Kernow a’gas dynnergh: The Tale of Cornish

Posted on 10 June 2011


Last month I spent a really fantastic week in the UK’s most south-westerly county – Cornwall.

It’s a really special corner of the country – and has bags of history, much of it with little or no connection with its neighbour.

Cornish pasties, scones with jam and (then) clotted cream, fish ’n chips, the Eden Project, Lanhydrock Estate, Bodmin Moor, the Pirates of Penzance – the lot.

It has gone through waves of cultural revolutions – and at one point, although there exists little by way of testimony to it today, it is believe that a large proportion of the people living here spoke Cornish – and there were some people who just spoke it – so-called monoglot Cornish speakers.

So they say, anyway.

Now – if you take the globe and slice down from Western Scotland – you cut through Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and finally you reach down to Galicia – in northern Spain.

These areas all have common cultural heritages – and, of course, I’m most interested in the linguist thread that runs through these areas.

Cornish, Welsh and Breton (the language spoken in French Brittany – known as Bretagne in French, with the UK being known as “Big Brittany” – Grande Bretagne) form one branch of the Celtic language group – which comes ultimately from the Indo-European phylum (meaning ‘family’ – you remember that word from biology classes?).

Cornish, Welsh and Breton form the Brythonic Celtic languages (the title comes from the Welsh word Brython, indigenously Briton as opposed to an Anglo-Saxon or Gael).

Cornish back then

Until the 1700s, Cornish was still being used by small communities in south-west England. There are even tales of people for whom Cornish was their native language (L1) – and English was very much a secondary language (L2), something they had to know the basics of to function if they left the confines of the Cornish-speaking parts of Cornwall.

Unlike Welsh and Breton, however, Cornish died out as a native, L1 language.

Dolly Pentreath was probably the last native speaker of Cornish

There are people who believe a few people carried it through until its revival in the 20th century. The ‘debate’ here stems from whether you count L2 speakers – people who knew a smattering of Cornish as ‘native’ speakers. It’s simple: they’re not. The Cornish spoken until the 18th century is no longer in existence.

A fair number of popular sources say that it’s likely that the last person to speak Cornish natively was Dolly Pentreath – pictured on the right.

She was allegedly documented as a monoglot – but it’s likely she did speak some English.

She lived around the West Cornish town of Mousehole, and died in 1777 and legend has it that her last words were:

Me ne vidn cewsel Sawznek! (I don’t want to speak English!)

Probably rubbish, but quite fitting if she really was the last native Cornish speaker!

Wikipedia helpfully notes that the lack of recording equipment back then means we’ll probably never know. No flies on them, clearly!

Cornish revival

The first conscious effort to bring Cornish back started in the 20th century by Henry Jenner, who wrote a new Handbook of the Cornish Language.

Since then it’s grown in stature until in 2002 it was officially recognised as a minor language by the Council of Europe.

But it’s worth pointing out that the language spoken now is unlikely to be what was spoken back then. It’s been artificially put back together – and that break in its life story can never be rectified – unlike Welsh, which always had native speakers, no matter how few.

In 2008 the people underpinning the Cornish revival decided to put their heads together and put together a formal unified written form.

The striking North Cornwall coastline - from the Rumps, Polzeath, to Port Quin

Despite the unification – when you’re in Cornwall you can see a lot of variation. The Cornish in the title of this blog means “Welcome to Cornwall” – but there are at least four different variations of dynnergh, concerning the double consonant and the vowels.

Today Cornish is still only spoken by a small number of people – but there are Cornish programming on local broadcasters and local media sources in Cornish.

Most excitingly, 2010 saw the opening of the first Cornish-language crèche! Strangely enough, this might be the most important step – the problem being that we learn second languages differently – they are are codified differently in our brains, meaning a native sound system will be really difficult to attain – even if native fluency is.

If you can get local children speaking Cornish from a young age, the language has a much better chance of properly taking hold – as opposed to a few interested adults learning Cornish as a second language later in life.

There are now reportedly some bilingual L1 (native) Cornish-speaking children in Cornwall, but the time when there can be monoglot Cornish speakers has obviously now gone.

Cornish probably won’t flourish properly for a while yet – it needs to be taught and encouraged more widely. Reviving a language is an expensive business – and it takes a lot of people a lot of time to really get anywhere.

Now Cornwall has to decide whether it really wants to put the effort into reviving Cornish properly – and whether, as England’s poorest country, it can afford it.


Posted in: Just for fun