This article will discuss the present state and continuing revival of the Cornish language. Cornish is a part of the diversity of cultures and languages throughout Britain, Ireland, and mainland Europe.
Cornish is one of the Brythonic group of Celtic languages which includes Welsh, Breton and, originally, Cumbrian. The languages of Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx are known are known as Goidelic and are based on a different spelling system.
In terms of similarity of Cornish to the other existing Celtic languages, it shares about 80% basic vocabulary with Breton, 75% with Welsh, 35% with Irish and 35% with Scots Gaelic. Welsh shares about 70% with Breton.
During the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549, which was a reaction to Parliament passing the first Act of Uniformity, people in many areas of Cornwall did not speak or understand English. The Cornish language is no longer a matter of life and death, but in 1549 it was. Many Cornish people protesting against the imposition of an English Prayer book were massacred by the King's army. Their leaders were executed and the people suffered numerous reprisals.
Modern Cornish was the subject of a study by the Welsh linguist Edward Lhuyd in 1700, and differs from the mediaeval language in having a simpler structure and grammar.
The Cornish language is alleged to have died out in about 1800, a year after the death of Dolly Pentreath, whose native language it was and who could speak little English. She was not the last monoglot Cornish speaker, that was Chesten Marchant who died in 1676 at Gwithian. The Dolly Pentreath story, however, is a myth since the language persisted, albeit in limited usage by a handful of speakers, throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Fishermen, for example, were counting fish in the Cornish language into the 1940s. A dialect form of Cornish continues to this day in some areas.
It is estimated that there are approximately 3,500 Cornish speakers and many more speak some Cornish or have a knowledge of the language. Cornish exists in place names, and a knowledge of the language helps to read the landscape. Many Cornish names are adopted for children, pets, houses and boats.
Cornwall County Council has, as policy, a commitment to support the language, and recently passed a motion supporting it being specified within the European charter for regional or minority languages.
There are regular periodicals solely in the language: An Gannas, An Gowser and An Garrick. Radio Cornwall and Pirate FM, have regular news broadcasts in Cornish, and sometimes have other programmes and features for learners and enthusiasts. Local newspapers such as the Western Morning News regularly have articles in Cornish, and newspapers such as The Packet, The West Briton and The Cornishman also support the movement.
The language has financial sponsorship from many sources, including the Millennium Commission. Increasingly, churches have notices in Cornish and English. The take-up of the language is now becoming so widespread that organisations such as Kevas an taves Kernewek, the Cornish Language Board, are finding it difficult to keep up with demand. Others include the Cornish sub-group of the European bureau for lesser-used languages, Teere ha Tavas, or land and language, Gorseth Kernow, Cussel an Tavas Kernuack, Cowethas an Yeth, Agan Tavas and Dalleth, the last of which is the organisation promoting language to pre-school children. There are many popular ceremonies, some ancient, some modern, which use the language or are entirely in the language.
Cornwall has many other cultural events associated with the language, including the prestigious international Celtic film festival, hosted in St. Ives in 1997, with the programme in Cornish, English and French. There have been many films, some televised, made entirely, or significantly, in the language. Some shops, such as An Lyverjy Kernewak, the Cornish book shop in the town of Helston, England sell only books written in Cornish. Many companies use Cornish names. The GP overnight service in Cornwall is now called Kernowdoc. Cornish is taught in some schools and there are many who study Cornish at degree level in Aberystwyth and Harvard, USA.
Rumours of the extinction of the Cornish language are thus proven to be premature.