When I was a teenager in Cardiff, the family next door spoke Welsh, but most people around spoke English. When I went to babysit, the boys were in shock: how could this other person speak their home language too? They also thought I had fought off some pirates, but that’s another story…
Welsh and English are not struggling for survival at all, but after these two, the most spoken languages in England and Wales are Polish and Punjabi, according to the 2011 census. Indigenous minority languages are seriously threatened. Elsewhere in the British islands, Scottish and Irish Gaelic still get a lot of public support. Romani languages and Yiddish are spoken elsewhere, but three indigenous British languages are dying out.
The fabulous Endangered Languages Project collects data and samples of languages on the brink of extinction, in an effort to keep them going. The last native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell, died 40 years ago, but he was recorded 50 years ago and you can listen to him talking. He kept up his language skills by chatting to Scottish Gaelic speaking fishermen.
Another language spoken by sailors, sea queens, theatre and queer folk is Polari. Here’s an introduction to the language recorded on the streets of Soho. Polari began to die out as decriminalisation from 1967 meant there was less need for the protection of a secret gay language, but it pops up occasionally, for example in this Morrissey song.
Then there’s Cornish, which sounds a lot like Welsh, as it’s a very close relative. There are no fluent native speakers left, but people are learning it and trying to use it. Here’s Cornish bard Mick Paynter reading one of his poems, with a translation below.
Since people can lose their native language in all sorts of circumstances when they don’t use it, Ned, Morrissey and Mick seem to have had the right idea to stop language attrition: talk to your nearest neighbours, sing, write poetry. Or, like buying reusing and recycling to protect the natural environment, maybe we need to take more personal action? Here’s a phrase from each language to start you off:
How bona to varda your dolly old eek! – How good to see your dear old face! (Polari)
Comero weeth – take care (Cornish)
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin – Good health, a long life, a wet mouth, and death in Mann (Manx)