Cornish language/Talk

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The linguistic sources indicate that Dolly was the last native speaker of Cornish. Several general and linguistic encyclopaedias I checked also attest to that fact. When the language has no native speakers, it dies, according to modern linguistics. The fact that it was carried on later as a second language, preserved in place names and numbers, and is being revived doesn't change that fact.

This atricle is written in an extremely biased tone. Can you please state scholarly sources that prove that Dolly was not the last native speaker of Cornish? -- AV

Firstly, a number of children I know personally are native speakers, i.e. they have been taught Cornish from birth, and speak it principally. Secondly, the Dolly Pentreath story is actually incorrectly stated in most sources: the belief was that she was the last native monoglot speaker; she actually spoke a little English so she is disqualified on that count; the last native monoglot Cornish speaker was Chesten Marchant who died in 1676. William Bodinar, who died in 1789 also spoke Cornish but not as a native. Cornish was effectively extinct from about 1750 to 1904 when Henry Jenner published A Handbook for Cornish, although the language was still spoken in part by many inhabitants. Furthermore, the Daveys, pere et fils were also fluent Cornish speakers (although it is not known whether they were native speakers) and the son did not die until 1891.

Here is some primary source evidence for you from Bodinar, written in July 1786, in both English and Cornish:

"My age is 65. I am a poor fisherman. I learnt Cornish when I was a boy. I have been to sea with my father and 5 other men in the boat, and have not heard one word of English spoke in the boat for a week together. I never saw a Cornish book. I learnt Cornish going to sea with old men. There is not more than 4 or 5 in our town can talk Cornish now, old people 80 years old. Cornish is all forgot with young people."

This kind of buries the Pentreath myth for me if Bodinar is to be believed, and I see no reason why this should be questioned.

As for bias, well, yes, I admit that the Cornish language is a subject which is dear to my heart. sjc


Well, as you say, "Cornish was effectively extinct from 1750 to 1904". That means it died. The language dies when it is no longer transmitted from parents to children as their native language. I don't know why you feel you have to label it as a "myth" and try to debunk it. You speak of the revival; but one revives something dead, not something alive. The Cornish language was dead, and now it's in a process of revival, with a small number of native speakers. There's nothing to be ashamed in that and there's no need to deny it. The revived version of Cornish is bound to get some aspects of Cornish as it was actually spoke wrong -- for instance, intonation and some aspects of phonology are almost always lost in such circumstances. There's nothing to be ashamed there either - it's just lignuistic reality. --AV


There are similar oddities or differences in Modern Spoken Hebrew - a language which had not been used as an everyday speech for a L-O-O-O-N-G time. That doesn't necessarily mean the language was "dead." Please remember, these uses of "dead" and "revival" are metaphorical. Languages are not living entities. --MichaelTinkler


Yes, I know about that (I'm actually a speaker of Modern Hebrew). It's linguistically accurate to say that Hebrew was dead, and then it was revived. The uses of "dead" and "revival" are metaphorical, but they may at the same time be scientifically accurate, without any contradiction. This is in fact the case with the (reasonably) accurate definitions of what it means for a language to be dead or to be revived, which are used by linguists.

The point is, any language without native speakers may be called 'dead' with equal justification, be it Latin, Hebrew or Cornish (until the recent revival attempts which produced a small number of native speakers of the "new" Cornish). The article refers to the accurate description of the state of Cornish as a "myth" which is to be debunked. --AV

No, the article deals with the Cornish language and touches on the Doll Pentreath myth; the story is, as the article indicates, based upon conjecture. The fact remains that Cornish as a language was not actively in use for a hundred years or so.

How do we know that Ms Pentreath was the last native speaker? Hearsay and at best tertiary sources, many of which are controverted by a number of primary sources. Just because a few encyclopedias and other tertiary sources are apathetic enough to recycle a piece of conjecture, does this mean that we have to treat it as gospel?

Let us therefore bury this one for all time. This is the evidence:

Dolly Pentreath (who more accurately is called Dorothy Jeffery due to her marriage) was a fish-wife of Mousehole who was a bit of a character, and who I think we will accept died on 27th December 1777. There is plenty of primary source evidence for this. She was reputed to have been 102 years old. This is uncheckable since her birth is anterior to any extant records.

There is no direct evidence that she spoke Cornish as a native; moreover she also spoke a considerable amount of English. There is the uncomfortable Bodinar letter (op.cit), which definitely contradicts the fact that she was the last Cornish speaker. Some sources, in fact, indicate that she spoke very little Cornish at all. There is also the tombstone at Zennor church to John Davey: 'the last to possess any traditional considerable knowledge of the Cornish Language'; the claims for Davey may be inflated yet nevertheless he was known to have some knowledge of the language as a native speaker, as did his father. There was no definitive 'last speaker'; just a larger than life local character who has been mythologised. sjc


Well, Latin was a living language well into the 1960s, and is the process of being revived at certain (admittedly minority) seminaries and monastic establishments. I know two men who heard all their graduate coursework lectures and wrote their dissertations in Latin, and both are still themselves teaching (one at Georgia State Univesity and one at the University of Tennessee). It certianly wasn't classical Latin, but it was a recognizable descendent thereof. --MichaelTinkler