The Cornish Language: An Tavas Kernewek

The Cornish Language: An Tavas Kernewek

The visitor to modern Cornwall is immediately confronted with evidence that this most westerly county of Britain has a linguistic heritage all of its own. The county border is dotted with bilingual signs which read Kernow as well as ‘Cornwall’, while place-names like Marazanvose, Ardensawah, Halabezack and Perranarworthal, sounding mysterious and sometimes unpronounceable to the outsider, stand in marked contrast to those of neighbouring Devon. Of all the counties of England, in fact, Cornwall has the unique distinction of possessing its own language which, although it died out as a spoken tongue in the late 18th century, is still vigorously nurtured as the single most important manifestation of Cornish identity.

Cornish is descended from the primitive Celtic which was spoken throughout most of Britain before the Anglo-Saxons/Englisc began their colonisation of the south-east in the fourth and fifth centuries. As the newcomers spread out, the Celtic dialects gradually retreated into the peripheral regions and slowly came to assume the status of separate languages. By the end of the Dark Ages the northern and western branches of Celtic had developed into Gaelic, Irish and Manx, while the southern or Brythonic dialects had emerged as Welsh and Cornish, and a sixth variation, as we saw in Chapter Two, had in the meantime been carried overseas to Brittany. On mainland Britain pockets of isolated Celtic speakers survived elsewhere for a time, particularly in Cumberland and perhaps in the South Hams of Devon, but by the 11th and 12th centuries these had all but disappeared, leaving the surviving strains of Celtic confined to the remoteness of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.

At the very time Cornish was developing into a separate language it was already in a state of retreat. The early Saxon incursions across the Tamar had drive the language out of the north-east where 90 per cent of the place-names are Old English, while it had also lost ground in the area between the Tamar and the Lynher where only 50 per cent of place-names are Cornish. By the time of the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade pockets of English speakers could be found well within Celtic territory, but these were still a minority and, west of the Lynher, Cornish was commonly spoken throughout the early Middle Ages, not only by the peasants but also by the gentry; in the early 13th century a certain Richard ‘of noble blood’ was recommended for a high position to Bishop Grosseteste of Exeter but we are told that he could speak no English. By the end of the century, however, Cornish was beginning to lose further ground in the east. Place-name forms are instructive in tracing this decline, as we find older forms of the language preserved, for example, in the word cuit meaning a ‘wood’; in east Cornwall this appears in names like Penquite and Trequite, but across the central parts of the county we find the Middle Cornish cos in evidence in names like Tregoose and Pencoose. There are over a dozen places called Penquite east of Par and 10 to the west of it called Pencoose and, since this change from ‘t’ to ‘s’ was beginning c. 1100, it indicates that the language was already disappearing from much of the east by this time.

Piran (Perran ) Round: the best preserved plen-an-gwary in Cornwall. This reproduction of William Borlase's drawing shows the seven rows of seats from which 2,000 people could watch the Miracle Plays being performed.
Piran (Perran ) Round: the best preserved plen-an-gwary in Cornwall. This reproduction of William Borlase’s drawing shows the seven rows of seats from which 2,000 people could watch the Miracle Plays being performed.

A second pointer to this decline in the east is the distribution of the plen-an-gwary or ‘playing-places’ in which the Cornish-language Miracle Plays were performed. There are very few plen east of Truro but several in the west, which suggests that the plays, which date from the mid 14th century, were rarely if ever performed in the eastern parishes. This is not to argue that Cornish had disappeared completely from mid Cornwall by 1400, but that English had become more common and there were insufficient Cornish-speakers to warrant the players’ attention. The records of the Bishops of Exeter, in fact, show that the language still retained some ground in mid Cornwall during the 14th century; reference is made to Ralph de Tremur of Lanivet, near Bodmin, who was a fluent Cornish-speaker, while in 1339 a licence to preach was granted to John Polmark to help the vicar of St Merryni near Padstow ‘expound the word of God in the said church in the Cornish language’. Again, among the penitentiaries appointed for the archdeaconry of Cornwall in 1355 was a certain Brother John at Bodmin who was to hear confessions for those who knew both Ianguages, while Brother Roger de Tyrel of Truro was to administer to those who knew nothing but Cornish. Further west, most of the population still knew, very little, if any, English, and when Bishop Grandisson visited St Buryan’ in 1336 he found it necessary to appoint the vicar of St Just as his interpreter since many of the inhabitants spoke only Cornish.

