Kenneth MacKinnon

(in: Payton, P. (ed.) (2002) Cornish Studies 10, University of Exeter Press ISBN 0 85989 733 8 pp. 266 – 282.)


An important aspect of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ in 1999 was the recognition of the Irish and Ulster Scots languages in Northern Ireland, and the promise to sign and ratify the European Charter of Minority or Regional Languages. This very swiftly led to demands for inclusion of Welsh, Gaelic and Scots, which were rapidly accepted. As the result of prompt parliamentary action by Andrew George, MP for St. Ives (on an adjournment motion on the 23rd. February 1999), the government commissioned an independent academic study on Cornish. Its purpose was to provide a factual and officially accessible basis of knowledge about the Cornish language on which government policy could be based, and in particular, consideration of inclusion of Cornish within the United Kingdom’s signature and ratification of the Charter. Accordingly, on 22nd.December 1999 the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions commissioned EKOS Limited (economic consultants, Inverness), and SGRÙD Research (language-planning and research service in the Black Isle) to undertake an independent study of Cornish, reporting to Government Office of the South West.

The remit was to establish the position on the use and currency of the Cornish language historically and contemporarily, and provide a sound factual basis for informing consideration of policy issues by various government departments. The study objectives were to report factually and impartially on: the historical position of Cornish to the present day; the ways in which Cornish is ‘traditionally used’ in Cornwall and elsewhere, including numbers, fluency and use in everyday life; learning, study, teaching and qualifications in the language; the body of literature; organisations promoting the language; and sources of funding and support.

The research was undertaken during January and February 2000 principally by the present author, involving desk research at research centres and archives in Cornwall and London, face-to-face and telephone interviews of 50 organisations and individuals associated with the promotion of Cornish. Discussions with three focus groups of Cornish speakers (representative of the three main revived language varieties) provided contact with a further 48 persons. The principal researcher also attended and participated in Cornish-language events and meetings during (and subsequent) to this survey period.

The full text of the report is available from Government Office for the South West, and can be read and downloaded from their website. (1) The following summary of the report indicates the scope of its principal contents. The report was not remitted to contain recommendations. Its purpose was to provide an independent reference document as a basis for government policy. However, as its principal author, I do have views upon the current state of the Cornish language, issues relating to the language, and provisions which could be made for its further development. I conclude with a commentary upon these.



The Cornish language was the speech of Cornwall from Dark Age times through to the late Middle Ages. In late medieval times 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. (2)

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" of 1904.

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 (Gorseth Kernow, 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 (Ünys). The developing needs of the language grew beyond its patronage by the Gorseth 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 (Kemmyn). The debate over the revival versions was addressed by public meetings, and the Language Board adopted Kemmyn in 1987.

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 Kemmyn, the language variety which has produced most language activity and supporting institutions in terms of volume.


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, and 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, with English becoming 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, largely by professional class 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, and 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 conduct of business in Cornish organisations; in cultural events; in a wide variety of social settings 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 approaching 300 in Cornwall itself, (See Figure 3), with a further 50 reported for the London area. The survey found 10 families using the language in the home. It is also used increasingly in signage, public worship, ceremonies and ritual.


The 1984 Report Kernewek Hedhyu on the State of the Language (3) had noted that by 1983/84 the number of adult classes in Cornish had increased to eighteen: in Bodmin, Camborne, Falmouth, Hayle, Helston, Launceston, Lostwithiel, Liskeard, Newlyn East, Newquay, Padstow, Penzance, Perranporth, Saltash, St. Austell, St. Just, Torpoint, and Truro, with further classes reported outwith Cornwall.


