Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A List of the Ancient Languages of the British Isles

We begin today's post not in the tomes of linguistics, but in the history of economics. We take a step back to over 150 years ago when, in 1846, the British parliament repealled the corn laws. The corn laws established pricely tariffs on corn imports from cheaper foreign sources, and were significant barriers to trade. British citizens had to purchase corn from more expensive domestic sources. But why would the crown impose such a heavy burden upon its own subjects?

In truth, the corn laws were the product of the economics of the Late Middle Ages, when wealth was conceived as a limited thing. If you get a dollar that means your enemy did not get that dollar. The theory is fundamentally flawed. Why define wealth as a limited quantity and why define it solely as money/gold? Wealth can be dollars, sailboats, and sheep, and just because I bake 10 loaves of bread does not mean my enemy magically does not get 10 loaves. Fabrication of goods creates an absolutely greater quantity of wealth in the world where everyone wins.

The repeal of the corn laws signalled the end of the antiquated philosophy of wealth in Britain and the start of economic liberalism. Economic liberalism viewed the market as driven by supply and demand, and looked favorably upon trade for goods and services. Generally speaking, barriers like taxes on trading goods and services harm a nation, not help it. When you force Britons to spend more on corn in order to keep your money within the British empire, you are wasting productivity - which ultimately costs you more wealth than you saved. When you calculate wealth as more than just money, it's clear that the corn laws forced Britons to spend time growing corn when they could be making products they had a comparative advantage over other nations. 

The repeal of the corn laws also began a new era of immigration for Britain. Limiting the movement of incoming and outgoing workers tended to impede the production of goods. With the rise of immigration and the movement of laborers, however, we see the end of British languages and dialects. Many regional speeches of the British Isles were replaced with standardized speech. We also see the number of Celtic-language speakers drop like a brick in the 19th century.

Today's post addresses the languages of Britain before the 19th century (meaning we include Ireland). There were many of them, but I have never seen a full list in a single place. This list may not be exhaustive. There is no single source for all the historical languages in one place, and compiling the first of such lists risks incompletion. But without further ado, let's begin in chronological order:

Pre-Irish: The language of Ireland before the Celtic invasion. We have fragments of their forgotten tongue in the loanwords and toponyms of the Irish Gaeilghe

The Insular Celtic Languages: Celtic tribes moved into the British Isles some time after 2000 BCE. Their languages became
  • Common Brittonic: An ancient form of Celtic, it was spoken in England and Wales during the Roman Empire. As all languages will do, given time and geographic separation, Common Brittonic split up into Welsh, Cumbric, and possibly Pictish. It is better to think of Common Brittonic as an ancestral version of those languages, not as completely distinct, much like Latin is the ancestral version of the Spanish, Italian, and French languages.
    • Welsh: Spoken in Wales. Very much alive but not thriving.
    • Cumbric: Spoken in southern Scotland and Cumberland and related to Welsh. Extinct by the 1100s. 
    • Pictish (?): Controversial status as a Celtic language. The Picts were one of the chief reasons for Hadrian's Wall. Pictish was probably Celtic, but sparse records makes the job difficult. Spoken mostly in Scotland and possibly northernmost England. It would have been replaced by English, Scots, and Scottish.
    • Kaale: Spoken in Wales by the local gypsys, it was a divergent form of Welsh with heavy influences from Romani, but has since gone extinct.
  • Irish: The language of Ireland. Ancient Irishmen also settled Scotland at an early date and their speech became...
  • Scottish Gaelic: Spoken in Scotland. Scottish and Irish are closely related to each other, but distantly related to Welsh.
  • Cornish: Spoken in Cornwall, England, by about 600 - 3000 speakers.
  • Manx: Spoken in the Isle of Man. A close cousin of Irish and Scottish. Near-dead by the 20th century, there are about 100 native speakers left.
  • Shelta: Spoken in Ireland by roughly 86,000. Its foundation is the Irish language with heavy influence from an unknown source.
  • Beurla-reagaird: Like Kaale, it is a gypsy language. Its foundation is Irish with heavy influence from Romani. Extinct or near-extinct.
The West Germanic Languages: Germanic tribes invaded the British Isles beginning in 450 CE and immediately began displacing and replacing the local Celtic languages. At this juncture, Pre-Irish had been fully eradicated by Irish. The largest of the tribes to arrive were the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons. They spoke dialectical forms of a very late West Germanic tongue we somtimes call Anglo-Frisian. The Anglo-Frisian dialect in Britain evolved over time. It became
  • English: Need one say more?
  • Yola: Spoken in Ireland until the 19th century. Now extinct.
  • Fingalian: English and Fingalian diverged at a late date sometime after the Norman invasion, thus it was closely related. Spoken in Ireland. Extinct by the 19th century.
  • Scots: About 1.6 million speakers, including 100,000 native speakers. Spoken mostly in the lowlands of Scotland. 
Norn: After the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons came and formed the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings began to pillage and settle Scotland, Ireland, and northern England. Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, which spoke a West Germanic language, the Vikings spoke a North Germanic language (both North and West Germanic had split thousands of years prior). The Scottish Isles were so thoroughly conquered that their tongues were replaced by a Viking language, which became Norn. It was closest to Norwegian and Icelandic. Norn was replaced by Scots, Scottish, and English after the 15th century. Extinct.

