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The Indigenous Minority Languages of the British Isles and Ireland (BIMLs) in question consist of the following:
Ulster Scots (Ullans)
Along with most of the other major languages of Europe, these languages all belong to the Indo-European language family. However, they belong to different sub-branches of Indo-European.
Cornish, Scottish Gaelic,
Irish, Manx and Welsh belong to the Celtic branch of Indo-European.
Celtic, in turn, divides into two distinct subgroups: P-Celtic (or
Brythonic) and Q-Celtic (or Goidelic). Cornish
and Welsh are P-Celtic languages, whilst Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx are
Q-Celtic languages. The names for the two
subgroups arise from the reflexes of the Proto-Indo-European *qw. In
P-Celtic this became a bilabial stop (/p/), whilst in Q-Celtic it became a velar
stop (/k/): compare the word for ‘four’ in Welsh (pedwar) and
Scottish Gaelic (ceithir), both descended from Proto-Indo-European *qwwetwor.
There also exists a further
P-Celtic language, Breton, which is spoken in north-western France. As this is
not indigenous to the British Isles, it does not fall within the scope of our
project. For the same reason the Channel Island languages Jeriaise and Guernsiaise are not included. However, we would welcome contact with
scholars and commercial language engineers working on these languages.
In contrast, the two
varieties of Scots are not Celtic languages, but belong instead to the Germanic
branch of Indo-European. Although they
are very closely related to some dialects of English, they are recognized as
Welsh is widely used
in all sectors of life in Wales and has joint official status in the
Principality. Although only 18.7% of the total population consider themselves to
be Welsh-speaking (1991 Census figures), this figure rises to 43.7% in Dyfed and
61% in Gwynedd. Welsh is a compulsory
subject in the national curriculum in Wales. Furthermore,
as a consequence of the Welsh
Language Act 1993, the public sector must offer its services bilingually in
Wales. The use of Welsh in the public
sector also extends to central (UK) government departments, and it is similarly
widely used both by companies and by other bodies in the private sector.
Irish and Ullans
have both been given increased recognition in Northern Ireland under the
Northern Ireland Agreement, and the Northern
Ireland Executive has pledged to promote them.
Official bodies – the Irish
Language Agency and the Ulster
Scots Agency – have been set up to help in this process.
According to the 1991 Census,
only 1.4% of the population are speakers of Scottish Gaelic, although
this figure will be rather higher regionally since almost all Gaelic speakers
live in the highlands and western islands. Following
devolution the Scottish
Executive has given considerable priority and funding to maintaining and
encouraging the use of Gaelic. For
instance, the report of the Executive’s Gaelic Taskforce (Gaelic:
Revitalising Gaelic as a National Asset) states that “as a foundation
stone in the building of the new Scotland, the Gaelic language will be an
integral and dynamic component of a robust and self-assured community with
economic and social stability and pride in its linguistic and cultural
Both Manx and Cornish have undergone revival, and there are now once again some native speakers who are bilingual in these languages and English.
In terms of direct transmission, the last native speaker of Cornish died
in the 18th century and the last native speaker of Manx in 1974.
The use of Manx is receiving substantial support from the Isle of Man government
and it is being taught again in schools. Cornish,
at present, has no such public-sector support, although there is a strong
pressure group (Agan Tavas) seeking to
acquire this: its web-site states that the “lack of Cornish language
facilities and support is no longer just a language issue, but is rapidly
becoming a civil rights and political issue too”.
Related to Scots is Shetlandic, not covered by the LER-BIML
project. Shetlandic is considered by Shetlanders to be distinct from Scots and indeed shows independent evidence of influence from a now dead Nordic language, Norn, previously spoken in Shetland. This is especially evident in the
vocabulary. John Tait's article Shetlandic, Scots and Norn - the origins of Shetlandic discusses
the issues. Also related to Shetlandic and Scots is the dialect of Orkney.