Britain’s Forgotten Mother Tongues

International Mother Language Day is recognised by UNESCO on the 21st February each year, celebrating linguistic diversity and promoting multilingual education. There are an astounding 2464 languages listed as vulnerable, and at potential risk of vanishing, from almost 6000 languages worldwide. Almost 10% of these languages are critically endangered. It is possible that almost 600 languages may become extinct in a single generation.

In the UK, there are 11 languages that are listed as vulnerable, and UNESCO registered 2 of these languages as extinct previously, but a resurgence and revitalisation has forced UNESCO to reconsider this classification.

Manx or Manx Gaelic is the native Gaelic derived language of the Isle of Man. This small British dependency is nestled between England and Ireland and has a modern day population of almost 85000 people. The last native speaker of Manx died in 1974 with a risk that the language might become lost.

Manx has similarities to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, as all are descendants from Primitive Irish. The language was first recorded in 4th century AD and during the Middle Ages, the English language started to become more popular and the percentage of native speakers began to decline. By the start of the 20th century, with less than 10% of the population claiming to be native speakers, The Manx Language Society was formed. Native Manx speakers would speak and educate younger members of the community. UNESCO registered the language as extinct in 2009, despite nearly 2% of the population having some degree of Manx language abilities.

“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere; learning Manx isn’t just about language it’s about history, learning about the places we live, understanding why things are done the way they are and most importantly a pride and identity of being part of the Isle of Man.

A stronger sense of culture and identity has since emerged from the Isle of Man, where Manx is now taught in schools, the government supports and encourages the public use of Manx and bilingual signage across the Island. Luckily the Manx language was well documented and audio recorded for future generations. Even the Bible translated into Manx during the 18th century. The Isle of Man is looking forward to celebrating its Manx revival in 2021 with Year of the Language.

‘The Manx language is indigenous to the Isle of Man and its very structure holds the story of our Island. Although it is small in terms of numbers of speakers, its impact on worldwide efforts to protect and promote the language is huge.’

The key elements that are being targeted by the Manx government is to provide and collate adequate resources, promote the language as part of the Manx identity, culture and history and promoting the use of the language in the home and for life.

Cornish is a Celtic derived language native to the county of Cornwall in South West England. Its origins are closely linked to Breton (Brittany) and Welsh languages and it is believed that when the Anglo-Saxon invasion resulted in the Celtic population being pushed out to Wales and English peninsula.

Cornish has been in use since the 9th century AD, which is the earliest documentation. The language started to flourish during the 13th to 17th century, but then the number of speakers declining. This age of Cornish resulted in many documents and texts being recorded, but without a Cornish alphabet or religious text the language started to decline westward, with speakers becoming fewer closer to mainland England.

The last native speaker of Cornish died in either 1777 or 1914. and is however this is disputed

‘There has never been a time when there has been no person in Cornwall without a knowledge of the Cornish language.’

The Cornish revival started at the beginning of the 20th century, with ‘The Handbook to Cornish Language’ being published. Without a standardised structure and the uptake of the language being passed through generations verbally, the focus of the revival was to provide resources for educational material. With dictionaries and formation of language boards and societies, and the sense of distinct cultural identity that reflects its unique history, Cornish is a revived language. The number of speakers that is slowly increasing, and is becoming more visible in Cornwall as local government and business are encouraged to make use of the language as part of revitalisation efforts

Guernsey French (Guernésiais) and Jersey French (Jèrriais) are the other two languages from the UK which are severely endangered. Guernésiais is a mixture French, English and Norse. Less than 3% of the population of Guernsey fluently speak or understand Guernésiais, but the majority of these people are over the age of 64. Jèrriais is closely linked to Norman and French with some similarities to Guernésiais, with 3% of the population speaking fluently in social interactions but again the majority of these speakers are elderly.

Both Manx and Cornish have been successfully recovered and encouraged through an appreciation of cultural pride and ethnic identity. With community support and government backing, the other UK vulnerable languages can be reclaimed and saved for future generations.

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