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Knowledge Base

Background

As the dominant industrial and maritime power of the 19th century, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland played a leading role in developing parliamentary democracy and in advancing literature and science. At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over one-fourth of the earth’s surface. The first half of the 20th century saw the UK’s strength seriously depleted in two World Wars and the Irish republic withdraw from the union. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous European nation. As one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a founding member of NATO, and of the Commonwealth, the UK pursues a global approach to foreign policy; it currently is weighing the degree of its integration with continental Europe. A member of the EU, it chose to remain outside the Economic and Monetary Union for the time being. Constitutional reform is also a significant issue in the UK. The Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly were established in 1999, but the latter was suspended until May 2007 due to wrangling over the peace process.

Location

Western Europe, islands including the northern one-sixth of the island of Ireland between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, northwest of France.

Climate

Temperate; moderated by prevailing southwest winds over the North Atlantic Current; more than one-half of the days are overcast.

Language

The main languages in the United Kingdom are English, Welsh (about 26% of the population of Wales), and Scottish form of Gaelic (about 60,000 in Scotland).

English Language

English is a West Germanic language which is the dominant language in the United Kingdom, the United States, many Commonwealth nations including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other former British colonies. It is the second most spoken language in the world. It is estimated that there are 380 million native speakers and 300 million who use English as a second language and a further 100 million use it as a foreign language. It is the language of science, aviation, computing, diplomacy, and tourism. It is listed as the official or co-official language of over 45 countries and is spoken extensively in other countries where it has no official status.

History of the English Language

English is an Anglo-Frisian language brought to Britain in the 5th Century AD by Germanic settlers from various parts of northwest Germany. The original Old English language was subsequently influenced by two successive waves of invasion. The first was by speakers of languages in the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic family, who colonised parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries. The second wave was of the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Norman (an oïl language closely related to French).

The history of the language can be traced back to the arrival of three Germanic tribes to the British Isles during the 5th Century AD. Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the North Sea from what is the present day Denmark and northern Germany. The inhabitants of Britain previously spoke a Celtic language. This was quickly displaced. Most of the Celtic speakers were pushed into Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. One group migrated to the Brittany Coast of France where their descendants still speak the Celtic Language of Breton today. The Angles were named from Engle, their land of origin. Their language was called “Englisc” from which the word, English derives.

It is convenient to divide English into periods—Old English (or Anglo-Saxon; to c.1150), Middle English (to c.1500), and Modern English.

Modern English

From the late 15th century, the language changed into Modern English, often dated from the Great Vowel Shift.

English is continuously assimilating foreign words, especially Latin and Greek, causing English to have the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. As there are many words from different languages the risk of mispronunciation is high, but remnants of the older forms remain in a few regional dialects, notably in the West Country.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson published the first significant English dictionary.

Welsh language

English is the day to day language for most Welsh people. Due to the efforts of many dedicated people the Welsh language still flourishes (and there is a Welsh language TV channel). The 1991 census gave a figure of 18.5 per cent Welsh speakers.

The historical context:

In the sixth century Welsh was spoken in most of Britain, including Strathclyde in Scotland, which is derived from its former Welsh name. Some shepherds in Cumbria were still counting their sheep in Welsh in the twentieth century.

Welsh was one of the earliest written languages in Europe.

The Fight to save the language:

Although the Welsh language is still spoken by people, the majority of people in Wales speak the English language. So with the majority of welsh people speaking English, the Welsh language was becoming very rare, this therefore provoked action to be taken to save the language so in 1922 Urdd Gobaith Cymru, today one of Europe’s largest children and youth movements, was established and they enforced welsh language lessons to take place so all children in Wales could learn the language. From then on many acts were passed which enforced the use of the Welsh language.

Irish language

The Irish language, also known as Irish Gaelic, or simply “Irish” in Ireland, is a member of the Goidelic group of the Celtic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. The language is categorised into three periods: Old Irish (7th–9th century A.D.), Middle Irish (10th–16th century), and Modern Irish (since the 16th century). (Lehman, An Introduction to Old Irish, 1975)

Irish and her sister languages, Welsh and Breton, are among the oldest living languages in Europe. There are written records of the language going back to the early Christian period.

The Celtic language we now know as Irish came to Ireland before 300 BC. The first evidence of writing in Irish can be found in the markings on commemorative Ogham stones. Ogham was a writing system consisting of notches or strokes on a stone. Only when Christianity was well established in the 5th Century did true literacy in Irish begin. Using Roman lettering, Irish monks wrote little poems or translations in the margins of manuscripts. Many of those manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, still exist to this very today. The coming of Christianity and, with it, Latin brought many new terms to Irish, especially those concerning literacy and religious life.

The Scottish language

Although Gaelic is the natural traditional language of Scotland it is not that widely spoken (not even the Scottish Parliament supports the language). Nowadays almost everyone in Scotland speaks English in one way or another but even so many strangers to the country would have trouble following it when spoken at its normal speed.

Although Scottish people speak English, the different dialects within Scotland make them have words specifically for that local area, which in some ways, when they create new words to describe something, they have created a new language (although it is based on English).

Interesting facts about the United Kingdom:

  • The full name of the United Kingdom is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
  • England exports manufactured goods, with beef being one of the main goods it exports. It exported over twenty five thousand tonnes of beef last year with countries like Italy, Greece, Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and France.
  • The Windsor castle is the oldest royal residence in the world still in use. It is also the largest. The world’s oldest public zoo was opened in London in 1828.
  • The longest river is the river Severn, which is 322 km long, and rises in central Wales and flows through Shrewsbury, Worcester and Gloucester in England to the Bristol Channel.
  • The Largest Lake is Lough Neagh which is 396sq.km (153 sq miles).
  • The Highest waterfall is Eas a’Chual Aluinn, from Glas Bheinn, in the Highlands of Scotland and has a drop of 200 m (660 ft).