The 2000 survey identified 36 formal classes in Cornish at adult education level. The figure was revised to 38 after the survey when further information was forthcoming. Eighteen classes were conducted in Kemmyn, at:- Callington, Four Lanes, Grampound Road, Helston, Jacobstowe, Launceston, Liskeard (two classes), The Lizard, Looe, Lostwithiel, Mullion, Newlyn East, Penzance, Pool, Saltash, St. Austell, and Truro. Nine classes were conducted in Unified, at: Bodmin, Bude, Camborne, Newlyn, Penryn, Penzance (two classes), St. Austell, and St. Just. There were eleven classes in Late/Modern Cornish, at:- Falmouth, Menheniot, Pendeen (two classes), Redruth, St. Agnes, St. Austell, St. Ives, Troon, and Truro (two classes). Enrolments for 16 Kemmyn classes totalled 143, suggesting around 161 in total. Enrolments in 4 Unified classes totalled 46, suggesting around 103 in total. Enrolments in 9 Late/Modern classes totalled 93, suggesting around 114 overall. On this basis there was an estimated total of 378 students in the 38 classes. (See Figures 1 and 2) (4) Other informal and self-help groups were reported, which would almost certainly suggest over 400 active learners. Most classes were held in and organised by further education colleges. Otherwise, they were locally organised by language activists and held in a variety of venues, such as village halls and pubs. There are also classes in Australia and London, as well as a correspondence course for Kemmyn learners, organised outwith Cornwall. In 1999 / 2000 some 297 corresponding students were registered for this distance learning service Kernewek dre Lyther. There were similar correspondence schemes for Unified and Late/Modern learners (Kernewek Sowyn, and Kernuak Es), which brought total numbers of distance learners to 375. The numbers enrolled in adult classes and correspondence schemes thus totalled around 750 – but allowance must be made for overlaps, and for numbers in nine classes having to be estimated..

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. The 1984 Report noted five primary schools (Camborne, Saltash, St. Stephen’s, and Troon), and two secondary schools (Camborne and Liskeard) where Cornish was taught.

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 low numbers), the introduction of the National Curriculum and local management of schools were often seen as set-backs. At primary level, four schools reported the teaching of Cornish within the school day, at:- Helston (St. Michael’s), Roskear, St. Mawes, and Wendron. Extra-mural Cornish clubs were organised at eight schools:- Coad’s Green, Heamoor, Ludgvan, Godolphin, Saltash (Brunel), St. Neot, and Weeth. Four secondary schools taught Cornish::- Liskeard Community College, Newquay Tretherras, Pool, and Truro. Although numbers learning Cornish at these 16 schools was not available, school pupils might bring the total of active learners to approach 1,000.


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. Since the completion of the survey two further Middle Cornish manuscripts have come to light. 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.


The survey contacted a wide range of organisations involved in, or connected with the language. Our research has identified a total of over 40 such bodies, and contacted 42 of them. These can be broadly categorised as follows:

Language organisations: Agan Tavas, Cornish Language Board, Cornish Language Council, Dalleth, Gorseth Kernow, Kowethaa an Yeth Kernewek, Teere ha Tavaz. Total: 7. These represent the three main forms of the language and all are represented on the Cornish Sub-committee of the European Bureau for Lesser-Used languages (EBLUL).

Cultural organisations: Celtic Congress, Cornish Eisteddfod, Cornish Literary Guild, Cornish Music Guild, Cornish Music Projects, Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, Lowender Peran, Ros Keltek, Verbal Arts Cornwall. Total:9.

Educational Institutions: Cornwall Education Authority, London Association for Celtic Education, University of Dublin: Celtic Studies, University of Exeter Institute of Cornish Studies; University of Plymouth: Modern Languages. Total; 5.

Political and public life. The majority of local authorities had adopted a policy framework supportive of the language at the time of the survey. All have subsequently done so. Organisation interviewed comprised: Carrick District Council, Celtic League, EBLUL (Cornish Sub-Committee), Cornish Bureau for European Relations (CoBER), Cornish National Committee, Cornwall County Council, Cuntelles Kysgwlasek Keltek, Kerskerdh Kernewek, Mebyon Kernow, North Cornwall District Council. Total: 10.

Media. (Journals / magazines, radio and televison); Agan Yeth, An Gannas, An Garrack, Celtic Film and Television Festival, Pirate FM, Widwest Films. Total: 6.

Private sector: Gwynn ha Du, Just Cornish, An Lyverji Kernewek. Total: 3.

