English may be the third most common language in the world in terms of native speakers, but other British languages aren’t faring nearly as well. In fact, the Telegraph reports that Cambridge University has just put together a database that includes 20 British languages that are either endangered or believed to be extinct. Some evolved here, some were brought here, but all once had active, vibrant communities in the UK.
Here’s a little bit about some of the endangered/extinct languages on the list that are native to the UK:
Old Kentish Sign Language: Now extinct, this was a type of sign language once used in Kent. In some communities in Kent, many children were born deaf, and this sign language let them communicate with hearing friends and family.
Polari: Derived from elements of English, Italian, Romani and other languages, this was a code language spoken by circus and carnival performers, and by homosexuals at a time when homosexual relationships carried stiff legal penalties. When gay relationships became legal, there was no longer a need to use it. Plus, mainstream exposure ensured that it no longer served its purpose as a secret language.
Cornish: In the 18th century, Cornish died out completely. However, it has since been revived and now there are at least 2,000 people who speak Cornish fluently. It is still classified as “critically endangered.”
Guernsey French: Also called Guernésiais, Guernsey French is spoken by about 1,327 people on the island of Guernsey.
Classical Gaelic: Used in Ireland and Scotland, this language died out in the 18th century, when it was replaced by modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic.
Scottish Gaelic: The language of the highlands, Scottish Gaelic originated in Scotland as a dialect of Classical Gaelic. Approximately 58,552 people can speak some Scottish Gaelic. Scottish Gaelic use is declining and it is classified as “Definitely Endangered.”
Welsh: Although Welsh is classified as “vulnerable,” use of the language is actually growing according to a 2004 survey by the Welsh language board.
Manx: The last native speaker of Manx died in 1974; however, due to efforts to revive the language there are about 100 people on the Isle of Mann who have become fluent in it. Some of these Manx speakers have chosen to raise their children in Manx, so it just might be possible that reports of its demise have been exaggerated.
Irish: As of 1983, 391,470 people were fluent in Irish. However, despite a strong effort to revive the language, it is still listed as “Definitely Endangered.”
Norn: A Norse dialect once spoken on Orkney and Shetland, Norn has been extinct since the 18th century.
Alderney French: The Auregnais dialect died out in the middle of the 20th century. It lives on in the memories of 2 residents on the island of Alderney and in place names on the island.
Scots: Scots, the language of lowland Scotland, is closely related to (some would even say a dialect of) English. It has anywhere from 200,000 to 1.5 million speakers and is listed in the Cambridge database as “vulnerable.”
Welsh Romani: This Welsh-influenced variant of the Romani language was originally spoken by the Kale group of Romani who settled in Wales in the 15th century. It is probably extinct as a native language.
Jersey French: Although efforts are being made to revive the language, Jèrriais, spoken on the island of Jersey, is down to 2,874 speakers.