The Traditional Languages and Dialects of the British Isles

by frankbeswick

Four nations, each one a composite of several ancient kingdoms, composed of different people, have a complex linguistic history.

England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales are ancient nations settled by various groups of people over the millennia. Settlers brought their own languages with them and these languages evolved over time as peoples interacted. Some of these languages are dead, most dialects are dying under the influence of standard English, but some language enthusiasts resist and try to preserve ancient tongues, even though English is dominant.

photo courtesy of walkerssk, of pixabay


"Sir,he's chorving me." said the student. By a process of interrogation I ascertained that to be chorved was the opposite of being chuffed, which means pleased, so to chorve someone is to annoy them. But the teenage student was a reet gradely lad, so I didn't bother too much, but I had better explain that in the traditional Lancashire town where I was working to be a reet gradely lad is to be a right good young man.Don't think that students spoke all the time in dialect, they didn't, but they lapsed into dialect words occasionally, maybe thinking that as I am a Lancashire man I would understand them.  

I grew up with some Lancashire dialect. A crying child was skriking, a term found in the Norse-influenced Manx Gaelic, from nearby Isle of Man.  Another Norse-derived word is to  flit, which means to move house. When I was in Norway I used the dialect word "tar" to say thank you. The Norwegians, who say "tak" understood me. A ham joint was known as a pestle. In some parts of Manchester the alley between terraced houses was known as a ginnel. Clearing the table after a meal was siding it.

These are some examples of dialect words that have survived into modern times. Their use is becoming less and less as time passes, but some enthusiasts still preserve ancient words. 

Why were there so many dialects at one time? We speak of the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, but they were several distinct peoples each with their own language. The Saxons spoke a tongue related to Friesian, a kind of North German still spoken today, but even then there were differences between the English of King Alfred spoken in Wessex in the South West and the English of the London region. Moreover, the Angles and the Jutes were more related to the Danes and spoke a Scandinavian tongue. Later on Danish and Norwegian settlers came to parts of Britain, and brought their language with them. Danes were strongly present in the North East of England, but in the North West, including parts of Lancashire,Norwegians settled.

But language was not static. The incoming languages interacted with native tongues and evolved. It used to be thought that the native Britons all spoke versions of Welsh, but recent scholarship has moved to the view that Eastern Britain,where the Saxons and Angles settled, spoke a Germanic language related to Flemish. The Germanic tongues that predated the Anglo-Saxons may well have  been spoken in Scotland where it formed the basis of the Scottish dialects of English. One of these,Lallans [lowland Scottish] is subject to a concerted campaign to preserve it, as is its relative, Ulster Scots. Another local version spoken in Aberdeen in Eastern Scotland was Doric, a peculiarity of which is to say "fit was" rather than "What was." Britain was therefore in the second half of the  first millennium was a linguistic cauldron in which dialects interacted and evolved, differently in each locality. 

Eventually when the Norman kings began to speak English in the time of Edward the First the English spoken in London became dominant. But  local dialects still survived, though in a long process of decay that became intensified by population movements, easier transport and mass communications.

British Celtic

The River Severn surges south from its birth place in Wales to meet the sea at the Bristol Channel.It is not widely known that the part of England west of the Severn spoke Welsh until the Eighteenth century. Furthermore, a version of Welsh was spoken in Derbyshire [North Midlands, quite hilly] until the twelfth century. There is place name evidence that Lancashire spoke a mixture of Welsh and English in the late first millennium. Ince is a Lancashire town whose name drives from the Celtic inis,meaning an island.The town had been constructed on  an island in swampland.In the east of the Manchester conurbation I used to walk to work up a steep street called Penny Meadow, whose name is a combination of the English word meadow and the Welsh y pen, meaning the high [pen y meadow.]  There are six living Celtic tongues, three of which are Brythonic [derived from Britain]and three Gaelic [of Irish origin.] A fourth Brythonic tongue is known,but not spoken [more later.] Of the Brythonic tongues Welsh and Cornish are spoken in Britain, but Breton is spoken in Brittany, France.

Welsh is spoken only in Wales, and is very much found most on the west and in the hills. While it is the joint official language of Wales, not everyone is keen on it. The Welsh language comes in two variants, spoken in North and South Wales respectively. The official language of Wales is the southern variety.

Cornish was a language that died out in the 1870s but was revived by enthusiasts. A few people use it in Cornwall, England's most  southwesterly county, which has a small nationalist movement, its own tartan based on Scottish models and its own flag. Cornwall was a Celtic kingdom absorbed into Saxon Wessex in the tenth century. While it is in England many Cornish do not call themselves English as they like to regard themselves as having a distinct identity.

"Yan, tan, tethera...." was the way in which Cumbrian shepherds in England's most north-westerly county used to count to three.They were counting in Cumbric, a long extinct, unrecorded Brythonic language of Northern England spoken when the North was known as Hen Ogledd, the Old North, before the Angles' expansion.Several different Cumbric counting systems are known, so Cumbric must have been a fragmented system of local dialects.Sadly,no written records remain, and St Bede, writing in the eighth century did not see Cumbric as sufficiently distinct from Welsh to merit mentioning.

No written texts in Pictish, the pre-Gaelic language of much of Scotland,  survive and whether it was a Celtic tongue or a relict pre-Celtic language is unknown. more recently some scholars have suggested that it was a Germanic language related to Norse. Certainly in many parts of Scotland Norn was spoken. We have thought it introduced by the Vikings, but if the Norse tongue was related to Pictish anyway the two languages would easily meld.North-Eastern Scotland, where the Picts were prevalent,  never spoke Gaelic, but a version of English, so it is unlikely that Pictish was a form of Celtic.