Religious life: The Bishop’s Advisory Committee on Cornish Services, Bredereth Sen Jago. Total: 2.

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.


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. The survey 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.

In addition, funding programmes delivered under Objective 5(b) and LEADER II during the 1990s generally required assisted projects to demonstrate an economic benefit for the area Applications for specifically language-oriented would unlikely be successful. The Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) was also consulted It advised that two funds could potentially be sourced for Cornish language related activities: the Study Support Programme, and the Standards Fund. The first of these is managed by the DfEE, and administered by local education authorities and provides funding for school activities such as learning Cornish out of school hours, including staffing costs.

A number of institutional and funding changes were currently taking place. Regional Development Authorities had recently been established in England, and the Cornwall and Scilly Objective 1 Programme was due to commence in 2000. Again, it seemed unlikely that specifically Cornish language and cultural related activities could be funded.

A further programme had been developed called Culture 2000, which has been designed to replace some of the cultural programmes operated by the European Commission during the 1990s. It was due to operate from 2002 to 2004, and had a total budget of 167 ECUs over its five years of operation. However, the eligibility for funding from this programme includes partnership activities involving cultural operators from at least three eligible countries, and it may be difficult for Cornish language organisations to secure such funds, given the current level of critical mass. However, in 2000 Cornwall County Council was considering organising training seminars for groups to advise them on fund application, form completion, etc. This could greatly benefit language organisations.

Subsequent to the 2000 survey, the National Lottery Heritage Fund has initiated a Language Heritage Fund (commencing in 2002), with a remit for linguistic heritage starting with the indigenous non-English language of the U.K. This should be particularly relevant for Cornish-language applications.


In undertaking this survey early in 2000, I was very conscious of ‘following in the footsteps’ of Edward Lhuyd, who had undertaken his survey of Cornish, three hundred years earlier in 1700. Celtic Studies owe a great deal to Lhuyd, including their very name and identity. (5) In particular, Lhuyd’s recording of Cornish language when it was last a spoken vernacular, and collecting what was available of Cornish writings have enabled subsequent scholars to attempt the revival of the language as a spoken medium once again. (6) Little specific attention was drawn to this tercentenary in Cornwall in 2000, although I was prefaced my address to the second New Directions in Celtic Studies Conference (7) with this matter, as an acknowledgement of what we owe to Lhuyd. This article takes up the themes of that address, one of which was that we shall have a further opportunity to do justice to his memory on the tercentenary of his Archaelogica Britannica, which was published in 1707. (8) We shall also have a further commemorative opportunity to celebrate the centenary of the Cornish Revival in 2004, one hundred years on from Jenner’s Handbook (9) and his ‘Caernarfon Telegram’. The efforts of Lhuyd, and of Jenner enabled the traditional transmission of Cornish in each of their generations to become available as a general resource for the language revival, and to ensure for it what Charles Thomas has termed ‘apostolic succession’. (10)

The overall impression stemming from this survey is how much has been achieved with so little by so few. Most of the organizations were reported as subsisting on the slenderest of budgets, but actively maintained by quite remarkable personal efforts. The survey team conveyed this verbally to the commissioning agency at the reporting meeting of representatives of English regions and administrations of other U.K. countries on 24th. March 2000 at Eland House, Victoria, headquarters of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DEFR) By this time the U.K. Government had signed the European Charter without inclusion of Cornish on 2nd. March 2000, and a year later on 27th. March 2001 ratified the Charter, again without inclusion of Cornish. Additions to the Charter can be made at any time, but the round of consultations of other departments by Government Office for the South West have considerably exceeded the time taken for consultations on the other languages included. Subsequent to the 2000 survey, a study by Wella Brown (11) found that thirty-eight of the Charter’s paragraphs for language use can be attested. Thirty-five need to be in place to enable signature. A first priority and recommendation would be to sign and ratify the European Charter on behalf of Cornish. As this article goes to press, the UK Government has given assurances that it will sign and ratify Part II of the charter for Cornish (as it has done for Scots and Ulster Scots). Priority thus focuses signature and ratification in Part III (as for Welsh, Gaelic in Scotland, and Irish in Northern Ireland). (12)