The Romance Languages: Following the Norman invasion, Latin-based languages began to heavily influence England through the court. The royal elite spoke what the King and Queen spoke, which were, mainly, Romance languages until the 15th century. They were
  • Anglo-Norman: When the Normans conquered England, the Normans spoke a variety of Norman that was heavily influenced by French dialects like Picardy. Norman itself is closely related to French. The result was a unique amalgam.
  • Norman: Within the United Kingdom it survives on Alderney island, part of Guernsey, and on Sark.
  • Sercquiais: Thanks to tax loopholes, the English wealthy have all but demolished this language through migration and displacement. It is spoken on the isle of Sark by about 15 people. 
  • French: Gradually replaced Anglo-Norman due to France's shift of power to Paris, which spoke Parisian French.
  • Occitan: Briefly spoken in England thanks to the influence of Edward the Black Prince, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and others. It is distantly related to French and Anglo-Norman and is closer in heritage to Catalan. It is now an endangered language, spoken in France and Spain.
  • Guernesiais: A variant of the Norman language that survived on the island of Guernsey. About 1,000 speakers left and almost all are over the age of 65. Destined to die within 40 years, I reckon, unless there is a fundamental shift in the culture.
  • Alderney: Spoken in Alderney, part of the Guernsey islands. Last speaker died in 1960. 
Yiddish: A West Germanic language with heavy influence from Hebrew. It arrove significantly later than the Anglo-Saxon invasion, with the influx of Jewish immigrants. The number of speakers is in significant decline with the return of Hebrew and the influence of national languages. 

Anglo-Romani: The language of the Gypsies, who left India some time after 1000 CE and arrived in Western Europe sometime in the 16th century, was Romani. The version of Romani spoken in England became Anglo-Romani. Number of speakers is unknown.

Thus concludes the list. We began at a vague date, some time after 2000 BCE with Pre-Irish, and ended with the introduction of Anglo-Romani in the 1500s CE. I count 24 languages of the United Kingdom and Ireland, not counting Common Brittonic. There are 11 or 12 languages no longer spoken in the British Isles, depending if a speaker of Beurla-reagaird is discovered; of them, six or seven are extinct, again with the possible exception of Beurla-reagaird.

This list also underlines the need for language preservation efforts and a change in language attitudes. The language of Guernesiais, for example, has a robust number of speakers, but only 0.1% of the Guernsey young know the language. Thus, it is nearly moribund, destined to die with the elderly. According to the United Nation's World's Languages in Danger project, many of the above languages are threatened by extinction in the next 100 years.

Not in Danger: English, French, Occitan, Norman
Vulnerable: Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Welsh
Endangered: Romani, Irish, Yiddish
Endangered, Severely: Guernesiais, Guernsey Norman
Endangered, Critically: Manx
Unclassified: Cornish, Sercquiais, Shelta

 Thank you for the adventure. I had a lot of fun compiling the list.


  1. G'day Patrick, and thanks for a most interesting article. I have a similar love of language... and history. Please feel free to check out my YouTube channel, search for Theseustoo Astyages... Don't forget to leave a comment to say "G'day!" when you visit, and please subscribe if you enjoy what you find. Ciao for now... :)

  2. Let me clarify, was there any actual 'Writing' letters or symbols between 100bc and 10BC that was proto-brythonic, insular brittonic, and/or common brittonic?