Cornish has been granted a comeback
By Frances Elliott
Let's kewsel Cornish again. Decades after it was thought to have been consigned to the scrapheap of history, the ancient Celtic language that is spoken fluently by only 100 people is making a remarkable comeback.
Cornish has been granted official protection under the provisions of a European charter on "minority languages", paving the way for schoolchildren to be taught and speak (kewsel) it.
Until recently, Cornish was thought by many to be an attractive curiosity ranking some way behind the region's beaches, smugglers' caves and cream teas.
Dolly Pentreath, of Mousehole, the last Cornish monoglot, died in 1777 and at its lowest ebb the language was spoken by only a single person. It has, however, undergone a gradual revival.
Supporters of the language now include Ruth Rendell, the novelist, and the Asda supermarket chain, which has bilingual signs in its Cornish stores.
Nick Raynsford, the local government minister, added Cornish to the United Kingdom's five other protected minority languages in a little-noticed move earlier this month. It joins Scots, Ulster Scots, Welsh, and Scottish and Irish Gaelic. The ruling commits the Government to ensuring that lessons in the ancient and obscure tongue are available "at all appropriate stages". Officials from the department of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, are preparing to meet Cornish council officials to discuss a "promotion programme" for the language, which all but died out 200 years ago.
Campaigners are pressing for the return of a Cornish GCSE, scrapped in 1996 after just 42 candidates took the examination in a decade, and the inclusion of the language on the curriculum of schools in the county.
Supporters of the pressure group Agan Tavas (Our Language), point to the success of the county's Hayle Community School, which began teaching Cornish to 11-year-old pupils last year.
Tony Wyld, the school's head of languages, said: "We are extending the teaching to other years from next year. I think the return of the GCSE is now inevitable."
The Government has been accused by critics of giving in to a rising tide of Cornish nationalism. Three members of Cornwall's ancient Stannary Parliament were fined earlier this year for stealing English Heritage signs from local landmarks. They had objected to the word "English" on the signs.
Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives who lobbied for the language ruling, said that it meant, at least, that the Government would not be able to discriminate against Cornish speakers.
"It might mean, for instance, that if a Cornish speaker writes to a Government department they should receive a reply in their own language," he said.
The new ruling does not yet give Cornish the status of Welsh, which must be used in official documents, be taught in schools and be used on state-owned media under Part III of the European charter, but campaigners believe that this may come.
Cornish is spoken fluently by only 100 people, with 500 more having reasonable conversational ability. About 3,500 are said to have some knowledge of the language and it is used as a mother tongue in just 10 households.
It lags well behind its protected Celtic cousins. Scots is spoken by an estimated 1.75 million people mostly in southern Scotland, and Scottish Gaelic by about 66,000 in and around the Western Isles. Irish Gaelic is spoken by 1.75 million in Ireland and 131,000 in Northern Ireland, while an estimated 500,000 speak Ulster Scots and 508,000 have some knowledge of Welsh.
The last true native speakers of the original Cornish tongue died in the late 18th century. It was thought that it had gone the same way as other ancient British tongues such as Pictish and Cumbrian - which historians believe to have died out in 1000 and 1200 respectively.
Modern Cornish was re-constructed from historical fragments such as translations of the Creed and The Lord's Prayer by Victorian enthusiasts.
How authentic today's version is is a matter of controversy. Prof Ken Mackinnon, the author of an official assessment of Cornish, admitted that the language has been "recovered" but insisted that it had never entirely died out. "To quote one of those who helped recover it, 'There was never a time when there has been no person in Cornish Cornwall without a knowledge of the Cornish language'."
The collection of clergymen and antiquarians who reconstructed the language were helped in their efforts by John Davey, a schoolmaster in Zennor, the last person with sufficient knowledge of the old tongue to speak it.
Davey, who died in 1891, is said to have kept his ability alive by speaking Cornish to his cat.
Prof Mackinnon said he supported efforts to protect and promote Cornish. "It is of immense symbolic importance to the people of Cornwall to keep their own tongue."
Ray Chubb, of the Cornish publishing and translation service, Spyrys a Gernow, (Spirit of Cornwall), has begun marketing a badge to enable Cornish speakers to identify one another. It features a black frog, after Dolly Pentreath's favoured term of abuse for those who incurred her anger.
"It's a good sign, since in the past we would have had no trouble in recognising each other," he said.
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