Following an announcement by Cornwall County Council in 2015 that callers to service centres are to be greeted in Cornish, there has been much discussion and debate about this supposedly dead language.
Cornish, or Kernowek, is a Celtic language not really spoken outside of Cornwall and, until recent times, not even spoken there very much. Cornish is one of the British branch of Celtic languages called Brythonicor alongside Welsh and Breton. It died out entirely in the seventeen hundreds but began to experience a revival in the nineteenth century, driven mainly by academic interest which gathered pace throughout the course of the last century. Cornwall is part of the movement embraced by Wales and Scotland seeking to re-define unique heritage and cultural differences and in the broader sense, promote devolution and greater local control. Now, Cornish is taught in schools and at adult education centres and in 2010, UNESCO announced that Cornish was officially no longer extinct but living again.
A language is so much more than just words; it comprises sayings, syntax, metre, folklore, proverbs, culture and heritage, and Cornwall is celebrating the revival of its mother tongue in much the same way that Wales has embraced its own language. Many of the Cornish courses are modelled alongside those that teach Welsh as the languages share common connections. Reviving a dead language will bring to life so much more than merely words; with it come history and characters, legend and stories, and this movement certainly connects to the increasing interest in genealogy and people’s fascination in discovering their ancestry.
Cornwall has yet to see the pressure groups found in Wales during the sixties or Cornish-only pubs, but joking aside, the Welsh Language Society – I’ll spare you that title in Welsh, much to their probable horror – has had an enormous impact; Welsh is now an official language, public services are obliged to be bilingual and there is the provision to learn Welsh from nursery level right through to university. There is even a new Welsh Language Commissioner. However, one of the biggest challenges that Wales faces – and this also applies to Cornwall and to Scotland with the revival of Gaelic, both of which are experiencing similar issues – is the likelihood of young language speakers moving away for job opportunities and diluting the effect of the native language within local communities. This is a much harder challenge to meet.