Crystal’s Theory of ‘Language Death’ And How It Relates To Cornwall

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David Crystal’s 2003 book ‘Language Death’ should be consulted by anyone who has the slightest passion about the re-emergence of the Kernewek language. It has the added bonus of being very easy to read and immerse yourself in – not something you can say about every book which is aimed at an academic audience.

Crystal’s work and associated theory not only perfectly encapsulates the situation that Kernewek has found itself in since the time of the Prayer Book Rebellion, but also can provide some perfect rebuttals to the present hysterical reaction of the English tabloid press to Cornwall Council’s new policy of promoting the language.

Crystal identifies the fact that 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by just 4% of the total global population, and goes on to state his five levels of language classification as: i) Viable (large population base speaking it), ii) Viable but small (around 1,000 speakers), iii) Endangered (survival a possibility but only with community support), iv) Nearly extinct (beyond the possibility of survival, only a few elderly speakers remain) and v) Extinct. At the present time, Kernewek remains in Crystal’s third classification, but with the present impetus, it should go into classification two within the next ten years.

The work clearly identifies the way that members of the ‘viable’ language group look down their noses at those which are part of Crystal’s other classifications, treating those languages as: “‘foul-mouthed’, ‘primitive’, and ‘little more than noise”. He goes on to say “Facts come to be beside the point in such situations – notably the fact that there is no such thing as a primitive language, and that every language is capable of great beauty and power of expression. Fears and hatreds pay no attention to facts (p30).” One simple rebuttal to this is that “Local languages are seen to be valuable because they promote community cohesion and vitality, foster pride in a culture, and give a community (and thus a workforce) self-confidence. In just the same way as so much of language shift has been shown to result from economic factors, so these same factors can be used to foster language maintenance (p31).”

Crystal goes on to chart the importance of language contributing to human knowledge and identity, as well as stating the fact that a human brain is “naturally wired to be multilingual”. Of the author’s five reasons for language death, it is fair to say that two of them directly contributed to the loss of widely spoken Kerewnek post 16th century. He identifies Colonialism (or, in this case ‘Internal Colonialism’ – see my three part post on this blog on Internal Colonialism from January and February 2015), and Politics/War (in the case of Cornwall – the various rebellions, sieges of Exeter). These factors lead to what Krauss has termed a “cultural nerve gas” effect where the (internal) colonisation of the English has imposed their own language and, some of their culture on the indigenous Cornish. Closely linked to this is the theory of linguicide – the deliberate attempt by another group/nation to crush a language, which Crystal believes can lead to making people being embarrassed to speak their own language, or indeed making it actually illegal to use it (in the case of the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer). The loss of indigenous language, for Crystal is “akin to a serious heart attack” (p121-122).

As the book nears its conclusion, matters turn towards the restoration of endangered languages. The first step, for Crystal is money being obtained/spent on promoting the language. Recent legal recognition of Kernewek and Cornwall Council’s plan to train its staff in use of the language shows that Cornwall most definitely has its foot on the ladder to restoration. Following this, there needs to be a serious and carefully laid down forward planning with regular assessment of impact and success, crucially with visionary leaders required. This is something that the Cornish language groups could do better at. They could use famous and recognisable Cornish figures (and, no I am not talking about Rick Stein or Caroline Quintin!) to help promote language learning and use. Local figure Ed Rowe (aka ‘Kernow King’) and his social media tales about learning the language are a start, but a British wide recognisable Cornish figure would be even better – people like Jenny Agutter, Sir. Ben Ainslie or even rugby star Jack Nowell.

Importantly, only a community can save a language – and, for Crystal, the final steps for doing so are: i) Increasing prestige of the language (signage etc), ii) Increasing legitimate power in the eyes of the dominant community – the English (public sympathy, famous people involved, Government, EU and Council of Europe support), iii) Language has a (strong) presence in the education system (much to do here in Cornwall!) and iv) Speakers need to make use of electronic technology (successful initial work being done here).

All of this is vitally important, as linguist Romeo Labillos stated: “A native language is like a natural resource which cannot be replaced once it is removed from the earth.”


Crystal, David (2003) ‘Language Death’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge



  1. Dr Charles Mansfield · November 21, 2015

    You would enjoy a visit to The Courtney Library in Truro. I took some of my postgraduates there and the staff very kindly gave us access to examples of their documents in Cornish.


    • bgilby2014 · November 22, 2015

      That is something I would very much like to do – one of the downsides of being based in Surrey. I do get to Cornwall 3-4 times a year and next time I am down have to go there!


  2. Dr Charles Mansfield · November 21, 2015

    See, in particular, Nicholas Boson’s ‘Nebbaz gerriau dro tho Carnoack’ – A few words about Cornish. Re-copied in 1750 from a lost original.


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