Cornish in Relation to Welsh and Breton


:grinning: Heb mar (of course) :smile_cat:


Very interesting, Courtney. Languages are still lost with an alarming regularity, although the phenomena isn’t a recent one. But with many of the languages lost in historical times, there’s no way to reconstruct them because, even if there are writings available, nobody has been able to decipher them.


Were the forces behind the decline and historical extinction of Cornish the same as with Welsh? That is, the overweening pride and arrogance of the English and the dominance of the English language?

English bounced back from the Norman Conquest - my understanding is that it could easily have disappeared eventually, as French took over completely - but, even so, there was no guarantee that it would become a world language. There’s a story, which I suspect is a urban myth, that in the immediate post Revolutionary period, the newly minted United States of America voted on what language to have as their official tongue. English, so the story goes, won over German.

In a counter factual world with a German-speaking USA, perhaps the Cornish languages would have fared better. Maybe not 100%, because Breton has been treated badly by French speakers, but certainly better.


I’m just flicking through The Story of the Cornish Language by Peter Berresford Ellis, which is a good short introduction if you’re interested (it’s a 32-page booklet, but quite thorough). Wikipedia gives a decent run-down too. I’m not an expert in the history, but will try to sum it up…

There were a lot of factors behind the decline, but as English became established as the language of the gentry, Cornish was more and more seen as the language of the peasants and the uneducated — anyone who wanted to move up in the world had to speak English, so more and more did. Eventually the Protestant Reformation meant that all church services had to be in English, at a time (the mid 1500s) when many Cornish people, especially in the west, were still monolingual Cornish speakers and dismayed at having “this new English” forced on them. Of course prior to that the church services were in Latin, which most of the common people didn’t understand either, but having English as the language of the church only reinforced the English language’s superior position and made Cornish even less valued.

At the same time, the Reformation led to the destruction of Glasney College, medieval Cornwall’s most important religious institution, which was the centre of Cornish language scholarship in its time. Unfortunately the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer weren’t translated into Cornish at this time as happened with Welsh, or else the language probably wouldn’t have died out.

Here’s a paragraph from Peter Berresford Ellis’s book that I mentioned above, which sums it up quite well:

The absence of a thriving literature — such as there was in Welsh — made Cornish seem unimportant. Among the Cornish there was a diminished feeling or sentiment of national consciousness. In fact, it could be said that the majority of Cornish people suffered from apathy and inferiority with regard to their nationality, because they were losing their roots in history. They had ‘aped’ the English gentry to the extent they had become provincial English. Parents refused to speak Cornish with their children so that they would not be ‘handicapped’ by the language. And so, after 1700, the language began to decline rapidly…

So one could say it wasn’t just the arrogance of the English, but the apathy of the Cornish people themselves, that they largely forgot or rejected the fact that they were a Celtic people and had their own language and heritage. It wasn’t until the late 19th / early 20th centuries, when there was a revival of interest in Celtic cultures, that the idea of reviving the Cornish language took off and it’s since grown to where it is today.


It is the same story as with Ireland. We look back and fail to understand why they wanted their children to forget the native language in favour of English; however it is hard to see the advantage of preserving a language when you are not even sure of the next meal on the table. Cornwall was comparatively better off to some extent, having the mines, but I have recently read some accounts of poverty in Cornwall that were equal to many parts of Ireland including tenancy arrangements which meant that land could be reclaimed with much labour from march and scrub but lost back to the original landlord with the death of a single person (a system of retaining land while three (I think) named people lived - a very odd agreement). It is hard to talk about the ‘apathy’ of ordinary Cornish (not talking of the well-to-do here who no doubt ‘aped’ to the tips of their starched collars) in the context of this sort of poverty. The Cornish did have an immense pride in their language but this could not survive the proximity of an Empire that held all the cards… The same thread runs from the wording of the Prayer Book Rebellion “and so we the Cornyshe men, whereof certen of us understande no Englysh, utterly refuse thys newe English” to the (alleged) words of Dolly Pentreath “My ny vynnav kewsel Sowsnek!” (I do not wish to speak English). Even if they were not her words it is significant that the sentiment was still alive to put that defiance into her mouth.


I’m not sure that English did exactly ‘bounce back’ after the Normans. We use the word ‘English’ to describe it as a continuity; it was but it was so changed by the Normans, and earlier loss of old Anglo Saxon word endings, that it is hard to say it really bounced back - I think I have seen the Post-Norman language described as a ‘creole’ (I’m not a linguist so not sure how accurate that might be). Something did survive and it was continuous - however it was greatly changed by the influence of Norman French. On the other hand the pride and arrogance of the English is just what those who gain power always had - it was part and parcel of the times and, had the Britons had the upper hand, they no doubt would have been just as arrogant and proud (though of course with more reason, speaking the Iaith/Yeth y nefoedd… lol)


This is the story of Radnorshire, too. The soils are poor and there’s little by way of metal deposits to supplement income in those times when the stock-rearing or turnip-growing seasons are slow (as happened in similar land in adjoining Ceredigion and Maldwyn). It’s also worth adding that as the gentry Anglicised, and in Radnorshire’s case moved across the border to become absentee landlords in Hereford and Shropshire, legal fights over fragile tenancy rights became conducted solely in English. If you were going to have to stand up for yourself against the arrogance of the landed class, you were going to have to do it in English.