Observations on the state of the language become more frequent from the early 16th century. In 1538 Sir William Godolphin responded, to a request from Thomas Cromwell to send him some expert tinners, but had to point out that it would be necessary to ‘call [John] Herry to interpret these men’s languages for their English is very bad. Andrew Boorde, in 1542, confirmed that there were still many monoglot Cornish speakers. In his Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of knowledge he observed that ‘In Cornwall is two speches: the one is naughty [i.e. corrupt] Englysshe, and the other is Cornysshe speche. And there may be many men and women the whiche cannot speake one worde of Englysshe, but all Cornysshe’. Unfortunately Boorde gave no indication of the geographical extent of spoken Cornish, adding only a few sentences in the language, the numerals up to 30, and a few damaging comments on Cornish food and, above all, the beer which was

‘thick and smoky and also it is thin,

It is like wash as pigs had wrestled therein’!

We do not know where Boorde stayed and his comments may even have been second-hand, as there can be no doubt that English was supplanting the old tongue. The increasing bilingualism even west of Truro is revealed by an ecclesiastical court case at Lelant in 1572 when the wife of Morrysh David called Agnes Davey “whore and whore bitch” in English and not in Cornowok’. The religious upheavals of the 16th century, with no Cornish version of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer, clearly had great effect, and in his Survey of 1602 Richard Carew outlined the territorial retreat which had taken place, noting that ‘the English speech doth still encroach upon it and hath driven the same into the uttermost skirts of the shire’.

The loss of the language in the 17th century was probably greater than at any time before. The Miracle Play’s ceased to be performed and we are told by John Norden early in the century that even in the far west most people were now bilingual, while Cornish had virtually disappeared east of Truro: ‘In the west parte of the county, as in the Hundreds of Penwith and Kerrier, the Cornish tongue is mostly in use, and it is to be marvelled that though husband and wife, parents and thildren, master and servantes doe mutually communicate in their native language, yet there is none of them but in manner is able to converse with a stranger in the English tongue, unless it be some obscure persons that seldom converse with the better sort. But it seemeth that in a few years the Cornish language will be by little and little abandoned’. Norden’s observations, though, clearly show that the linguistic division was also becoming a class one and that Cornish was being seen as an obstacle to social advancement. The ‘obscure persons’ could not keep it alive for long and we are not surprised to read in John Ray’s Itinerary of 1662 that few of ‘the children could speak Cornish, so that the language is like, in a short time, to be quite lost’.

The local antiquary William Scawen, writing in the 1670s, was very informative about the position of Cornish in his day, saying that it was still used in the western promontories of Penwith and the Lizard, but adding that it was in terminal decline: ‘It may, I confess, be lamented, and heavily laid to the charge of us and our ancestors. . . to have been much wanting to ourselves in the loss of the Cornish speech’. Another commentator, Nicholas Boson of Newlyn near Penzance, reinforces the increasing social castigation of the language which Norden hinted . Boson wrote a short pamphlet entitled Nebbaz Gerriau dro tho irnoack (‘A few words about Cornish’) in which he says that he was prevented from acquiring a knowledge of it before he was six years old his mother, who had insisted that the servants should not speak it him. In this work of c. 1700 he reveals that the Cornish-speaking district now only extended along the shores of Mount’s Bay, the Lizard, and around St Ives, but that the area had considerably receded in his lifetime. The Welsh antiquary Edward Lhuyd, who spent some months in Cornwall at about the time Boson was writing, recorded the names of 24 parishes in which the language was still spoken, but added that ‘a great many of the inhabitants of those parishes, especially the gentry, do not understand it, and everyone is able to speak good English’.

The final demise of Cornish in the 18th century was rapid. By 1735 two local scholars, Gwavas and Tonkin, could find only a few speakers in the small fishing villages and coves between Penzance and Land’s End, and it was in one of these, Mousehole, that the old Celtic tongue finally died. This was the home of an aged jowster or fish hawker called Dolly Pentreath, who is the last known native speaker of Cornish. Dolly died in 1777, but nine years before her death she was visited by the antiquary Dames Barrington who noticed that there were still other folk in the village who understood her, but could not speak the lan­guage readily. Dolly’s place in the history books was confirmed in 1860 when a bilingual tombstone in Paul churchyard was erected to her memory by Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte, a descendant of Napoleon and a keen antiquary.

