Dubbed the Cornish Riviera, Cornwall (or Kernow as it is known to Cornish speakers) is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful regions in the United Kingdom, and one which I am lucky enough to call my second home. My father is a Cornishman, and half of my family live in the county, which has resulted in many trips over the years, and the formation of wonderful memories. A recent trip to the county to visit my grandmother, and my innate interest as a linguist has sparked my interest in an issue which has been the subject of debate in recent months - the revival of the Cornish language, and the importance of looking after Cornwall’s heritage.
Cornish is one of the UK’s minority languages, along with Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Ulster Scots, Irish and Welsh, and was the main language of Cornwall until it was pushed westwards by English, the main language, and ceased to be a common community language around the late 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, it had virtually disappeared.
From the early 20th century; however, the Cornish language has slowly began to come back to life thanks to the efforts of volunteers who saw the danger of losing an important part of their heritage, and in 2002 it was recognised under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
It was announced in November 2015 that despite there being only a few hundred Cornish speakers, the local council has allocated £180,000 to try to stop the language dying out. The aim, they state, is to make sure that the Celtic language ‘is used in pubs and on street corners as well as official documents’.
According to the local council, it is estimated that between 300 and 400 people are fluent speakers who use Cornish regularly, while around 5,000 have a very simple conversational ability making it a critically endangered language according to UNESCO. In comparison with other endangered languages, in Wales for example, around 550,000 people are able to speak Welsh. At one stage, Cornish was classed as extinct by UNESCO; however, in 2010 it was announced that this classification was no longer accurate as it is still a living breathing language, but the question is, for how long? Ironically, the 2011 census showed that more people in Cornwall speak Polish than the local language; with 1,984 people saying it is was their main language.
The council’s choice to spend this six-figure number on reviving an ancient language has, however, come under criticism as it is a huge amount of money to spend on reviving a dying language at a time when local governments are having to make serious savings when it comes to very important issues in the community such as keeping local transport running, preventing libraries from closing, providing affordable housing, improving education and health care standards and environmental issues such as recycling and refuse collection.
Being a linguist, I of course agree with the scheme and spending this funding on the revival of the Cornish language as I feel we should do all we can to preserve languages, no matter how small they are. During 2015, 12,000 people signed up to learn Cornish at language courses across the county which I think is evidence for the people’s support to the Council’s plans. I feel that a large proportion of the money should be invested into making more Cornish classes available for the community, as well as providing Cornish lessons in all primary and secondary schools as people should be taught their heritage- much like in Wales where the Welsh language is taught as a secondary language and is compulsory up to the age of 16 (including GCSE), and in addition around a quarter of schoolchildren in Wales now receive their education through the medium of Welsh.
There is no doubt that children are most adaptable to learning a new language, and learning Cornish would bring a lot of the benefits of learning a more widely spoken foreign language including improved communication skills, improved memory, cognitive flexibility, improved reading and writing, a broader view of the world, higher IQ, and this is not to mention the enjoyment from learning another language and increased social interaction from attending classes and meeting new people. There are also numerous long-term benefits from learning second language in general such as greater employment opportunities, improved travel experiences and the staving off of illnesses such as age-related dementia.
It is a fair point that learning the Cornish language isn’t very useful in everyday life; however, neither would be learning ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics or Old English, but it is certainly enjoyable, and opening the mind to a second language only brings benefits, as well as an increased ability and desire to learn further languages.
Furthermore, promoting the Cornish language provides a unique selling point when it comes to tourism, and it is a small price to pay to save something which is unique to Britain. Native cultures should be cherished and preserved and just the sheer fact that the language is dying should be enough to protect it.
What are your thoughts on the revival of the Cornish language- is it important to look after our heritage, or are there more urgent matters which should deserve the funding?
Here are a few Cornish phrases for those inquisitive linguists among you:
Welcome - Dynnargh dhis
How are you? - Fatla genes?
Good morning - Myttin da
I love you - My a'th kar
I don't understand - Ny gonvedha
Have a nice day - Lowena dhis
Good luck - Chons da!