The Cornish language underwent a revival in the 20th Century, culminated with its recognition as a minority language under the Europea Charter for Regional or Minority languages (RMLs).
In this blog post I am going to talk to you about the Cornish language. For me, this example of a regional minority language, captures many examples of what life can be like for small languages, but with its additional unique twist. This is going to be a little bit historical and educational, but it is interesting, I promise.
Indeed what makes it so interesting is that the Cornish language was at one point dead. Limited to know native speakers, dead as a dead parrot.
The above graph represents the work of Piotr Stalmaszczyk and shows that Cornish reached its peak during the early Middle Ages It never transcended its function as a regional minority language, however it had many speakers outside of the region and shared similarities with Welsh and Breton which allowed speakers to communicate freely. However , it died out over an extended period of time, with the downturn beginning in the 16th Century and within a few hundred years there were none or virtually no fluent speakers remaining.
This has been attributed to the aggressive expansion of the English language, most notably through the 1549 Act of Uniformity. This act intended to enforce the usage of English in religious assemblies, replacing Latin. On the surface this doesn’t appear to be too significant, however it has been suggested that throughout much of Cornwall, much of the sermons were given in Cornish. This sparked The Prayer Book Rebellion which was a popular revolt in the Cornwall and Devon region in the same year of 1549. This was subsequently defeated by the English and marked a century of decline for the language.
The revival of the language began in 1904 by a Cornish cultural activist, Henry Jenner, who sparked a renewed interest in the language. Subsequent work continued to be carried out but as is the case with many of the RMLs we have studied, different orthographies (a set of conventions for written language) emerged created by different factions, who disagreed on a number of aspects. In 2002 the language was recognised by the The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. It was only then that the issue of the multiple coinciding orthographies was deemed to be unacceptable. In 2004 The Cornish Language partnership brought together key actors and secured consensus one year later resulting in its modern form.
Permanent revival or flash in the car?
If you were expecting this section to be a description of a flourishing RML within England, steeped in history with widespread popular engagement, I’m sorry to disappoint.
It is indeed a language that has been brought back from the edge of extinction, but the number of fluent speakers only remain at an estimated three to four hundred. There are increasing numbers of people learning it as a second language, however without a formal education system to support it progress remains slow at best. Current education opportunities are restricted to courses at The University of Exeter and Cornish language pre-schools, two extremes of the spectrum.
As such the language remains the realm of cultural enthusiasts, however there are plenty of examples of cultural production in the language. To what extent this is sustainable though, is another question. In 2016, the British government ceased funding support for the Cornish language leaving the responsibility to the local council. Unfortunately, Cornwall is one of the regions to have suffered most under recent austerity, and it may become increasingly difficult to justify cultural expenditure. This is without even discussing the impact of Brexit on Cornwall, which has been a substantial net receiver of EU funds.
This is all without saying, that the English language that initially drove Cornish to extinction seems destined to inherit the mantle of the global language. However, as quoted from the video referenced earlier, “as the world becomes more homogenous, people start to seek a unique identity”. Indeed the acceptance of English as a language of global communication may have created the space for this RML to flourish.
So has the Cornish language managed a remarkable recovery? Or is it simply a dead parrot appearing to move when it’s obstinate shopkeeper rattles the cage? The answer inevitably lies somewhere in between, but it must be said that in order to reach the heady heights of the 13th Century, the Cornish language faces some stark opposition.