What are the languages spoken in the UK?

Curious to learn what are the languages spoken in the UK? While it is common to know that English is its official language, there is more to discover with regards to languages embraced in the UK. 

Even if the UK is considered an English speaking country, the nation has various regional accents, expressions and slangs.

What are the languages spoken in the UK?

The main languages spoken in the UK are English, Welsh, Gaelic and Ulster Scots. The top foreign languages spoken in the UK are French, German and Spanish. There is the British Sign Language or BSL, and there are also many immigrant languages spoken in the UK, including Polish, Punjabi and Spanish. 

How did these languages come to be? How did they help shape what the UK is now? All these and more, we are hoping to know as we dig deeper into the English language and all the other main languages spoken in the UK.

Read more: British Culture: List of the Great Traditions and Celebrations in the UK

History of the English language

How did the English language begin? Let’s have a look at the history of the UK’s most spoken language over the centuries:

5th Century – Germanic tribes known as the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes invaded Britain by crossing the North Sea. Natives were speaking the Celtic language then, and these people were driven to go north and west. They resided in what we now know as Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

The word England and English originated from the Old English word Engla-land, literally meaning “the land of the Angles” where they spoke Englisc.

Source: Oxford

5th to 7th Century – Old English was developed and spoken until about 1100 AD, although it is said to be very different from the English we use now. Old English is the root of many English words. A sample of literature written in Old English is the poem Beowulf. Beowulf is regarded as the oldest surviving poem in Old English and is one of the most important works in Old English literature.

7th to 11th Century – Old English transitioned to Early Middle English, as William the Conqueror who was the Duke of Normandy invaded and conquered England. The Norman Invasion brought in “a kind of French.” The ruling class and the business class spoke this language while the lower class spoke English, creating a societal divide.

14th Century – French influence found its way to Middle English, as French words were anglicised so that they would be conveniently used in English. Geoffrey Chaucer, an English poet and author, used Middle English in his writings. He is regarded as the Father of English literature and among his most notable works is the masterpiece The Canterbury Tales.

15th Century – Chancery English was developed as Chancery clerks in London fluent in French and Latin were said to be preparing the king’s documents in “English based on the Central Midland dialect.” The Great Vowel Shift happened, wherein there was a huge change in the pronunciation of long vowels.

1476 – William Caxton made the first ever printing press in Westminster. As he translated different works for publishing, he was able to help promote Early Modern English all throughout England. One of the ways he did so was by printing the English Bible.

1604 – The first English dictionary called the Table Alphabeticall came into print.

17th Century – William Shakespeare, along with other playwrights, has successfully influenced the audience with their language of writing. Moreover, the first victorious English colony named The New World was established in Jamestown, Virginia. From here arose the American English.

17th to 19th Century – Migration gave rise to several varieties of English.

20th Century to Present – Late Modern English continues to expand.

What is the Welsh Language?

Welsh or Cymraeg is a language emerging from the British Isles. It is a Brythonic language, and it came from a Celtic language spoken by the natives. Welsh is spoken in Wales, although it was recorded that by the year 1911, it had become a minority language.

To further empower the Welsh language, a legal framework was established by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure of 2011. It sought to urge the public to recognize in words and actions that there are two official languages in Wales, namely Welsh and English, and that the former must never be treated less favourably than the latter.

Welsh Language Commissioner

In 2019, Aled Roberts got appointed as the Welsh Language Commissioner. In a full term of seven years, he as the Commissioner must seek ways how to promote and facilitate the use of the language.

The Welsh Assembly has set a goal of one million Welsh speakers by 2050 (the population of Wales is 3.1 million) and it’s off to a good start.

Source: The Guardian

Some Welsh Phrases

Shw mae? (South Wales)Sut mae? (North Wales)(Shoe-mi)(Sit-mi)How are you?
Os gwelwch yn dda(Os-gwell-och-un-thar)Please
Diolch / Diolch yn fawr(Dee-olch / dee-olch-un-vow-er)Thank you very much
Helô / Hylô(hell-oh / hill-oh)Hello
Cymru am byth!(Kumm-ree-am-bee-th)Wales, forever!
Source: Quality Cottages

What is the Gaelic Language

The Gaelic or Scottish Gaelic Language is classified as an Indigenous Language. It got its name from the Gaels who settled in Scotland from Ireland during the 6th century. During the 11th century, Gaelic was the most common language used in the country. 

Are Gaelic and Irish the same?

While Irish and Gaelic are both stemming from Celtic, they are two distinct languages and are different from each other. You might also be confusing Gaelic with Irish because Irish is also referred to as Gaeilge – looks similar to the word Gaelic, but it is simply the Irish language in Irish.

Here are the six Celtic languages remain today: 

  • Scottish Gaelic
  • Irish
  • Welsh
  • Breton
  • Cornish
  • Manx

The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 was passed by the Scottish Parliament to secure the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language.

Source: The Scotsman

Some Gaelic Phrases

Ciamar a tha sibh?(Kimmer a ha shiv?)How are you?
Glè mhath(gle va)I’m great.
Tapadh leibh(ta’pa liev)Thank you. (Formal)
de an t-ainm a tha’ oirbh?(je un tenem a herev?)What’s your name?
is mise… (is misha…)My name is…
Source: Owlcation

What is the Ulster Scots?

Ulster Scots is a language spoken in parts of Ulster which is in Ireland. While some of its words come from Scotland, Irish, English and other languages, the people fought hard to have it classified as its own language. It was in 2006 when politicians in Northern Ireland declared Ulster Scots as an official language.

Before that, back in 1992, the Ulster-Scots Language Society was formed. Its role is to protect and promote the Ulster-Scots language as well as encourage people to use it in their daily lives, be it in writing or speaking. According to their website, the Society is “non-political and non-sectarian, and is a registered charity.”

Supported by the Ulster-Scots Language Society is its sister organization called the Ulster-Scots Academy. Among the goals of the Academy is “to elevate the linguistic study of Ulster-Scots to that of a living European language in its own right, and to accomplish this by undertaking documentation, research and publication programmes of the highest academic standard; and by serving as a bridge between researchers, including academic specialists, and the native-speaking community.”

Some Ulster Scots Phrases

Whit dae they caa ye?What is your name? 
Whaur are ye frae?Where are you from? 
Dae ye leeve nearhaun?Do you live nearby? 
Whit aboot ye?How are you doing? 
Am up tae ma oxters.I am very busy.
Source: Ulster-Scots Agency

Read more: English Test for Spouse Visa, ILR and Naturalisation (Life In The UK test)

What is the British Sign Language?

The British Sign Language or BSL is the most common form of sign language for the deaf and hearing-impaired community in the UK. 

BSL is different from American Sign Language (ASL) or Australian Sign Language (AUSLAN) even if all these places speak English. The ASL alphabet, for example, uses one hand only while the BSL uses two.

After a big campaign BSL was finally recognised by the UK government as an official minority language in 2003. This has led to increased funding for the needs of the communication of people who are Deaf, and an increased awareness of the language which now has a similar status to that of other minority national languages such as Gaelic and Welsh.

Source: British Sign

What is the most common foreign language in the UK?

In the survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics in 2011, this was the result:

4Bengali (with Sylheti and Chatgaya)221,403
8All Other Chinese (other than Cantonese Chinese and Mandarin Chinese)141,052

From the survey, you can see that the most common foreign language in the UK is Polish. Babbel backs up this result by citing the opening of borders to Poland when the country joined the European Union back in 2004. As with the next high-ranking languages, if you may recall the presence of the UK in India centuries ago.

What are the languages spoken in the UK?


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