A Cornish resurrection

Last month saw the rare showcasing of the Cornish language on a national radio station.

During Mark Radcliffe’s Folk Show on BBC Radio 2, Cornish singer Sam Kelly performed a number of songs, one of which was performed in Cornish – quite possibly the first time most listeners, even those living in Cornwall, will have heard the Cornish language.

This marks a truly remarkable turn of fortunes for a language whose decline can be traced back to 1549 when forces of the crown put down the Prayer Book Rebellion.

The rebellion was the response to the Crown’s forced imposition of the Book of Common Prayer – a prayer book presenting much of the theology of the English Reformation, in English.

The truth behind the rebellion lay in economic hardships and over taxation, which had blighted the region for years and already seen an unsuccessful uprising, this perceived attack on Catholicism and the Cornish language was no more than a catalyst to the already unhappy populace.

The Crown’s response was swift and brutal. Within two months the rebellion was crushed, however, unsatisfied with their decisive victory, government forces chased down the fleeing rebels throughout Cornwall without mercy. Over 4,000 Cornish were killed as a result of the uprising leaving the region a shell of its former self.

Cornish Last stand

The last known monoglot speaker of Cornish is believed to have been Chesten Marchant of Gwithian who passed away in 1676. The last native speaker of Cornish is harder to determine as records often confused heavy dialect with the Cornish language but there is some consensus that it was Dolly Pentreath who died in 1777.

So how does a language return from the dead?

In Cornish’s case, the curiosity of 19th Century linguists, determined to uncover who was the last Cornish speaker, sparked a broader interest in the language.

Coupled with the revival of Celtic culture, moves to revive Cornish began. In 1904 Henry Jenner published his book A Handbook of the Cornish Language, which most agree was the start of the Cornish language revival.

Progress was slow, with disagreements on the structure of the language, the correct written form and even what the language should be called.

However, 105 years after the start of the revival, in 2009, UNESCO changed the status of the Cornish language from extinct to critically endangered – a huge step for the language.

The Cornish language is not unique in its resurrection, with many languages recovered and reintroduced. In fact another British Isles language, Manx from the Isle of Man, considered extinct from 1975 is also on the UNESCO list of revived languages.

Perhaps one of the biggest success stories in language revival belongs to Hebrew.

Considered extinct as a spoken language from around the 2nd Century, its revival in the late 1800s when used as a lingua franca by the Jewish people arriving in Palestine, it now enjoys a global speaker base of over nine million people.

At one time over 40,000 people used Cornish as their main language; today The Cornish Language Board estimate around 300 people across the globe are fluent in Cornish but with its gradual reintroduction into schools in Cornwall and funding from the European Union that number is set to grow over the next decade. Here at London Translations, Cornish is just one of the many languages we can translate.

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