Languages in the UK
English is spoken throughout the United Kingdom, although there are parts of major cities where immigration has led to a variety of languages being spoken as well. English spoken in the UK has several dialects, some of which may contain words which are unfamiliar to other English speakers. It is exceedingly common for a resident of the south and one of Yorkshire not to understand each other at first go, do not be afraid to ask someone to repeat themselves. Your best bet would be to ask someone under the age of 30 as generally elderly people have thick unintelligible accents. A trained ear can also distinguish the English spoken by someone from Northern Ireland as opposed to someone from the Republic of Ireland, or even pinpoint their origin to a particular town within a county, such as Leeds or Whitby. English in Scotland and Northern Ireland can be spoken quite fast. The different dialects can be extremely different in both pronounciation and vocabulary. If you encounter difficulty please remember that this is still English and offence might be taken if you ask someone to speak English, instead they should be asked to speak slower.
Welsh is also widely spoken in Wales, particularly in North and West Wales. The number of Welsh speakers has risen over the last few years partley due to promtion in schools, but this bilingual population is still only around 30% of the total population of Wales. Government bodies whose area of responsibility covers Wales use bilingual documentation (English and Welsh) - for example, see the website of the Swansea-based DVLA. Road signs in Wales are bilingual. Even the non-Welsh-speaking majority in Wales know how to pronounce Welsh place names. Once you hear how to pronounce a name, have a go and try not to offend!
Scottish Gaelic can be heard in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, but there are only 60,000 native speakers.
The ancient Cornish language of Cornwall, in the far south west, was revived during the twentieth century, but it is not passed down from parent to child as Welsh and Gaelic still are. Be aware, however, that Cornish place names remain and can be rather challenging to pronounce for non-locals!
Irish is spoken in some areas of Northern Ireland, particularly in the border regions.
Many in Scotland claim Scots to be an entirely different language to English, it is what people commonly speak in much of Scotland and to some extent Northern Ireland. In northern England similar dialects can also be heard, such as Geordie. It can be difficult to understand, so feel free to ask someone to repeat themselves or speak more slowly. Speakers are likely to use standard English with outsiders.
All speakers of these minority languages are fluent to near-fluent in standard English but react well if you show an interest in their native tongue and culture. Inter-migration in the United Kingdom means you are likely to encounter people from all over the UK and beyond no matter where you visit. It is rare to find a place where all adults have the same accent or dialect.
There's an old joke that the people of the US and the UK are "divided by a common language", and travellers from English-speaking countries outside the UK may have difficulty catching specific words where regional accents are strong, but still there should not be any major difficulties in communicating. The British are good at understanding English spoken in a foreign accent, and visitors who speak English as a second language need not fear making mistakes. You may just get a slightly blank look for a few seconds after the end of a sentence while they 'decode' it internally. Most British people will not criticise or correct your language, although some are very keen to promote British usages over American ones when talking to non-native-speakers.
A few examples of words that overseas visitors may not be familiar with:
- Wee - small (Scotland, Northern Ireland, some English people), can also mean to relieve yourself (England)
- Loch - lake (Scotland)
- Lough - lake (Northern Ireland)
- Aye - yes (some parts of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and North England)
- Poke - ice cream served in a wafer cone (Northern Ireland); a paper bag, especially one containing chips or sweets (Scotland)
- Downing Street - used to refer to the Government (similar to White House referring to the President of the United States)
- Cymru (pronounced 'Cum-ree') - Wales (Wales)
- Cockney rhyming slang is not a language but a collection of terms, some local and temporary, others so long-lasting that they are used by many people who don't realise that they are rhyming slang. Example of the latter: "raspberry" for the derisive noise called "Bronx cheer" in the US - derived from "raspberry tart", rhyming with "fart".
British people have historically been very tolerant of swearing, when used in context. It is considered far less shocking to say taboo words like "Cunt" or "twat" compared to in America, and can even be a term of endearment depending on the situation. Tourists should get used to hearing the word "mate" (and "boss or "bruv" to a lesser extent in London) a lot which is used in informal interaction (frequently male only) between strangers and friends alike, and is something similar to calling someone "buddy" or "pal". The use of affectionate terms between the sexes such as "darling", "love" or "sweetheart" is common between strangers and is not meant in a sexist or patronising manner. Furthermore, British people are prone to apologising for even the smallest things, much to the amusement of some and can be considered perhaps rude to not do so. An example such as bumping into you will warrant a "sorry" and is really more like "pardon" or "excuse me".
British Sign Language , or BSL, is the UK's primary sign language. When interpreters are present for public events, they will use BSL. In Northern Ireland, both BSL and Irish Sign Language (ISL) see use, and a Northern Ireland Sign Language, or NISL, is emerging from contact between the two. Users of Auslan or New Zealand Sign Language may understand BSL, as those languages were derived from BSL and share much vocabulary, as well as the same two-handed manual alphabet. On the other hand, users of French Sign language and related languages—notably ISL and American Sign Language—will not be able to understand BSL, as they differ markedly in syntax and vocabulary, and also use a one-handed manual alphabet.
"Two Countries Divided by a Common Language"
Speakers of US English will find quite a few terms which differ in UK English:
- Biscuits - cookies
- Cash machine/cash point - ATM
- Cinema - movie theatre
- Chips - fries, which may be "french fries" or thick-cut traditional British chips
- Crisps - potato chips
- Fag - cigarette (only used colloquially)
- Lift - elevator in building; the offer of a ride in car
- Lorry - truck
- Motorway - expressway or freeway
- Nappy - diaper
- Queue - line
- Return ticket - round-trip ticket
- Take-away (in ordering food) - to-go
- Toilet or Loo - washroom/restroom/bathroom/lavatory (a bathroom is where you have a bath/shower, not where you relieve yourself in British English)
- Torch - flashlight
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