The survey, in reviewing the historical development of Cornish, could have noted the needs not only for status planning, but of corpus and acquisition planning also, linked to appropriate research. Languages in contact decline when their speakers experience the lack of presence in the social environment – especially linked to political and economic pressures to shift to another. The languages under pressure then experience a shift in community and family usage. The survey has outlined these processes at work over the course of time. Cornish might have been buttressed by religious institutions – but unlike Welsh was accorded no translation of scripture or prayer book – and Methodism came a century too late. (13) The language might have been buttressed by education, but it had ceased as a vernacular before the introduction of modern universal education. In reviving Cornish there are three centuries of leeway to make up.

Corpus planning for Cornish is complicated by the three revived forms currently extant. The survey reported on the history and reasons for the three present language-varieties. It made no value judgment concerning them, except to say that they had arisen to serve the needs and preferences of learners. The survey accepted these on the same basis as the presence of language-varieties and dialects in other languages, such as the other Celtic languages and English. Revived Cornish is based on its literature at various historic periods. What is very much needed is the collation, editing and academic review of the whole corpus of the literature. A strongly worded plea for this – and for full diplomatic editions of all the mystery plays and historic Cornish literature - was made by Charles Thomas in 1963 (op. cit.) Forty years later this work still remains to be done. I echo his views for the necessity of this as an inescapable basis for further corpus planning. This corpus has however recently been augmented by two newly-discovered Middle Cornish texts. Initiatives to edit and prepare these for publication should kick-start the process of scholarly editing and publication of the whole corpus. This should be capable of funding from academic sources and the newly initiated Language Heritage policy line of the Language Heritage Fund.

Language authorities for Cornish are essentially non-official and non-academic, although they are assisted by scholars and specialists. There is a quantum leap from this level of development compared with the provisions established for Welsh, e.g. the Welsh Language Board, and the University of Wales Board of Celtic Studies. The ‘Good Friday Agreement’ set up quite generously-funded cross-border language authorities for Irish and Ulster Scots – the latter virtually ab initio. Even in the case of Gaelic, government funding supports the language development agency Comunn na Gàidhlig – and a language development authority on the Welsh model is currently in course of being established. Yet Cornish subsists within the same political state as these other languages, and there is an argument for comparability of treatment all round – which may well be being met in the case of Gaelic.

The existence of three language varieties might complicate the establishment of language-planning and development arrangements. These must obviously grow from acceptable principles within the language-movement itself. There were indications during the research of some coming together after the ‘tripartite split’. Keskerdh Kernow produced a three-variety ‘Prayers for Cornwall’ in 1999. The following year Gorseth Kernow accepted entries for its literary competitions in any of the varieties. Each of the varieties is represented on the Cornish Sub-committee of EBLUL. Amongst the three language movements there are various mutual recognitions, albeit partial at present but with every hope that they might become complete and all-round. The principal problem at the moment is in public signage – especially over the spellings of Cornish place-names. If Cornish is to have a public face, some form of consensus would need to develop. In the case of English place-names they have not necessarily been revised as the language has changed – and they preserve a variety of older forms. It might be that some form of agreement on such lines for Cornish place-names may be possible. It is an especially sensitive area, since name forms have been mostly what has survived of Cornish in current everyday speech and writing. The text of public signage presents a further problem, which perhaps only time can solve.

Together with corpus research, another research priority is in the sociology of the language. There has been no general survey of speakers, learners and users of Cornish in terms of numbers, abilities, usage and attitudes. Neither has there been any substantial assessment of general public attitudes towards the language. The three decennial CLAR surveys of Irish and the Welsh Housing Survey are good models of practice in this regard. I have myself undertaken similar – albeit smaller-scale - surveys of Gaelic speakers, and a recent survey of Manx (14) has provided an example for a language-group of similar size to Cornish. These surveys have been conducted on similar methodologies and contain many similar questions. Comparisons of the case of Cornish with its neighbouring lesser-used languages would be feasible. Such a study would provide a foundation for language-planning initiatives, and would in itself be a consciousness-raising initiative.

