Cornish language revival

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Aug 22 12:23:27 UTC 2002

>>From the BBC:

Back from the dead: UK's new language

            By Jonathan Duffy BBC News Online

            Britain is about to get a new official language. It dates back
to the 9th Century and is hundreds of years older than modern English. But
there's one problem - which version to use?  The English language is far
and away Britannia's greatest export. It is geographically the most
widespread language on Earth and 40% of Europeans claim to know English as
a foreign tongue.

            At home however, things are rather different. In recent years,
there has been a resurgence of ancient Celtic tongues around the British
Isles.  Several have official minority status and now Cornish looks like
joining them as a protected language.  Don't hold your breath if you are
expecting bi-lingual road signs around the South West, as is the case in

            Rather, public bodies will have to protect and promote the use
of Cornish. It will be illegal for them to discriminate against Cornish
speakers and they will have a duty not to suppress the language.  Its new
status is not yet official but St Ives MP Andrew George says he has been
given the governmental nod and an announcement is expected in the autumn.

            The news is a victory for the handful of fluent speakers of
the language.  "The last government wasn't interested and we've been
campaigning for this for about seven years,"  says George Ansell, of the
Cornish Language Board.  Yet amid the back slapping, there is disagreement
over which brand of Cornish should get the official stamp.

            "It's an emotionally charged issue,"  acknowledges Prof Philip
Payton, of the Institute of Cornish Studies.  The language has at least
three strands, based around different spellings and some varying
vocabulary. They are:  Modern Cornish; Unified Cornish; Common Cornish.

            Dating back to the 9th Century, the Cornish language evolved
over hundreds of years and claimed an estimated 40,000 speakers at the
time of the Norman Conquest, before dying out around 1800.  Modern Cornish
heralds from the end of that period, drawing on points of grammar and
pronunciation that were documented as the language expired.  At the time,
Cornish was becoming heavily influenced by English which had steamrollered
its way through the county.

            That spirit is maintained in the revised version of Modern
Cornish used today, which is not shy about borrowing English words such as
"telephone" and "television".  Yet when the first Cornish revival picked
up steam in the 20th Century, it drew instead on an older version of            the language.

            Keeping a distance

            By the 1920s this revised form became known as Unified
Cornish.  And 1988 saw a breakaway faction known as Common Cornish.  Each
version uses its own unique spellings, and new words have been thought up
to steer clear of the English influence.  "Pellgowser" is the Common
Cornish word for "telephone" (it literally translates as "far-speaker");
"pellwollok" is "television" and "gwydheo" is "video".  There are even
words for "internet" - "kesroesweyth" and "e-mail" - "e-bost" (literally,
"e-post").  Modern Cornish devotee Richard Gendall says the rival dialects
are "makey uppy" and "pseudo Celtic".

            Dressing it up
            "It was all part of a drive in the last century to overstate
Cornwall's Celtic roots. They even came up with a Cornish kilt and Cornish
bagpipes.  These never existed," says Mr Glendall.  "I'm a pragmatist.  I
accept that Cornish was heavily influenced by English culture and language
before it died out."  Yet Common Cornish speaker Paul Dunbar winces at the
thought of English infecting the Cornish tongue.  "Students don't want to
be breaking into English several times in a sentence when talking about
something technical. It's irritating to have to use the language that
bloody murdered Cornish," he says.

            It's impossible say who has the high ground. There are few
hard facts, but it's generally agreed Common Cornish is the most widely
spoken. It has been particularly successful at cornering the market for
new learners.  Yet Modern Cornish is purer, says Prof Payton, who "shares
the academic scepticism" about its main rival.  So what does the future
hold? Prof Payton and George Ansell agree the generic Cornish language
will be officially recognised, rather than one particular dialect.

            After that "it's for the people of the Cornish language to
decide" says Prof Payton.  "It may be we chose one at the expense of the
other, or that we agree to recognise a plurality, or that some years down
the line there will be a convergence of them all."

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