Minor British Institutions: The Cornish language

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A few years ago bumper stickers consisting of a black oval with a white cross and the slogan "Kernow" started to sprout very occasionally on the odd car. For most residents of the United Kingdom this was their first, and probably only, experience of the proud flowering of the reborn Cornish language, Kernow being the Cornish for Cornwall, and the one Cornish word anyone outside the county might be remotely expected to recognise.

About 500 years ago it was widely spoken across the southwest of England: accounts vary as to who was the last speaker, but popular legend seems to have it as a Dolly Pentreath, of Mousehole, who died 1777. (Supposed famous last words: "Me ne vidn cewsel Sawznek!" – "I don't want to speak English!").

Thus, and unlike the Welsh it is related to, in the 20th century, Cornish was a language that had to be resurrected rather than revived, and an impressive job they seem to be doing on it. It is officially recognised as a minority British tongue, and the number of speakers seems to have grown rapidly. There is even an online Cornish-Japanese phrasebook, a sure sign of a language and people with horizons far beyond the Tamar.