (611 thousands of speakers)
– Scottish Gaelic (59 thousands of speakers)
– Cornish (2 thousands of speakers)
– Manx (1,7 thousands of speakers)
– Guernesiais (1,3 thousands of speakers)
– Sercquiais (15 of speakers)
Extinct languages of the British Isles: Welsh Romani, Auregnais, Romany, Norn, Pictish, Cumbric, Yola
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In a sense, the English language is not indigenous to the British Isles. Over the better part of a millennium, waves of outside invaders displaced Britain’s indigenous Celtic speakers and introduced a new West Germanic language. The languages of the Anglo-Saxon and Danish conquerors gradually morphed into Old English, a language best known from early epic Beowulf, which is quite unintelligible to modern English speakers. French-speaking invaders from Normandy in 1066 prodded the transformation of Old English into Middle English, the language of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400), which modern readers find very tough slogging. Finally, various forces promoted the development of Modern English, in its early modern form the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, which most modern English speakers find familiar, if a bit quaint.
There is a second and much more contested part of the story in the British Isles: how Modern English belatedly became dominant in those areas where Celtic languages long had survived and remained strong, an event that occurred in Wales and Ireland only in the nineteenth century. For some that transformation can only be explained as the result of conquests or at least an insidious cultural imperialism. As will be seen later in this chapter, the actual process was more complex and less one-sided.
Evidence for the early history of the English language is fragmentary and interpreting it requires very specialized knowledge. Even then, many knotty issues cannot be resolved. Those who relish the details may ponder the impressive scholarship on morphology, syntax, vocabulary, dialects, and literary usage summarized in the thick volumes of the Cambridge History of the English Language. For the purposes of this book, a quicker overview of the early spread of English will be sufficient to expose the themes that have relevance to the global spread of the language. Rather than linguistics, the focus of this account is cultural power, often political, sometimes literary, and at times educational. Rather than the enormous diversity of languages and dialects that existed (and still exist to an extent), this account emphasizes how English acquired cultural prestige that gave it staying power.
D. Northrup, How English Became the Global Language
– Languages of Great Britain & Ireland, 1800