The only relics of Norn are found on lonely Fair Isle between Orkney and Shetland where some Norse seabird names survive.

Ireland and its Languages

" Is an Gaelge beg liom." I speak a little Gaelic, which  is the language of Ireland and at one period areas of Irish settlement. There are several Gaelic dialects, of which three are spoken in Ireland. The Gaelic of the South West, the Munster dialect was deemed by scholars in the nineteenth century to be the purest and so became the official Gaelic of Ireland. But there are two more dialects,the Connaught dialect spoken in Mayo and Sligo,  and Ulster Gaelic, spoken in Donegal. The Irish peace process has led to cultural pressures in Northern Ireland for the revival of Gaelic there, but there is pressure to establish Ulster Gaelic as an official language rather  than the Munster Gaelic of the South West.

In the fifth and sixth centuries Gaelic spread from Ireland.The Isle of Man, between Britain and Ireland, spoke Gaelic by the ninth century, though modern Manx, a language revived as Cornish was, is heavily influenced by Norse, in the first millennium Irish warriors from Ulster,known as Scots,  invaded West Scotland, bringing Ulster Gaelic with them  and as their power spread to encompass most of Highland Scotland so Gaelic expanded at the expense of Pictish, which became extinct or at least unrecognizable. Scottish Gaelic is still spoken, but it is not in a strong position. Yet Gaelic enjoyed a brief flourishing on the Welsh coast when Irish tribes grabbed land off the Welsh, briefly controlling the fertile Lleyn Peninsula, before Welsh resistance expelled them.

Yet there may have been another language in parts of Ireland, which has been extinct for about two thousand years.Some scholars think that this language was Ivernic, but the identity of this tongue is a mystery. Some scholars suggest that it was a Brythonic [British]  form of Celtic, others think that it was a relic of the languages of Ireland before the evolution of Celtic tongues. No one knows.































Updated: 07/13/2020, frankbeswick
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Mira on 07/23/2020

That's very interesting. We don't even have paper records going back that far, so if I were to look I wouldn't find anything. In Western Europe and Transylvania churches kept these records; not in other parts of Romania though.

frankbeswick on 07/22/2020

There was an oral tradition in my father's family [from his mother] that there was a family member who left Ireland and went to Austria, I presume in 1691,with the Wild Geese. The surname de Lacy was mentioned and we know that a number of de Lacies were present at the siege of Limerick and sailed from that city in 1691 into exile.Veronica, the family genealogy expert, tells me that information from my father's side is usually reliable.

My father's family had strong connections with the counties of Limerick and neighbouring Galway. Interestingly, Veronica has strong emotional affinities for those areas.I have a stronger affinity for the North West of Ireland, where some of my maternal ancestors originated, but I did live in North West Ireland for nearly a year.

Mira on 07/22/2020

Hi Frank, unfortunately I don't know much about my ancestry. I'm trying to learn as much about it as I can these days from an old aunt, but I only know a few things up to my great-great-grandfather, and even so, nobody remembers that guy's first name. And then on my mother's side I only know things up to my grandfather's mother. It's rather sad.

I didn't know about the Wild Geese! There is a pocket of Celtic population in northwestern Romania but these Celts settled there much earlier. There are still many Celtic crosses in that region.

frankbeswick on 07/20/2020

Historians believed that the Welsh descended from the ancient Britons. It is only in recent years that they have realized that the English are substantially descended from the ancient Britons as well.

So you are freckled too. Are you descended from any of "The Wild Geese?" This is the nickname for the large number of Irish soldiers who fled to Europe, including the Holy Roman Empire, after being defeated by William of Orange in 1690. Many of the Irish names found in Europe come from the Wild Geese.

Mira on 07/20/2020

So the Welsh were not considered to have a Celtic background until the 19th century? Then what did historians before then say about their ancestors?

Incidentally, I'm quite freckled too :)

frankbeswick on 07/19/2020

Just one point. Though Irish, Welsh etc are known as Insular Celtic, the British and Irish never described themselves as Celtic, which described certain tribes in Europe known to the Romans. The term Celtic was first applied to the peoples of the British Isles by historians in the nineteenth century.

frankbeswick on 07/17/2020

An interesting point.There is,however, no direct link between Celts and Jews, but the link comes from a common source of Middle Eastern ancestry.

I have been told on several occasions that that I look Celtic/Irish. When I was young my hair was golden and curly, [it is white now] and my skin, which is fair, is prone to freckling. Veronica can probably confirm that I look Irish.

Mira on 07/16/2020

This is pretty amazing but it probably explains why some descendants of Celtic people look like some Jewish people, with reddish hair and freckles :)

frankbeswick on 07/12/2020

Mira, as you are interested in languages you may be interested by something that I found on the web after I wrote the article.The insular Celtic languages of the British Isles show strong structural affinities to languages of the Afro-Asiatic group, which arose in North Africa and includes Arabic and Hebrew. The explanation is that after the Ice Age, when the British Isles were repopulated,Ireland and West Britain got settlers from Iberia and possibly North Africa, who spoke dialects of an early Afro-Asiatic language.Later as the Indo-European languages {Latin, German etc] spread they replaced the earlier languages, except in the British Isles, where the descendants of the first settlers were numerous enough to have an impact on the spoken language. The result is that the tnsular Celtic tongues are a hybrid between Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic.

This theory ties in with genetics, which suggests that the inhabitants of Ireland and West Britain are substantially descended from the earliest post-Ice Age settlers.

Ivernic might therefore have been a language from the Afro-Asiatic group.

Mira on 07/12/2020

I can't wait to visit places in Britain again after this pandemic. In the meantime, I'm happy to find all this charming info in your posts :) Pinned this article onto one of my Pinterest boards.

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