The Demise and Resurgence of the Cornish Language

With only a very small percentage of Cornish men and women speaking Cornish today, whatever, happened to our true Celtic tongue, a language that was once spoken throughout the whole of Cornwall?

Signs of it’s existence is evident everywhere you travel in our beautiful county.  For example, when you come to stay in our family’s luxury holiday cottages in Trelash, the name of the hamlet contains the prefix ‘Tre’ with a Cornish meaning of a settlement or homestead.  Given that the oldest buildings in the hamlet are sited around a farm in Trelash it is most probable that ‘Trelash’ was so called because of the farm (a homestead).

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Interestingly, the Cornish language is an ancient Celtic tongue with ties to the Welsh and Breton language of Brittany, France. In fact the Celts migrated to Britain from Europe over 3,000 years ago, bringing their language with them. By 1200 years ago 40,000 Cornish people were reported to be speaking Cornish. The Cornish language survived as the main language spoken throughout Cornwall until the Tudor period when Cornwall was taken over by the British Empire. Pressure from the English for all Cornish men and women to speak English, meant that by the mid 1600’s the Cornish language was only spoken in the far reaches of Cornwall, near the Lizard and west of Penwith.

The last recorded person known to speak Cornish fluently was a woman called Dolly Pentreath (1680–1777) who lived in Mousehole. Reputedly her last words spoken were ‘Me ne vidn cewsel Sawznek!’ (‘I don’t want to speak English!’). However, it is believed that quite a few Mousehole residents continued to speak Cornish after Dolly’s death.

The demise of the Cornish language was inevitable, but in 1904 a Celtic scholar by the name of Henry Jenner (1848 – 1934), a cultural activist, wrote and got published a Cornish Language handbook which saw the revival of Cornish as a spoken language.

Since then the number of people learning and using the Cornish language has increased substantially and a significant milestone in its revival was the official recognition of Cornish as a minority language in 2002 under the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Incredibly, today, Cornish is one of the fastest growing languages in the world. This has been helped considerably by Cornish being set as an optional curriculum subject in schools; an option that has been taken up by an ever increasing amount of schools. 2010 saw the first bilingual pre-school open in Pool. Many other pre-school, playgroups, primary and secondary schools have followed suit, offering children the opportunity to learn Cornish.

In the past few years the introduction of cable internet has seen a dramatic rise in the number of businesses moving to/setting up in Cornwall. Many of these have recognised the increasing interest we all have in our surroundings and our inner desire to harness a sense of belonging by embracing the use of the Cornish language in their marketing and publicity. For example, Polgoon Vineyard has chosen Cornish branding by naming many of their products in Cornish. National companies such as Weatherspoons have introduced bilingual signage in their Cornish pubs and naming them in Cornish such as the “Try Dowr” (Three Rivers) in Truro and “Chapel an Gansblydhen” (Centenary Chapel) in Bodmin.

In 2009 Cornwall Council introduced a policy of using the Cornish language where possible. Visible results of this policy include bilingual street signage appearing across Cornwall, installed as and when new or replacement signs are needed.

Some useful words and phrases to help you understand your surroundings when you are visiting our beautiful county include:

  • Tre as in Trelash and many more Cornish place names means a settlement or homestead.
  • Pol as in Polzeath, means a pool, pond, lake or well
  • Pen as in Pentire Point means a headland or head
  • Wheal as in Wheal Jane means a mine, whereas Bal as in Baldhu means a mine working.
  • Porth (Port) as in Port Isaac means a bay, port or harbour.
  • Towan as in Porthtowan meaning sand dunes.
  • Perran as in Perranporth is named after St Piran/St Perran, the Patron Saint of Tinners and the national saint of Cornwall, hence the St Piran Flag
  • Lan as in Lanhydrock or Lanteglos means a sacred enclosure such as a church, monastery.
  • Bos/Bod as in Bodmin or Boscastle means a home or dwelling.

Some Cornish phrases you might see on your travels:

a’gas Dynnergh – Welcome to …
Gwrys yn Kernow – Made in Cornwall
Onan hag Oll – One and All
Kernow Bys Vykken – Cornwall forever

So while you enjoy your travels around North Cornwall look closely and you will notice names of villages and hamlets beginning with Tre, Pol and Pen.

“ By Tre, Pol and Pen shall ye know all Cornishmen”

Happy holidays.

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