Good points. I was simply quoting Berresford Ellis re “apathy” and he certainly includes the quote from the Prayer Book Rebellion. There were definitely people all along who were fiercely proud of their Cornish language and refused to give it up, but unfortunately they just grew fewer and fewer. I think it is still fair to say that the growing majority of Cornish people over that time came to see little or no use for the language, especially once it hadn’t been spoken fluently in their area for several generations — and also when, as you say, “it is hard to see the advantage of preserving a language when you are not even sure of the next meal on the table.” Learning another language takes a lot of time and effort, and when (as was the case until the 20th century) few or no people speak it and there aren’t any books to learn from and there are no obvious practical uses for it, other things are far more important in most people’s lives. But it’s often stressed that even during the century or so when there were no fluent speakers left, there were always at least a few people (like John Davey and his cat) who kept up some very basic knowledge of the language and passed it on to others who were interested. So Cornish was only ever mostly dead, not all dead. :wink:


That’s a fair point. What we ended up with, post-Norman Conquest, was different to the language spoken by the pre-Norman Anglo Saxons. Based upon but not identical to. And then, of course, it changed still further. Shakespeare’s English was different to Chaucer’s as it gobbled up words from all over, for example.

Having said that, my understanding is that Norman French could still have had a much greater impact upon the aural landscape, in the way that French has come to be the dominant language in Brittany and other places within modern day France.

The robber barons who came over with William, and their children and grand children etc, could have made a determined effort to stamp out English altogether. Or the peasants could have adopted French.


Yes the really extraordinary thing about Cornish is that it survived to the extent it did. It is as though the torch was lit with the very last embers of the living tongue.


I see this kind of apathy with the Platt speakers in Germany and the Netherlands


Another example is NW (a)goriad for “key” versus SW allwedd and Cornish alhwedh.


Ah, I didn’t know about that one — further evidence that Kernewek is that little bit closer to Southern Welsh, unsurprisingly.

I know I said earlier that I may have a future work prospect near Manchester, but there’s also a possibility (and it may be a better one) that I may end up living and working in the north-east Somerset region. If that works out — and I’m starting to rather hope it will, but I don’t know yet — I’ll be right next door to South Wales. (And I hear they’re even going to scrap the toll on the bridges, too. :wink: ) So maybe I had better learn Southern Welsh after all…

A further piece of encouragement is that there’s a Yeth an Werin — informal Cornish speaking group — based in Bristol and another one in Cardiff, so I will definitely still be able to keep up my Kernewek if I move to that area. And of course it would put me much closer geographically to Kernow itself than I am now. :star2:


Iaith y werin (bobl)?


Gwir :grinning: Yeth = iaith and gwerin is people or folk (we also use the word pobel).

Actually, re the Bristol Yeth an Werin, I’m not sure if it’s still going — they’ve advertised it occasionally on Facebook but it doesn’t seem to be on the current lists of gatherings published online and in the Cornish newsletter I get. It may be that they only hold it occasionally. If I do move to that area, I’ll ask. Even if there are just one or two Cornish speakers there at the moment, it would be nice to meet up for a chat and a meal or a drink sometimes. There aren’t too many Cornish speakers in the world and we do need to stick together. :wink:


Here’s an interesting paper from a few years ago:
Digital Language Death, which shows some of the steps that happens when a language dies.

A language may not be completely dead until the death of its last speaker, but there are three clear signs of imminent death observable well in advance. First, there is loss of function, seen whenever other languages take over entire functional areas such as commerce. Next, there is loss of prestige, especially clearly reflected in the attitudes of the younger generation. Finally, there is loss of competence, manifested by the emergence of ‘semi-speakers’ who still understand the older generation, but adopt a drastically simplified (reanalyzed) version of the grammar.

I have seen this where I grew up in Southern Louisiana. Cajun French is being replaced by Cajun English as English words have been used more and more by the Cajuns. This started around the 1930’s (discovery of oil deposits) and continues to this day.

And sorry if I am off topic, but this scenario is playing out world-wide as people are less isolated and more in contact with each other.


Thanks, Allison — the “like” I’ve just given you is for the link, not for what keeps happening to minority languages!! It looks like a very interesting paper and I’ll read it through when I’ve got time and share it with my Cornish language tutor.


Thanks, it’s an interesting article. I’m wondering if the lack of a variety of languages on the internet forces minority language speakers to adopt more common languages when they go online. If they aren’t online, it seems encroaching communication with others with radio and TV is also another force that would make them switch at least part of the time.

I have a friend who grew up in Germany and has lived her life in the US for about 30 years. She still speaks German, but because she uses English so much, her German is frozen from about 30 years ago. All of the tech words and other words for new things are in English. She doesn’t know the German for it.


Hi Courtenay,

There’s a Cornish language class in Bristol (which I am a part of) which meets once a fortnight at Easton Community Centre. If you are on FB, there’s a Cornish in Bristol page which has the dates etc. Most of the people in Bristol are at a beginner stage, but our teacher Gary would love to get a Yeth an Werin going now that we are starting to feel a bit more confident. He has wondered about setting up a Yeth an Werin going in Chepstow once the toll charges are dropped; he’s in Gloucester, most of us are in Bristol, but also we having developing links with the Cardiff lot so a mutually convenient half way point is being considered.


Oh, thanks for letting me know, Ella! :grinning: I’m not considering moving anywhere for a while yet, but Bristol is a definite possibility, so I’ll try to keep an eye on what’s happening there. I’m not on Facebook, mind you. Glad to hear about the possible Yeth an Werin, too.