Cornish: The travails of Britain's latest revived language

Adam   Thu Oct 25, 2007 6:20 pm GMT
Back from the dead

Oct 18th 2007
From The Economist print edition

The travails of Britain's latest revived language

HOW many nations are there in the United Kingdom? Most people, including most of its residents, will say four—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet some inhabitants of Cornwall, a county in England's south-western tip, think the number should be five, arguing that Cornwall should be treated as a separate nation.

As evidence they cite first their county's remoteness: bounded by the sea and separated from the rest of England by the river Tamar. Then there is Cornwall's cultural heritage, in particular the Cornish language, a Celtic tongue closely related to Breton and Welsh. It was dead for centuries, with the last fluent speaker thought to have perished in 1777. But thanks to a revival movement that started in the 1920s, several hundred people speak it today. In 2002 the government recognised Cornish as one of Britain's official minority languages, alongside Welsh, three varieties of Scottish, Irish Gaelic and Manx.

But reviving a dead language is a tricky business, especially when all there is to go on is fragmentary written records. Disagreements among experts have led to schism. Depending on how you choose to count, says Ray Chubb, the secretary of Agan Tavas (“Our Language”), there are either three or four distinct dialects in use today.

After years of often bad-tempered debate, a group of experts met on October 14th to decide on a single, official version of the language. They proposed a compromise, with bits taken from several of the existing dialects, to be considered later this month by the Cornish Language Partnership, a state-funded outfit charged with promoting the language. That was politically wise, since it avoided slighting advocates for any particular dialect. But, notes one observer wryly, it means that until they have had time to learn the new words, none of the existing Cornish speakers will be fluent in their new tongue.

Nevertheless, say supporters, deciding on an official form of the language is worth some short-term pain. The language appears to be spreading, although no one is sure of the precise numbers. A government report in 2000 put the number of fluent speakers at around 300; many more know at least a few phrases. Having one canonical version will make it easier to proselytise, especially in schools: revivalists hope to offer a set of Cornish textbooks to pupils from next year. And, says Mr Chubb, it will mean more money from the government.

Militant supporters hope eventually to emulate Wales, where Welsh is compulsory for schoolchildren and in many government jobs. The wildest dreamers foresee a day when Cornwall is granted independence from England. Officially, as recipients of state funding, Cornish boosters profess no opinion on the subject. “But,” muses Mr Chubb, “learning the language inevitably raises awareness of Cornish history.”
Guest   Thu Oct 25, 2007 6:57 pm GMT
I think that reviving a dead language is a waste of time (and money). It's ok to study it, but I mean to reintroduce it as a tool of everyday communication, since it lost that function centuries ago.
suomalainen   Sat Oct 27, 2007 8:35 pm GMT
I think , on the contrary, that reviving a dead language is really a culture deed that deserves appreciation and praise! Many other things are waste of time and money: building bigger supermarkets, travelling by aeroplane around the world, drinking liquor, smoking, watching on soap operas, visiting night clubs, cutting down of rain forests, fighting etc.
aiséirí   Sat Oct 27, 2007 10:32 pm GMT
Language revival is always a difficult topic. There are many issues on many levels...

I don't think language revival is a waste of time and money...but I do not know if it is worth the effort when talking about Cornish. I say this because unlike Welsh, Irish, and Breton which have a strong historical foundation...Cornish is relying on a fragmented historical record, a very small number of speakers, and the grace of England.

I hate to be negative, but I just don't see it working out for Cornish.