Cornish never died

Lately the subject of dead languages ​​has come up a lot. In a recent conversation, I brought up my desire to learn Cornish, a Celtic language closely related to Welsh, and the response I got was “Oh yeah, that’s a dead language, right?” I quickly came to the defense of Cornish, a living language and fine by my standards, but what started was a lively debate about what exactly constituted a dead language and whether or not Cornish fit the suit (yes, that was a Johnny Bravo reference ).

I won’t get into all of that particular debate now (articles on that topic quickly follow this one) but I would like to explain my take on Cornish, why it never died and why it is alive and well when there is, at best, a few thousand people who understand it and a few hundred who speak it fluently.

According to most reports, the last native monoglot speaker of Cornwall was Dolly Pentreath, who died in 1777. So if we assume that the death of the last native monoglot speaker is a requirement for a language to be considered dead, then that’s it. . Cornish is a dead language, right? Not so fast.

First, according to some accounts, Dolly Pentreath was not a monoglot Cornish speaker. She could speak English, but she just refused to, or so the legend would say. Cheers to Dolly. Second, there is much evidence that there were other polyglot (bilingual with English) speakers from Cornwall at the time, and for a living use of the language between 1777 and the present. The people of Cornwall may never completely let it go.

There are accounts of Cornish fishermen telling in Cornwall up to the 20th century. I doubt that the fishermen of Dolly’s time stopped counting when Dolly died and did not start counting in Cornwall later in her honor either. They had been using it the entire time. Sure, it’s not fluency, but bear with me on this.

There was also a Cornish “renaissance” that began almost as soon as Dolly died. A small community of non-native Cornish enthusiasts (many of whom may have learned from native speakers) maintained the language until the more popular revival movements took over. Kept alive by enthusiasts, it seems that Cornish never died.

Although it is not necessary to establish a direct “lineage” from the native speakers of before 1777 to modern times, I think it helps to provide a real connection between the Cornish speakers of then and today. A small group of non-native speaking enthusiasts have kept the language “in confidence” until a larger community of native speakers was prepared to pick it up, as it appears they are doing now.

There are official government recognized bodies with tax dollar budgets, local religious services and road signs in Cornwall. There are festivals, gatherings and competitions to promote the language. There is recent and official recognition as a European language. Cornish people act as if Cornish is not a dead or dying language, but a living and growing language.

It is exactly this attitude that makes Cornwall a living language, now that the wider community has taken it up again. There are thousands of languages ​​around the world that are dying and they really will be dead because the indifferent communities around them don’t care, and the people who speak them cannot see the cultural treasure they possess. The people of Cornwall are realizing what they have, and if Cornish is a living language for them, it will be a living ‘native’ language for their children.