CORNISH LANGUAGE: UPDATE

20 May 2007

Since writing the original and revised posts (below the line) yet another form of the Cornish language has appeared, Reunified Cornish or Kernewek Dasunys. This is an attempt to accommodate the different ways of spelling Cornish in the other forms of the reconstructed language. This is the sixth version of Cornish on offer – or the second compromise version if you prefer.

The six versions are often abbreviated by their admirers and detractors: KD, KK, KN, KS, KU, KUA – in strict alphabetical order as I wouldn’t want it thought I had any preference. These are abbreviations of the Cornish names; one also finds the English abbreviations RLC, UC, and UCR for KN, KU, and KUA. Not exactly the stuff of pub chatter or the supermarket checkout queue.

Four versions and two compromises. It is becoming difficult not to laugh/cry/scream.The whole thing is beginning to remind me of The life of Brian and the fissile and futile Judean movement.

Just a reminder. There are about 520 000 full-time residents of Cornwall. About three hundred of them speak Cornish of any sort fluently.

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Until about the end of the eighteenth century Cornish was spoken in Cornwall. The date of its demise is disputed because it is
unknown but the death of Dolly Pentreath in 1777 is popularly given as the date. This Cornish was a Brythonic Celtic language, related to Breton and Welsh. It slowly died out in Cornwall over many years, at first in the east of the county and eventually as the everyday language in the west.

There are now several versions of reconstructed Cornish broadly based on the limited written remnants of the language at different periods. There is much reconstruction, well, invention actually, of vocabulary, for modern life, as in all languages, for concepts and things for which no word is found in the few documents in Cornish that have survived. At the beginning of the twentieth century came the first reconstructed version, Unified Cornish, based on the language of medieval religious writings. In the last quarter of a century three other versions have been developed. Common (Kemmyn) Cornish differs from Unified mainly in having a regularised phonetic spelling; Late or Modern Cornish is based on Cornish in its last years as a spoken and written language; and Unified Revised is a revision of Unified.

In early 2007 another version, Kernowak, appeared. This appears to be a compromise between Unified, Unified Revised, and Late and an amalgam of them. I am unclear whether this means there are now five or two (Kernowak and Kemmyn) versions.

Possibly between them the versions of Cornish are spoken fluently by about three hundred people and less confidently by several hundreds (Kenneth MacKINNON, 2000, An independent academic study of Cornish). A survey is to be undertaken in 2007 for a new estimate of numbers. Any self-assessment of language skill and use, however, is open to questioning.

In 2002 the British government recognised Cornish under part 2 of the Council of Europe’s charter for minority languages and is consequently giving £240 000 over three years, as match funding for European Union money, for Cornish. However, in practice to access most of this taxpayers’ money for what is coyly called development and promotion, the spreading of the use of the language, especially in schools, there has to be agreement on one single written version of Cornish, along with a standard grammar and standard rules for vocabulary construction.

The process for trying to agree one standard written version is underway. Frankly, I doubt all the users will agree and even if a standard form is decreed there will be noncompliance by some. The infighting among some of the advocates of the different versions is noticeably sharp.

The arguments for the promotion of Cornish seem not primarily about the theory that linguistic diversity involves differences in cognitive experience and diverse ways of seeing the world; but rather grounded in political motivations deriving from ideas about a distinct Cornish ethnic identity and devolved government.

Dave Sayers (‘Standardising diversity’) has looked at the moves to a uniform written Cornish in an exploration of language diversity as a dynamic continuum and as found within as well as between languages. He suggests that the Council of Europe misconceives linguistic diversity as the promotion of a uniform version of a minority language, disregarding internal diversity within a minority language. (A brief outline is here : see under Selected employment, 2005-2008.)

Cornish is increasingly used to suggest an enticing exoticism and a nod to history, as in street names and on tourist artefacts, making its use in some circumstances a marketing tool.

There have been classes teaching Cornish throughout Cornwall for many years but, despite the opportunities these offer for learning the language, the numbers estimated to speak Cornish fluently are very small. It looks as though most of those who see themselves as Cornish do not see speaking and writing and reading the language as necessary definers of their Cornishness. Despite the passion of the present language activists, I doubt whether this position will change much. For the vast majority of people in Cornwall all of this interest in Cornish is of little or no practical interest and I do not see bilingualism ever taking off to any extent. Speaking, writing, and reading Cornish are likely to remain a pursuit of the few.

[Original post written 6 February 2007; revised 21 April 2007; Sayers url changed 29 JUly 2009]

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