Although Dolly was probably the last person to speak Cornish fluently, knowledge of the language lingered on for a little longer. Her epitaph had been written by a Truro mining engineer called Thomson who was evidently well versed in it, while another Mousehole inhabi­tant, a fisherman called William Bodener, could speak Cornish after a fashion. In 1776, 13 years before his death, he had written to Barrington saying ‘My age is three-score and five. I am a poor fisherman. I learnt Cornish when I was a boy. I have been to sea with my father and five other men in the boat, and we have not heard one word of English spoke in the boat, for a week together I never saw a Cornish book. I learned Cornish going to sea with old men, there is not more than four or five in our town can talk Cornish now old people four-score years old. Cornish is all forgot with young people’.

The decline of the Cornish language, showing towns and villages mentioned in the text.
The decline of the Cornish language, showing towns and villages mentioned in the text.

Bodener, like many others, left children who were able to count in Cornish and recite a few phrases, but he appears to have been one of the last with any conversational knowledge of the language, although spotting the alleged ‘final speaker’ became a popular pastime among antiquarians at the end of the 18th century. John Tremethack, who died in 1852, knew enough to teach a few phrases to his daughter who was still alive in 1875, while John Davey of Boswednack near Zennor, who died in 1891, was also reputed to have been able to recite tradi­tional rhymes and verses. While there are many other examples, some rather suspect, the final word must rest with the celebrated Cornish scholar, R. Morton Nance: ‘We must accept 1800 as being about the very latest date at which anyone really spoke Cornish traditionally, as even the remnant of a living language, all traditional Cornish since then having been learned parrot-wise from those of an earlier generation’.

Now that we have reviewed the history of the language, it might be worthwhile to consider the question, ‘why did Cornish die out?

Inevitably its decline was the result of a complex weave of social,: political and religious factors, and at an early stage the displacement of the Cornish land-holding classes by the Saxons/English and then the French-Normans was crucial. The relegation of the native Cornish to inferior positions in society is shown by the 10th- and 11th-century glosses in the ‘Bodmin Gospels’, which record the manumission or freeing of slaves; while 98 of the slaves’ names are Cornish, those of the manumittors are mostly Anglo-Saxon/Englisc. Admittedly, some of the Cornish upper classes adopted the personal names of their political masters, but the point remains that the Cornish were a subjected people. Domesday Book, too, shows that by 1066 only six men with Cornish names remained as landholders, while 20 years later there were even fewer. Those outsiders, who replaced them and established family lines which often survived for centuries, failed to provide similar patronage to that which allowed” Welsh to flourish as a language of poetry and learning. As a result of this: social rift, Cornish became synonymous with the language of the peasants, the speech of the ignorant and illiterate. As William Scawen of Saltash put it in 1680, ‘the poor speak Cornish, but are laughed at by the rich that speak it not’. The great religious changes of the 16th. century also speeded up the process of anglicisation; whereas the first Welsh books were printed in the 1540s with a translation of both the Bible and the Prayer Book, no one seriously listened to the Cornish rebels in 1549 when they asked for a version in their native tongue. The Cornish men of learning, moreover, had little time for the language and did even less to foster it. Richard Carew, described by A. L. Rowse as our chief literary light in that Age’, was a great Renaissance scholar well versed in Greek, Latin, Italian, French and Spanish, but in his Survey of 1602 he allocated only a few pages to a language which was clearly only a curiosity to him, and it is significant that another of famous works was none other than ‘An Epistle concerning the Excellencies of the English Tongue’. Other events also played their part the final demise of the language, like the use of the Cornish ports which already contained a large proportion of foreigners, to fight the Spaniards. The persecution of Catholics, too, put an end to the thousand-year intercourse with Celtic-speaking Brittany which had done much to sustain Cornish. In 1498 Bretons had constituted 63 per cent of maritime traffic at Padstow and a staggering 94 per cent in Mount’S. Bay, while the Breton scholar Joseph Loth estimated the Breto element in the population of Penwith just before the Reformation to have been as high as one-sixth.

All these changes, together with the impact of the Civil War which Charles Thomas has shown to have accounted for the death of the language on the Scillies, disturbed the tranquility of Cornwall which had sheltered Cornish for so long. The westward expansion of the tin and copper industries likewise played a part in the final stages; as the workings of east Cornwall became exhausted new mines opened up the west and large numbers of English-speaking tinners moved into Penwith and Kerrier where the language still stubbornly survived. a result, Cornish speakers in the inland parishes became swamped [ the language was finally left to die on the lips of the fisher folk. Even at its height, Cornish was restricted to a small geographical area [could hardly have boasted more than, perhaps, 30,000 speakers.