23 August 2008

The survey of users of the Cornish language has now been published . Altogether 710 survey forms were returned. Look at that figure again. I think there are about 440 000 adults in Cornwall; even assuming many Cornish language users were not contacted or did not respond, it suggests that we are talking about a small minority. As around two hundred of the responses were from people outside Cornwall, we can reasonably say that the users of the Cornish language in Cornwall are minute in numbers.

The details of the survey suggests some users are not in reality what I should call users. Nearly half of the users said they spoke only a few words or phrases and nearly a fifth said they never spoke Cornish or did so less than once a year; a quarter never write in Cornish or do so less than once a year and a third can write only a few sentences or phrases; and a third can read only a few sentences or phrases. Those who can speak fluently, write competently, and read complex material range from 13 to 29 percent of the respondents.

Only a small minority of users, many of them scarcely users, and only a few score fluent.

This is a dismal numerical result though interest in the language seems to be increasing. For several years reconstructed/revived Cornish has been beset by division into several varieties and the recent announcement of a single written form of it looked like a way to prosper Cornish. Alas, the preference of some of the users for their variety seems as robust as ever. Cornish will struggle for a future. A pity.

However, the future of Cornish is not about the understandable preferences of present users but rather about a language for the next tranche of users. In fifty years time the present differences should be history. A living language does not stand still but changes and, though that is more about the spoken than the written form, future Cornish, shaped by its future users, will not be the same as any present Cornish.

To see how we got here look at these previous posts about Cornish:

Cornish language update


Kernewek mashup

and better news, Cornish moves off the tea towel


After the spats about how to spell the Cornish language, spoken fluently by about three hundred people, there is positive news. No, not the agreement last month on a spelling system – the arguments still continue – but six books written by Will Coleman in Cornish for young children. Every year three pupil in Cornwall will get a free copy of one of the books which are about an imagined village and its people and animals.

The books were commissioned by the Cornish Language Partnership (CLP), a body of various language interests and the county and district councils in Cornwall, funded by the British government, the EU, and Cornwall county council.

Look, I’m not a Cornish nationalist and I don’t share the heady linguistic visions of some, I don’t believe for one moment that Cornwall will become bilingual, but I welcome this positive move to introduce some of the language to young people. It stands in stark and magnificent contrast to the unhappy nonsenses that have bedevilled and apparently still bedevil the language. Coleman and the CLP deserve warm congratulations on a constructive move.


15 February 2008

Parturient montes nascetur…Kernewek mashup.

They have laboured and produced a new, credible, viable, seventh, version of Cornish. No doubt it will have an uplifting adjective attached until it becomes just Kernewek.

It is a mashup of the present varieties of Cornish (listed, if you are really interested, here) and tries to accommodate the various spellings and sounds in a single spelling system. It is intended – hoped – that this is the version that will be seen as the official, standard one and will be paramount for writing; a single written form of the language. The current others will become variants, probably still used by some of their present devotees. I think that over time the users will develop naturally a living standard as happens in every language and these days of disagreement will be an unhappy far-off memory. Of course controversy will always accompany language usage but it will be about the Cornish homologues of the intrusive r and different from/ to / than and the death of the subjunctive in English, the whole world to a few, nothing to most.

There’s still much to do: for example, a dictionary, the spelling of place names, how to invent new words for new things that will come along. Despite the welcome from most users and friends for the cooperative work and its fruits after years of factional disagreements, there has been much public contention from a few and if that spirit prevails all will be lost – you and I may fume about global warming, poverty, terrorism, inflation; these people rage about how to spell words in a reconstructed language. The silent majority of the level-headed among the present Cornish users must cry themselves to sleep.

By the way, what’s Cornish for mashup?


25 October 2007

The independent group who have been looking at the possibility of a single form of spelling for revived or reconstructed Cornish reported back on 14 October 2007. Read their report here.

They have read the situation well and made two very sensible suggestions.

Firstly, they have not selected one of the current varieties of Cornish as the new standard, as some Cornish speakers hoped they would, but have instead suggested, in their own words, “a compromise somewhere in between KK and KS, building on KD, but with an input from KS.”

Let me try to explain the meaning of this alphabetical soup which I first described in this post.

KS is a coalition of KU/UC, KUA/UCR, and KN/RLC, to use Cornish and English abbreviations, though as far as I can see the three versions also remain. KK has been going for twenty years or so. KD is a new entry, a stand-alone coalition as it were. That’s all as clear as mud, I expect. Three of the forms have some version of the concept ‘unity’ in their name. The compromise means a seventh version of Cornish as far as I can see; in an alphanumerical spirit let me call it K7, at present a hypothetical version. Let me recap: the seven are KD, KK, KN, KS, KU, KUA, plus K7. Do remember that about three hundred people speak any version of manifold Cornish fluently.

The compromise leaves out no variety, they’re all in there. It is clear from the group’s report that they felt – wisely, I think – that to leave out any one variety or to plump for any one would risk a continuation of the present chaotic divisions.

Secondly, they have not spelled out the details of what such a compromise would be. They have suggested that they appoint someone to take a definitive and mandatory decision about what the compromise means in practice for the language. He or she would be advised by a small group representing the various varieties of current Cornish. I think this means choosing the actual spellings. Scope for reasoned debate or rows. And after that is settled there will be questions like how to form new words.

Whether the sensible and practical compromise statement means anything beyond an exhortation to cooperate and offers a feasible project will ultimately be seen in the response it gets from the language users. It is now for the taxpayer-financed Cornish Language Partnership (and the organisations representing the versions of Cornish, and individuals users) to decide whether to accept the group’s proposals. They have little choice; the proposals of a compromise and a practical way of progressing are the only ones from the independent group and to reject them would mean going back to the unproductive civil war that has been fought by the small handful of speakers of Cornish for the past twenty years. The holy grail of an actual reconstructed single written form of Cornish is not yet; but the choice between futile antagonisms and cooperation is stark.

Of course none of this means anything to the vast majority of people in Cornwall. They speak modern English and savour a nod to old Cornish, especially in geographic and personal names, but that’s all. They are no more inclined to learn the modern reconstruction of Cornish than they are to learn Old English.

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.


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]