110' x 110' beach art design by
Painting by David James
The Cornish language is similar to Welsh and Breton, forming one branch of the language spoken by Celts since the dawn of recorded history. It is related to Scots and Irish Gaelic, though when the two branches (often called "p" and "q") diverged, it is impossible to be precise. The language upon which Cornish, Welsh, and Breton is based, sometimes called Brithonic or "British", used to be spoken throughout Britain before the Romans arrived in the First Century BCE.
My first encounter with the Cornish language was in June 1992 when I was browsing around the second-hand bookshops in Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border and came across "The Story of the Cornish Language" by Peter Berresford Ellis. This is a slim volume with some Cornish on the front cover and some Cornish words and phrases at the end of the booklet. There is no date of publication, but internal evidence would indicate 1967 or 1968. The booklet had belonged to R.Davies of Newton, Porthcawl and on the title page there are some interesting words written in long hand:
1968 was also the year in which the Cornish Language Board was established. Thirty years later, the Cornish language has come a long way since 1968. There is now plenty of evidence in Cornwall for the revival of the native language in road signs, literature, cultural events, souvenirs and greeting cards. Every Sunday evening there is a Cornish language broadcast on BBC Radio Cornwall and this contains a summary of the main national and local weekly news. The programme is put together by freelance groups and it is reckoned that about 500 to 1000 people listen to this programme.
If you drive to west Cornwall you will find that some towns have their names in both Cornish and English, and you might think you had strayed into Wales by mistake. For example, the town and former port of Hayle also appears as HEYL on the signs which greet you as you approach the town. Similarly, as you drive into St Ives you find the town sign also includes the Cornish name PORTH IA. If you take the train to Penzance, you will find outside the railway station a sign with the words "Penzance welcomes you - PENSANS A'GAS DYNERGH".
If you you drive into Camborne on the B3303 from Helston, you will see a road sign with the words "CAMBORNE welcomes you - kammbronn a'gas dynnergh". The spelling of Camborne (kammbronn) is interesting, as it looks more Germanic than Celtic, and is totally unlike the historic spelling which is Cambron. A similar road sign beside the turning off the A30 from Bodmin and Penzance has recently been removed and replaced by a piece of granite which now carries only the English greeting "Welcome to Camborne".
Outside Cornwall, the Cornish language surfaced in the national media on a couple of occasions during 1997. The newly elected Member of Parliament for St Ives, Andrew George, made his first speech in the House of Commons on 22 May 1997 and this included some sentences in Cornish:
Cornish was still widely spoken when these words were originally used 500 years earlier by a Cornishman, Michael Joseph, a blacksmith ("An Gof") who led a rebellion of 15,000 Cornish people and marched on London in the year 1497. The march was re-enacted at the time of Andrew George's speech in Parliament.
In September 1997 a dispute about plagiarism received considerable national publicity, when a Scottish poet accused a Cornish poet of "blatant plagiarism" in Modern Cornish Poets, which, rather like the road signs, has the Cornish title Berdh Arnowydh Kernewek on the front cover in addition to the English title. Although the poems in question were written in English, one of the three poets in the book, Pol Hodge, writes poems in Cornish. The book, funded by South West Arts, was withdrawn from sale.
Modern Cornish Poets is one example of a growing output of literature written in Cornish. A bookshop, called An Lyverji Kernewek ("The Cornish Bookshop"), opened in Helston in 1997 and sells books written in the Cornish language as well as books about Cornwall written in English.
Sometimes there are church services in Cornish. In 1978 the Diocese of Truro produced a collection of scripture readings and prayers in Cornish suitable for major festivals and saints days (Lenlyver Ber). On 8 March this year, the Sunday after St Piran's day, I attended a service of Evensong (Gwesperow) held at Perranzabuloe, near Redruth, as part of the 6th Eisteddfod of Cornwall, when all the hymns, prayers, readings and even the sermon were in Cornish. In many gift shops the Lord's Prayer in Cornish (Agan Tas-ny... "Our Father...") is available on a printed card.
But there is a problem. It is generally agreed that Cornish died out as a living language about 1800. So how do you revive a dead language? What spelling and pronunciation do you use? Which period is your starting point? What are the criteria for inventing words which either did not exist, say, 200 years ago or are not included in any extant literature?
In the revised edition of Peter Berresford Ellis's booklet there are no Cornish words or phrases inside the back cover, as there were in the edition published in 1967/68. Instead readers are referred to three addresses and organisations for further information about the three versions of Cornish which are now available. Similarly, the telephone directory also gives three contact numbers. This is very confusing, especially as the total number of Cornish speakers, according to the Cornish Language Board, is probably several thousand of whom only about 150 can speak the language fluently.
The three versions of Cornish now being advocated and taught are:
1) Unified Cornish. This is based on Cornish when it still flourished as a living language in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The foundations were laid by Henry Jenner (1848-1934), who published his Handbook of the Cornish Language in 1904, and built upon by Robert Morton Nance (1872-1959) who wrote Cornish for All which was published in 1929. This was followed in 1938 by R Morton Nance's Cornish-English Dictionary, which with revisions and additions, is still in use today. Supporters of this version have their own society Agan Tavas ("Our Language").
2) Common Cornish. In the 1980s a revised system for spelling Cornish was devised and this was based on a phonemic approach. Originally called Phonemic Cornish, it is now known as Common, or Kemmyn, Cornish, and was adopted by the Cornish Language Board as the "official" version in 1987.
3) Modern Cornish. This version is a return to Henry Jenner's original intention of basing Cornish on the period when it was last used in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Modern Cornish, or Kernuak, is sometimes referred to as Traditional Cornish, as the term "Modern" is rather odd for a language which died out about two hundred years ago. This version has its own Cornish Language Council.
My own experience is that I attended a class in Unified Cornish for four months during 1997, then switched briefly to another class nearer home. However I have become confused by contact with Common Cornish and more recently I have encountered Modern Cornish. Which version do I concentrate on learning?
There have been strong pleas to resolve this situation. For example, the late Peter Pool, a leader of the Cornish language revival, following in the footsteps of Jenner, Morton Nance and A.S.D.Smith, wrote passionately about the need for one kind of revived Cornish in a little booklet called "The Second Death of Cornish" (1995). More recently, the secretary of Agan Tavas, Ray Chubb, has urged the Cornish Language Board to phase out the use of Common Cornish as quickly as possible (in "an baner kernewek" - The Cornish Banner, February 1997).
I hope these cries are heard. The motto of Cornwall County Council, visible on their vehicles, is Onen hag oll ("One and all"). Yet one of the lessons of history is that Celts find it remarkably difficult to agree amongst themselves.
- © David Everett, Troon, Cornwall