"Official English" in the UK?

Don Osborn dzo at bisharat.net
Tue Apr 3 19:28:43 UTC 2007

Thanks for this clarification.

Wikipedia has its shortcomings, but it is correctable. I have wondered about
the potential for getting students involved in critically reviewing,
rewriting, or drafting from scratch articles on Wikipedia. In the one chance
I've had to encourage that, it was not easy to set up (too narrow a course
topic, and some other issues).

Part of the problem also seems to be a fuzzy definition of what constitutes
"official language." One would be tempted to ban the term from academic
discussion (I'll stick my neck out here). What makes a language "official"?
Including it in an article of a constitution is the most obvious way, though
what that means in actual practice is another matter. A constitutional
provision might be more symbolic than anything else. 

Passing a law is something else, but there too, what exactly is called for
and how is it enforced? In the absence of explicit mention of "official
language" in a constitution or a law, is there then "no official language"?

Statutes that prescribe the use of a particular language in legislature or
governance or the legal system are more specific and actionable, and seem to
be interpreted as making the language(s) so mentioned "official." Some
countries have this but no broad declaration re "official language."


Then there are those countries for which one can effectively say that there
is a "de facto" official language without the subject ever being put into
any law. Even there, though, the term "official language" by itself doesn't
define specific actions or behavior.

So in a way the current problems with Wikipedia's treatment of "official
language" in the UK, or for that matter in the article on the subject of
"official language," may simply be a reflection the vagueness of the popular
discourse (which in turn seems to be fueled in some cases by the
politicization of the topic).

In the case of UK (and EU) law, it seems that some thought has gone into
tying the "level" of official status to particular uses at those levels.

I'll post something else on this in a moment.

Don Osborn

-----Original Message-----
From: owner-lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
[mailto:owner-lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu] On Behalf Of Anthea Fraser
Sent: Monday, April 02, 2007 6:25 AM
To: lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Subject: RE: "Official English" in the UK?

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
9>, 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
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

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

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

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


*     *     *     *     *
Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT
NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at leeds.ac.uk
*     *     *     *     *

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