The problem of consciousness-raising is crucial for the future development of Cornish. Its present body of speakers, learners and users is tiny. In the early twentieth century Nance was able to say of his and Jenner’s efforts that his generation had put Cornish back in its feet but it would take another generation to get it to walk. (15) In the later twentieth century Cornish was step-by-step making that transition. Considering that every development was practically a pulling of itself up by its own bootstraps, the achievements have been considerable. The next steps are not really feasible without a greater critical mass involving considerably more people, thus justifying a claim upon their own share of public funds for the development of language and cultural infrastructure. The problem is in creating greater public awareness of the language, securing a greater place for it in the social environment of Cornwall, and attracting a greater number of people effectively to learn it. The following suggestions are in no way prescriptive. As an outsider – however sympathetic – I may not be in the best position to assess how practical or successful they might be. But the Cornish language movement at the outset of a new millennium, and the Cornish Revival coming up to its centenary in 2004 needs to assess its position and discuss its options and possibilities. The following suggestions may serve then as a preliminary agenda – or indeed as points of departure.

One possibility might be a thorough look at the educational system and to look at the ways in which the National Curriculum can and should carry a distinctive Cornish component in history, culture and language. There has been a Cornish Studies document – but I failed to come by one. It is time perhaps for a new look at this and a fresh initiative. Language acquisition planning deserves to be taken seriously. Increasing numbers seeking to acquire Cornish can also be the basis for encouraging the media to provide for their needs. The other Celtic languages can all provide good examples of popular language-learning series

A second possibility might be in a renewed effort for critical mass to establish an effective form of Cornish-language pre-school education as a first stage, no matter how small and limited this might initially be. If it were well done, it would comprise a basis upon which school level Cornish-medium education could be developed. Successful models for this can be found in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the last case, parents came together in West Belfast, established their own community, founded and ran their own school in the teeth of active opposition from the then regime. The story is well documented by Gabrielle Maguire. (16) The Isle of Man presents a similar language-situation to Cornwall’s – and both Manx-medium preschool and school-level education have recently been successfully established.

Gabrielle Maguire’s account is a challenge to other language communities in revival. Attempts had been made in the Republic to establish urban neo-Gaeltacht communities but the efforts had not succeeded. In the North however, Gabrielle Maguire’s group of young couples and parents created an Irish-speaking area with its own school, and from that beginning other community initiatives grew: a cultural centre, a secondary school, shops using Irish on facades and at the till, and a daily Irish-language newspaper. In Scotland, we are asking ourselves could something similar be done in urban Gaeldom? Could such a thing be done in the Isle of Man – or in Cornwall?

One way in which the language could effectively enter the social environment would be through cultural tourism. Its benefits would be shared with the home population. Tokenistic Cornish is to be seen sporadically in all sorts of places. Were this to be systematized into an itinerary of Cornish language heritage, featuring all situations of significance to the language historically and contemporarily, it would enlighten both the visitor and the resident. Promotional literature, itineraries and guides, interpretation and information on site, ‘blue plaques’, etc. would greatly increase the visibility of the language and its place in the social environment. Lergh an Yeth – the Cornish Language Trail is just the sort of initiative to get funding from the Language Heritage Fund.

There has been a great deal of ‘new thinking’ for Cornish at the recent turn of the century. Initiatives such as Keskerdh Kernow – Cornwall Marches On!, millennium events, the petition for a Cornish Assembly – Senedh Kernow, EU Objective 1 status, and the Eden Project have all bred a spirit of turning a new page. The South Crofty closure in 1999 was the end of a traditional industry, and the foot and mouth crisis in the countryside in 2001 was the threat to another, and to the more recent Cornish staple of tourism. These crises remind us that Cornwall is at the bottom of the U.K. league table for all economic indicators. Cornwall can demand special treatment.

