British languages could be part of cultural loss on ‘a massive scale‘

UNESCO-led initiative aims to help the 30 per cent of the world's indigenous tongues under threat, with Scottish and Irish Gaelic and Manx amongst them.

By Dominic Bliss
Published 13 May 2019, 10:10 BST
The annual Montol festival in Penzance celebrates traditional Cornish culture every December. While Cornish is celebrated ...
The annual Montol festival in Penzance celebrates traditional Cornish culture every December. While Cornish is celebrated as a language today, the last native speaker – that is to say, someone who used a language as their primary means of conversing – died over 200 years ago.
Photograph by Meibion, Alamy

On a churchyard wall on the outskirts of Penzance, in Cornwall, there is a short obelisk-shaped monument to an 18thCentury fishwife called Dolly Pentreath. “Said to have been the last person who conversed in the ancient Cornish, the regular language of this county,” reads the inscription. 

Most scholars agree that Dolly was indeed the last native speaker of Cornish as a first language. She claimed, herself, to have reached the age of 20 before she could speak even a word of English. After she died in 1777, her native tongue gradually waned, eventually expiring altogether around a hundred years later – although there have been recent efforts to revive it.

Cornish is just one of thousands of languages that have died out over the last few centuries. According to UNESCO there are currently around 6,700 languages spoken worldwide, depending on whether you classify some as languages or dialects. 57 per cent of them, including mega-languages such as English, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic are in fine fettle, boasting millions of native speakers. Ten per cent, such as Belarusian, Maori, Chechen, Basque and our own Welsh, are considered vulnerable. A further 30 per cent or so, including Scottish Gaelic, are classified as endangered. 

Some have so few speakers that they teeter on the very edge of extinction: isolated or tribal tongues such as Copper Island Aleut (from a tiny island in the Bering Strait), Jamindjung (an aboriginal language of Australia’s Northern Territory), Chulym (spoken along Siberia’s Chulym River) or Alabat Island Agta (from the Philippine archipelago).

A sculpture commemorating the Highland Clearances in Sutherland, Scotland. The Clearances – evictions from rural areas by landowners to make pasture for sheep – forced the migration of tens of thousands of Gaelic speakers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from Scotland, with similar migrations forced in Ireland. Many of their destinations – such as Nova Scotia – maintain a background of Gaelic culture to this day.
Photograph by David Lyons, Alamy

The exact rate of language extinction is unknown, with some estimates suggesting as many as two perish every month, others one every three months. Either way, the loss is rapid. Some warn that 3,000 languages may be lost forever by the end of this century. 

In an effort to stop the rot, 2019 has been declared as the International Year of Indigenous Languages by the UN, in the hope this will “preserve, revitalise and promote them, and improve the lives of those who speak them”.

UNESCO is leading the project, and working on it from its headquarters in Paris is Irmgarda Kasinskaite-Buddeberg. “When a language disappears, we lose part of our humanity,” she says, explaining why it’s crucial to safeguard this “intangible heritage”. “We lose the opportunity to think in a certain way; to see the world in a certain way; and to contribute to the world in a certain way.”

In its action plan for International Year of Indigenous Languages, UNESCO spells out why languages are so important for people and the planet. History, traditional knowledge, human rights, sustainable development, good governance, peace and reconciliation, freedom of thought, access to education and employment… all these and more depend on people being able to communicate in their native tongues. 

Kasinskaite-Buddeberg cites the example of recent negotiations between the government of Colombia and the FARC guerrilla movement where translations of documents into indigenous languages helped smooth the path to peace. Or farming communities in Africa, where the economy has thrived thanks to farmers verifying crop prices in their tribal tongues.

The ny tree cassyn ("the three legs") triskelion is synonymous with Manx culture on the Isle of Man.

“A saying among old Manx speakers was “Cha jean oo cosney ping lesh y Ghailck”, meaning: “You will not earn a penny with Manx.””

David Crystal is author of the 2002 book Language Death and honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. He warns that what we are currently experiencing is “language extinction on a massive scale”.

“Is language death such a disaster?” he asks rhetorically. “Surely, you might say, it is simply a symptom of more people striving to improve their lives by joining the modern world. So long as a few hundred or even a couple of thousand languages survive, that is sufficient. No, it is not. We should care about dying languages for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet.”

While Crystal laments the death of little-spoken indigenous languages in Africa, the Americas and the Pacific, he remains fairly optimistic about the indigenous Celtic languages of the British Isles. Some of them, at least. 

And with good reason. Welsh, for example, which he knows well since he himself lives in North Wales, claims more than 560,000 speakers. In fact, alongside English, it is the only other language in the UK that enjoys official status.

“Welsh has thrived because of the intense activism of the 1970s and the political will to protect it in the form of Language Acts,” Crystal says. “The evidence of Welsh is everywhere in street signs, a Welsh TV channel etc, and the numbers of speakers are slowly growing.”

Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, with an estimated 74,000 and 57,000 habitual speakers respectively, are less successful and have been pushed to less populated, western regions of Ireland and Scotland. The public bodies Foras na Gaeilge (across the whole of Ireland) and Bord na Gaidhlig (in Scotland) are charged with promoting their languages, which – despite being aesthetically visible, and enjoying some local successes – are less spoken overall.

A post office sign in Manx, Isle of Man.
Photograph by david a eastley, Alamy
Bilingual road signs in Donegal, Ireland.
Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, is one of several institutions dedicated to the preservation of indigenous languages.

“Irish is trying hard after many decades of complacency, but is very low in number of speakers.” Crystal says. “The assumption that because Gaelic was taught in school, everyone would use it later, proved not to be the case. Scottish Gaelic is even further behind.”

The other languages native to the British Isles (Since English arrived much later with the Anglo-Saxons, you might consider it a gate-crasher) are Manx and Cornish, both of which have enjoyed revivals in recent decades, helped by the Manx Heritage Foundation and the Cornish Language Office respectively. While Cornish has been hampered by the existence of rival spelling systems and has fewer than 500 speakers, Manx has been much more successful. 

Its last native speaker, a fisherman called Ned Maddrell, died in 1974. Since then revival efforts have included street signage, radio broadcasts, folk bands, novels and even a bilingual primary school called Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, in St. Johns, at the centre of the island. 

Established in 2001, it has just under 70 pupils, and conducts all its classes (except English) in the Manx language. The school has played a major role in growing the number of second-language Manx speakers: currently around 1,800 and growing.

“Learning Manx is a way to understand the culture of the Isle of Man at a deeper level,” says head teacher Julie Matthews. “It gives the learner a greater empathy towards other people from other cultures with their own languages.”

The Manx Heritage Foundation (or Culture Vannin) has embarked on a five-year plan to promote its indigenous tongue, insisting it’s one of the island's most important cultural assets and a shining example for other endangered languages.

“As a result of well-organised community initiatives coupled with targeted Isle of Man government support, the language has seen an upsurge of interest in recent years,” says the strategy document. “Manx is available for all ages to enjoy, within nurseries, schools, adult classes and the wider community. It is also a unique identifier for the business community and for the Isle of Man as a whole.”

Some of Britain’s other Celtic languages have been less fortunate. Cumbric, similar to Old Welsh, was spoken during the early Middle Ages across northern England and southern Scotland, but died out in the 12thCentury. Further north, in eastern and northern Scotland, was Pictish, the language of the Picts, which died out around 1100.

Languages wither for a variety of reasons. Natural disasters, war or genocide might sign their death warrant. People migrate from rural areas to urban areas, forgetting their native tongues in the process, as happened all over Britain during the Industrial Revolution. Minority communities become linguistically assimilated by more dominant languages, as happened in Cornwall and on the Isle of Man. Languages are outlawed or banished with changes in land use, as befell Scottish Gaelic during the Highland Clearances. And as empires grow, indigenous languages are vanquished by those of the ruling classes, as happened with Henry VIII’s Laws in Wales Act 1535 – which effectively banned the use of Welsh – Indeed, school children in Wales were regularly beaten for speaking their native tongue, even as late as the 1940s. Similar stories emerge from Scotland following the Jacobite Rebellion and the subsequent Highland Clearances, when the speaking and teaching of Scottish Gaelic was marginalised.

Carmarthenshire in South Wales has the highest population of Welsh speakers, closely followed by Gwynedd in the north. Welsh has enjoyed a resurgence in recent decades and is still spoken as a first language in many Welsh towns and villages.
Photograph by Adam Burton, Alamy

“We should care about dying languages for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet.”

David Crystal

Christopher Moseley is editor of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. He explains how all these factors eventually result in one generation failing to pass on its language to the next. 

“The motivation to take pride in your language must be kept up,” he insists. “So many people in the world are ashamed of their language because economically it doesn't empower them. Members of their family might move to big cities where their language isn’t spoken; where it makes them feel unsuccessful if they speak it.”

Manx is a good example. A saying among old Manx speakers was “Cha jean oo cosney ping lesh y Ghailck”, meaning: “You will not earn a penny with Manx.”

According to Moseley, the problem for the UK’s Celtic languages is that they have to compete with languages spoken by more recent immigrants. Indeed, if you walk the streets of Cardiff, Edinburgh or Belfast, you are far more likely to hear Polish, French, Spanish, Urdu, Punjabi or Gujarati than you are Welsh, Scottish Gaelic or Irish.

He says Britain’s devolved governments have made substantial differences, especially when it comes to funding language education. But so far it hasn’t been enough to elevate Celtic language into truly mainstream culture.

“There are always going to be people who look on these languages with amused tolerance rather than involvement,” he says. “Rather like museum pieces.” He fears that, without more funding, Britain’s indigenous languages are going to die out just like Dolly Pentreath’s Cornish in the 18thCentury.

“And whenever a language dies, a unique way of looking at the world is lost.”




Gallery: an island generation caught between past and present


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