Cobalt-blue seas, wild winds, high emotions and bald green expanses. I started falling in love with Cornwall’s picture-book coastal landscape while watching the BBC’s Poldark and Doc Martin. The cobblestone streets and cottage houses seem to cling organically to the cliffs and wander along the coastline with the heaving sea beneath. I’ve had a passing interest in Cornwall because my first name is a Cornish name.
Jennifer means ‘white wave’ and is a Cornish version of it’s closest living cousin, the Welsh Gwenhwyfar. Thanks to the enduring power of Arthurian legends, we’re more at home with its French variant, Guinevere. Having a vague notion of my name’s origins gave me a passing of an interest in Cornish language – when I was a young teen, the realisation that the British Isles was once a land of several tongues and cultures amazed and intrigued me.
An Almost Forgotten Limb of the Language Tree
Kernowek is a member of the Celtic branches of languages, stemming from Brittanic, Proto-Celtic, Celto-Italio-Tocharen, and Europe’s root language Proto-Indo-European. Cornish was said to be virtually interchangeable with Breton, but is now most closely associated with that other survivor, Welsh, from which it diverged at around the end of the 7th century AD. Cornish has its own writing system, and the earliest writings date back to the 9th century AD.
Figures of Fun and Disdain
We’ve all heard the West Country accent – ‘actors Cornish’. There’s Hagrid. Half giant, heart of gold, bit dim and fond of drinking giant-sized tankards. Until Johnny Depp based the popular pirate Captain Jack Sparrow on degenerate/rock god Keith Richards, just about every ‘Pirate accent’ was a based on a Cornish accent too. The drunken ne’er do well, the ignorant, sometimes sinister country person. You can see where I’m going with this. Can you smell a smear campaign? Make no mistake – language, writing, culture, power – and in this case political skull-duggery – go hand in hand.
I want to know how Cornish survived when so many Breton languages and dialects did not. How did it change from being recognised as one of three distinct nations within Britain, to a culture and language on the brink of extinction, a symbol of ignorance, stupidity and ill-living?
A Glimpse of Cornish History
After the collapse of the Roman Empire in Britain around the 5th century AD, Cornwall (Kernow) became a place of refuge for Breton cultures. Kernowek remained a linguistic and cultural stronghold for its people and other ‘West-Bretons’, the fortress-like landscape of Kernow protecting the language and culture of its people for several hundred years through the Saxon conquest of Briton. By about 838AD the East of Cornwall began to adopt the new language, and Kernowek receded further to the West.
As recently as the 16th century during the Tudor period, Kernow remained culturally and linguistically separate from the rest of England. Foreign observers of the Tudor court characterised England as a land with three distinct languages and cultures, where none could understand what the other said. An Italian diplomat in 1531AD as described the three: English – “…mercandile, rich…affable”; Welsh – “…sturdy, poor adapted to war and sociable”; and Cornish – “…poor, rough, and boorish”. By 1700 practically no one saw Cornwall as a separate nation. What happened? A couple of hundred years is a short period in history.
The Language of Sedition
According to Oslter, languages change due to organic, political and military processes. With the Cornish language it seems to have been a combination of all three. When protestant Edward VI brought an English mass to replace the Latin mass in 1549, the Cornish refused to accept it The English slaughtered them for their rebellion. Afterwards, people were suitably skittish about speaking and ‘being’ Cornish. The Cornish language already epitomised undesirable qualities like lack of sophistication, ignorance and stupidity – now the danger of sedition was added to the list. Cornish families who wanted to do well started teaching their children the language of the dominant power: English. After 1649 the language and cultural had “nowhere to go but into the sea itself”. It became a “functional language” used by fishermen.
A Cultural Revival
The last speaker of Cornish died in 1891. The Cornish language saw a revival in the 19th century instigated by Henry Jenner. In 1967 and during the 1980’s, interest in Cornwall regaining her language and culture intensified. I was surprised how many ‘versions’ have been put forth since its revival, and how much work has been done to identify an ‘official’ Cornish language again.
In 2002 Kernowek was declared an official (minority) language once more and is taught in schools to a new generation of Kernowek children.
In 2008 the “Standard Written Form” of Cornish was made standard for education and official purposes, although dialects are still spoken by many speakers of Kernowek.
According to a survey commissioned by the Cornish Language Strategy Project in 2008, there are around 3000 speakers of Cornish, with 2000 claiming fluency; in the 2011 UK census 550 claimed Cornish as their primary language, 447 of those from within Cornwall.
“What the sea wants, the sea shall have”
I have no ties to Cornwall other than my name, my penchant for loving BBC dramas filmed there, and perhaps my own very Australian habit of backing the underdog. For a language once described as having “nowhere to go but the sea”, I’m glad the sea decided to send the magic of those seditious words rolling in on the backs of white waves, taking root once more in the land they came from, reviving the cultural identity of their people.
Haven’t heard the music of this language? Listen to Elizabeth.
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