In the preface to his Handbook, Jenner asked, ‘Why should Cornishmen learn Cornish? (17) His answer was that although ‘There was no money in it, it serves no practical purpose, and the literature is scanty…the answer is simple: Because they are Cornishmen’. Jenner went on to note that the Cornwall of his day despite ‘the few survivals of Duchy jurisdictions’ was ‘legally and practically a county of England…as if it were no better than a mere Essex or Herts.’

Conventional wisdom has changed since his day, and now the Cornish might assert the right to their own assembly, over and above the assertions of English counties such as Kent, simply because the elements of a distinctive local culture and identity can be demonstrated. The possession of a language is the key to status as one of the United Kingdom’s distinctive and continuing nations. There is no doubt about it, there is now practical value - and there is money in it. The Cornish National Committee and the meetings for a Cornish Assembly have an agenda, and the role of the language and its enhancement in everyday life, in the Cornish economy, and in its politics deserves to be on that agenda. New ideas are called for on how this language can now not only walk, in Morton Nance’s phrase of 1955 (18) - but live.

At the core of Jenner’s ideas on reasons for learning Cornish was the kernel of identity, ‘the outward and audible sign of his separate nationality’. He saw this as ‘sentimental, and not in the last practical’. (ibid. p. xii) In revising his ideas to be inclusive by modern standards, we would also see real social and economic benefits in language revival. Identity also strengthens the case for greater autonomy. The County Council’s Framework Policy for Cornish has been adopted by all Cornwall’s district councils. This provides a groundwork for greater recognition: Cornish is at least officially recognized by all Cornish local authorities. Its place fully within the European Charter at both Part II and Part III levels should be the next stage. Status can be important in strengthening the place of language within the social environment. Without it, attempts to advance the presence of the language in commercial life, public services, civic life and local civil society can always be countered with the objection that Cornish is not an ‘official language’.

The struggle to reverse the process of language-shift for Cornish is important not only within Cornwall but internationally. Recent studies of world language (20) have drawn to popular attention the precarious state of the 6,000 or so remaining spoken languages of the world. Every fortnight or so the last speaker of one of them dies and takes with him or her the history, traditions and cultural memory embedded in the language. Those working with endangered languages may well see this as the utter end for the languages in question. However, there may be real prospects of revival in some cases at least. Today great efforts are being made for Manx and for Cornish, whose last native speakers left behind spoken and written records from which the language can be learned.

We live in a globalising, anglicising world in which the prospects for the littlest languages are not accorded much by way of prospects. Today even the smaller nation-state languages in Europe, such as Danish and Dutch regard themselves as under threat. The French have always seen theirs as threatened – so now do the Germans. These peoples are not prepared to see their languages in contact with English go the way of earlier contacts: Irish, Welsh, Gaelic, Manx and Cornish. They will all certainly develop increasing demand for English – but this will not mean that their own must be sacrificed.

In the 19th. Century there was no place for non-English languages in the education systems of the United Kingdom. The other languages were seen as impediments to effective English acquisition. Bilingualism was not seen as a ‘natural’ state – and ordinary people were not thought to be fully capable of using two languages effectively. The average mind did not have sufficient space for two. Such notions still underlie much popular and press thinking about language in the modern world. In actual fact we are not proceeding into an altogether anglicized world so much as into a bilingual one. Humanity sees the need for at least two languages: one as a means of wider communication, and their own language as the medium of identity, expression and shared fellow-feeling. In this process the monoglot-English societies may end up without a language of their own in Gabrielle Maguire’s sense.

Without Cornish, Cornwall is just another English county, in Jenner’s sense – part of just another typical English-speaking society. With a language of its own which truly lives within its social and cultural life, Cornwall can be an effective example to the world of being able to take everything that knowledge and use of English can impart – but that it can retain and develop everything that a language of its own can do as well.


Government Office of the South West website at:-

George, Ken, (1986) ‘How many people spoke Cornish traditionally?’ in Cornish Studies (First Series) No. 14, pp. 67 – 70, Redruth: Institute of Cornish Studies.

