Historical Trends in the Development of Cornish
The Cornish language was the speech of Cornwall from Dark Age times through to the late Middle Ages. In late medieval it was weakening in eastern Cornwall but its substantial reverses came with the closer incorporation of Cornwall into the Tudor state. At its maximum size the speech community has been estimated at 38,000.
During early modern times Cornish initially held its ground as the majority speech of the Cornish people but the further dislocations of the 17th Century (Civil War) and other rebellions destabilised the language considerably. By 1700, the year in which Edward Lhuyd visited Cornwall he reported the language to be in substantial decline and limited only to the western extremities of the County. This process of decline was considerably hastened by Cornwall’s early industrialisation and the inter-penetration of a previously autonomous speech community by adventitious economic enterprises reinforcing a new language.
Nevertheless, knowledge of Cornish and some extent of speaking ability continued to be transmitted through family networks and individuals. These were the sources whereby scholars in the 19th Century compiled the first dictionaries and learners lessons in the language. A landmark for the language revival was Jenner’s "Handbook".
The beginnings of the revival pre-1914 produced a number of persons able to use the language – especially in writing. The inter-war years witnessed the formation of key institutions for the revival (Gorsedd, the Old Cornwall Societies) and the establishment of classes both in Cornwall and in London.
After the dislocations of the Second World War the language revival made initially slow but steady progress which gathered impetus as new journals were established. At this period the revival continued with Nance’s revision of Jenner’s original Cornish, which came to be called Unified (Unys). The developing needs of the language grew beyond its patronage by the Gorsedd and a Language Board was established in 1967 whose constitution was later reformulated to make it representative of the body of speakers and users.
Disquiet with Nance’s system was being voiced by the early 1980s. This was addressed linguistically by Dr. Ken George with regard to spelling, pronunciation and lexical problems. Also, at this time Richard Gendall was developing his ideas of basing the revived language upon its later vernacular and written forms. These were the seeds of the "tri-partite split" between: Unified Cornish, which was based upon the late mediaeval classic texts; Gendall’s Late/Modern Cornish; and those who adopted Ken George’s version of Common Cornish (Kemynn). The debate over the revival versions was addressed by public meetings and the Language Board adopted Kemynn.
The language controversies appear to have had a stimulating effect upon public awareness of the language and have attracted a new generation of learners. Linguistic research has been greatly stimulated in all three varieties, as has output of language resource publications and general reading material. The bulk of this publication has been in Kemynn, the language community which has produced most language activity and supporting institutions in terms of volume.
Mode of Use
Traditionally, historically spoken Cornish extended across the whole range of uses when it was the majority speech of the Cornish people. In late mediaeval times it produced a literature which was chiefly religious drama and verse. Cornwall had significant trading links with Brittany, and Cornish was thus used in the tin trade in commercial and economic life.
The events of the 16th Century resulted in the anglicisation of upper orders of society especially as members of this class were replaced by English speakers and the language became general in Cornwall’s ruling classes. In its last phase when the language was obviously fast retreating, efforts were made to secure its prospects by the production of a written literature in its Late/Modern form. This was developed by a class of professional people.
New industries implied the strengthening of English, but Cornish evidently remained strong amongst fishing communities in western Cornwall which comprised its last body of speakers. There are reports of the language being used at sea into the 19th Century. It continued to be used for specific purposes even into the 20th Century.
In the revival, its early use was chiefly written and from the beginning a conscious effort to produce a quality literature is evident. This has continued to strengthen from the pre-1939 period – as has the resolve to ensure Cornish as a spoken language.
Today, the language is spoken in a wide variety of situations: the conducts of business in Cornish organisations; in cultural events; in a wide variety of social speakers when speakers congregate; and most importantly in the homes and families of what is still a small number of cases. A reasonable estimate of the number of speakers able to use the language effectively for everyday purposes is around 300 in Cornwall itself, with a further 50 reported for the London area. There may be, perhaps, 10 families using the language in the home. It is also used increasingly in public worship and in public ceremonies and ritual.
Availability and Take-Up of Learning and Study of Cornish
At the present time, there are 32 formal classes in Cornish at adult education level. The majority of these are held in and organised by FE Colleges. Otherwise, they are locally organised by language activists and held in a variety of venues, such as village halls and pubs. It is estimated that over 200 people are attending these classes. There are also classes in London and overseas, as well as a correspondence course organised outside Cornwall.
At school level, Cornish was being taught as early as the pre-1939 period in local authority schools. After the war it featured in a private school at Camborne and subsequently developed in the local authority sector. A GCSE Examination incentivised Cornish at primary and secondary level.
Although the number of schools reporting the teaching of Cornish at some level has increased in recent years, the cessation of the GSCE scheme (due to the low numbers involved) and the introduction of the National Curriculum and local management of schools is seen by respondents to our research as a set back to further development. At primary level, 12 schools report the teaching of Cornish (both within and outwith the school day) and 3 secondary schools report Cornish as an extra-curricular activity
A Body of Cornish Literature
Old Cornish is represented solely by a vocabulary and glosses in the Bodmin Gospels. A late mediaeval literature of religious verse, a charter, a mystery play cycle and two other dramas represent this period. Late/Modern Cornish is said to commence with a collection of mid-16th Century homilies. It continued in the subsequent two Centuries with an extension of genres into secular verse, letters, and essays on various subjects including the language itself.
Revived Cornish literature has increasingly developed in quantity and quality. There have been a number of literary publications which have developed the essay, the short story and poetry in Cornish. More recently novels have been produced, along with an increasing amount of children’s publications. In terms of output and publications per head of language users this may constitute a record even higher than Icelandic. The medieval drama has been revived in modern performance.
Organisations which Promote Cornish
There is a wide range of organisations involved in, or connected with the language. Our research has identified a total of over 40 such bodies and the characteristics of the main organisations are presented at Chapter 5. These can be broadly categorised as follows:
The first two of these groups of organisations are: in the main, quite longstanding; have cross-membership; and exist on slight or very slight financial resources. Very active inter-Celtic links have been developed by the Gorseth, the Eisteddfod; the Celtic Congress; the Celtic League; and the Cornish Sub-Committee of EBLUL.
Funding and Support
It appears that organisations and individuals involved in the promotion and development of the Cornish language have received little in the way of funding over the last 20 years. We have identified third party funding of approximately £50,000. This probably reflects the generally small scale nature of these organisations over this time. However, there has been some funding activity during the 1990s, albeit for relatively small amounts. One of the main sources of funding has been local authorities. There have also been a small number of successful applications to the European Commission DG XXII, under the Minority Languages programme. Some organisations have depended on raising private funds to undertake their activities.
Whilst there has been a range of cultural funding programmes available through the European Commission during the 1990s, our consultations suggest that Cornish language organisations would have been able to access very little funding over the period, particularly as projects assisted tend to require partnerships between organisations from two or three Member States. Our research indicates that over the last 20 years, Cornish language activity has not really been at the stage of critical mass where it could link up and exchange information with organisations in other Member States. Further, these initiatives generally have relatively small budgets, with the bidding process being very competitive.
There are a number of institutional and funding changes currently taking place. For instance, RDAs have recently in England; and the Cornwall and Scilly Objective 1 Programme will commence during 2000.