"Official English" in the UK?

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at leeds.ac.uk
Mon Apr 2 10:24:55 UTC 2007

As so often, Wikipedia isn't quite right.... Let's not perpetuate this myth that the UK does not have an official language.

The UK does have official languages both at EU and national level. 

I give you the official 'guide to government'. The section on language is <http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Gtgl1/GuideToGovernment/AboutBritain/DG_10012519>, and it begins: "English is the official language of the United Kingdom." It goes on to explain the role of the other regionally official languages, Cornish, Gaelic, and Welsh.

Have a look too at the EU website: <http://europa.eu/languages/en/home>:
 "The European Union has 27 Member States and 23 official languages. Each Member State, when it joins the Union, stipulates which language or languages it wants to have declared official languages of the EU."

UK is represented by English. 

Within the EU, countries designate other languages as 'regional and minority languages', so creating a second level of officialness: UK designates Cornish, Gaelic, Irish and Welsh. I have written a paper on the politics of this:
Gupta, Anthea Fraser. 2002. Privileging indigeneity. In John M Kirk & Dónall O Ó Baioll (eds.) Language Planning and Education: Linguistic Issues in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 290-299. [ISBN 0-85389-835-9] <http://www.leeds.ac.uk/english/staff/afg/belfast.doc> [Preprint]

People who want to become British citizens have to be tested on their skills in any one of English, (Scottish) Gaelic, or Welsh (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library/documents6/eid_ach_gisf_1.htm, http://www.opsi.gov.uk/SI/em2005/uksiem_20052785_en.pdf).

In addition, there are mandatory and permitted languages to be mediums of education in state schools. In England state education must be in the medium of English. In Wales it can be either in Welsh or English or both (and both must be studied by all children). In Scotland and Northern Ireland it can be in English or Gaelic or both and in Northern Ireland in English and Irish or both.

Finally, the three Parliaments of the UK (Westminster, Cardiff, and Edinburgh) designate specific languages as official, with English at Westminster, English and Welsh in Cardiff, and English, Gaelic and Scots in Edinburgh. There are also policies on public signage and place names that recognise officalness.

Note from all this that there is a pecking order: English is the most official, and Welsh and Gaelic are more official than Irish, Scots, and Cornish.

There is also, by the way, a languages strategy for 'foreign languages': <http://www.dfes.gov.uk/languages/> -- not all of them are equal.


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Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT <www.leeds.ac.uk/english/staff/afg>
NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at leeds.ac.uk
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