Cowethas an Yeth Kernewek (1984) Kernewek Hedhyu 1984 Report on the State of the Language, Truro: Cowethas an Yeth Kernewek (p. 10).

Jane Ninnis 1999 State of the Language Statistics.(Grampound Road)

James, Simon (1999) The Atlantic Celts – Ancient People or Modern Invention? London: British Museum Press ISBN 0-7141-2165-7. pp, 44 – 50.

Williams, D.R. (1993) ‘Prying into Every Hole and Corner – Edward Lhuyd in Cornwall in 1700’ Truro: Dyllansow Truran ISBN 1 85022 066 2.

At Boscastle, Saturday evening 4th. November 2000, 7 – 9 p.m.

Lhuyd, Edward (1707) Archaelogia Britannica, giving some account Additional to what has been hitherto Publish’d of the Languages, Histories and Customs of the Original Inhabitants of Great Britain…. London (Republished: Shannon 1971)

Jenner, Henry (1904) A Handbook of the Cornish Language – chiefly in its latest stages with some account of its history and literature. London: David Nutt (reprinted 1982 New York: AMS Press ISBN 0-404-17557-0)

Thomas, Charles (1963) ‘An Dasserghyans Kernewek’ – address to Celtic Congress, St. Ives 16-20th. April 1963, in Old Cornwall Vol VI, No. 5, Autumn 1963, p. 196 - 205 (Speaking of the Gorseth on p. 199).

Personal communication from Wells Brown to Tony Steele GOSW, dated 24th. October 2000.

Western Morning News (Cornwall Edition) Monday July 22 2002 p. 1 cols 1-2, p. 5 col. 5.

Edmund Hambly 1933, quoted in Tregidga, Garry (1977) ‘Politics of the Celto-Cornish Revival 1886-1939 (pp. 137, and note 49, p. 149) in Payton, Philip (ed.) 1997) Cornish Studies, Second Series, Exeter; Exeter University Press ISBN 085989 551 3, ISSN 1352-271X (pp. 125 - 1500

Keskerdh Kernow (1999) Prayers for Cornwall - Pysadow rak Kernow. Truro: Keskerdh Kernow.

Quoted in P.A.S. Pool (1967) Cornish for Beginners ( 2nd edition) Penzance. The expression is dated to 1955 and no source given.

Gawn, Philip .(1999) Survey of Manx Speakers and Learners – preliminary findings. Douglas: Manx National Heritage and Manx Heritage Foundation.

Jenner, Henry (1904) A Handbook of the Cornish Language – chiefly in its latest stages with some account of its history and literature. London: David Nutt (reprinted 1982 New York: AMS Press ISBN 0-404-17557-0) (p. xi)

‘One generation has set Cornish on its feet. It is now for another to make it walk.’ Quoted on dedication page of Pool, P.A.S. (1965) Cornish for Beginners (Second Revised Edition) Marazion: Worden (Printers Ltd) No ISBN.

Maguire, Gabrielle (1990) Our Own Language: An Irish Initiative. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. ISBN 1-85359-095-9 (Pbk).

E.g. Crystal, David (2000) Language Death, Cambridge: University Press ISBN 0 521 65321 5; Dalby, Andrew (2002) Language in Danger- how language loss threatens our future, Allen Lane the Penguin Press ISBN 0-713-99445-6 Nettle, Daniel and Romaine, Suzanne (2000) Oxford: University Press, ISBN 0-19-513624-1

Author’s short biography:

Kenneth MacKinnon holds professorial appointments at the Universities of Aberdeen and Hertfordshire, and is an Associate Lecturer of the Open University in Social Sciences, Education and Language Studies.  He has undertaken extensive research into Gaelic communities and has published extensively on Language Revival and Planning.  In 2000 the Government Office for the South-West commissioned him to undertake An Independent Academic Study of Cornish, which was the precursor for the U.K. signing of the European Charter, and much further language-development, for Cornish.  He is a board member of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the Scottish Government's Gaelic language board. He was also a London war evacuee in Cornwall: at Summercourt and St. Ives.