Of the languages spoken in Ireland, English is the most used by far. However, Irish is the national language and is used as a second language throughout the country. Scots, Shelta, and Irish Sign Language are also used on the Emerald Isle.
Languages Spoken in Ireland: Statistics
The list below ranks speakers according to population size:
- English: 4.2 million speakers (2012 data). The majority of people in Ireland—population 4.6 million, according to 2014 data from The World Bank—speak English as a native language. But that doesn’t mean that the government gives it top billing: according to Article 8.2 of Ireland’s constitution, “The English language is recognised [sic] as a second official language.”
- Irish: 138,000 (2012 data). Though you may hear Irish called simply “Gaelic,” linguists call it Irish Gaelic because it is distinct from Scottish Gaelic. Ireland’s constitution provides that “the Irish language as the national language is the first official language.” The bit about “national language” is important. In fact, there is currently a strong push for children to learn Irish. It is taught in schools as an official language.
- Irish Sign Language: 21,000 (2014 data). There are several English sign languages; the accent is different in each and not all vocabulary is shared among them. For example, in Irish Sign Language, the sign for please is the letter P moved in a circular motion in front of the shoulder (see what it looks like here)—but in American Sign Language, a person signs please by putting his flat hand over his chest and moving it in a circular motion. What’s interesting about Irish Sign Language is that two different dialects arose from the fact that boys and girls used to be sent to separate schools. According to Ethnologue, however, these differences are now less pronounced.
- Scots: 10,000 (1999 data). Scots is more widely spoken in Scotland—no big surprise—than in Ireland. In fact, only about 10% of the world’s Scots speakers live in Ireland.
- Shelta: 6,000. Also known as Gammon (by native speakers) and the Cant, Shelta is a cryptolect. Speakers use a cryptolect to prevent others from knowing what they’re saying. See how Shelta is written and how it compares to English and Irish.
Note that the above list includes only those languages spoken in Ireland for which there is a significant number of resident native speakers. (You can certainly find French ex-pats in Dublin, for example, but they would not be counted in lists such as the above.)
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