Towards a Cornish Identity Theory – Updated Evidence


Some twenty-two years ago, situated towards the back of the second volume of Philip Payton’s Cornish Studies series, was a chapter co-written by the publication’s editor and Allen E. Ivey of the University of Massachusetts entitled Towards A Cornish Identity Theory. Just thirteen pages long, and located ahead of a paper entitled Wildlife of Brittany and Cornwall, the piece sought to attempt to bring together a sense of what Cornish identity is, how it is different from a wider English identity, examine levels of consciousness both in and of Cultural Identity and critically investigate the subsequent themes drawn out through the paradigms of Cultural Identity Theory and Platonic Epistemology.

Despite the fact that I read this chapter several years ago now, what I read has stayed with me, and having returned to the paper recently in some very preliminary work on my own Postgraduate Thesis on the Re-establishment of the Cornish Language Since 1900, I began to think about how Payton & Ivey’s theories stack up in 2016.

In this, the first of several blog posts related to this particular chapter of the 1994 Cornish Studies volume which will appear as my thesis evolves over the next eleven months, I look at the arguments and evidence advanced by Payton & Ivey and consider whether or not they hold weight today, and what additional evidence could be brought to bear for them.

Allen E. Ivey – co-author of the 1994 paper.


The writers began the piece by celebrating the fact that, in the period in which they wrote (1994), several social science academics were beginning to note that, indeed, there was a distinct Cornish identity which was removed from “the romantic myth constructed for the benefit of tourists and other seekers of the mystical and foreign,” (Payton & Ivey: 1994: p 151). The announcement, in 2014 that finally, Cornwall was to be awarded recognition of being a National Minority under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention clearly vindicated their views.

So, how did Payton & Ivey define social identity? For them, the key components were built around the work of Phinney (1990) who concluded it was down to:

  • Membership of a social group with the values of an emotional significance
  • (Indigenous) language
  • Shared behaviour, values and knowledge of ethnic group history
  • Being a dynamic product which is achieved rather than being given

In the present era, Cornwall has benefitted from online resources which has enabled to ensure that the large Cornish diaspora (something which has been a major feature of Cornwall’s native culture from the days of Cousin Jacks and Jennys) can actively participate and be closer than ever before to the unique social identity that Cornwall has. There are now numerous groups on Facebook alone which not only allow Cornish Exiles to stay in touch, but be part of developments, including the possibilities of learning the Kernewek language, listening to Kernewek broadcasts and joining in the more politicised debate and action about the issues that Cornwall is presently facing.


It is important to dwell on the language issue. This is one of clearest demarcations between one (cultural) group and another. The fact that Kernewek exists still, despite England’s best attempts at silencing it, is the most potent symbol for Cornwall in having a clear separate identity to England. In the 22 years since the chapter was written, Kernewek has gained a far greater presence and symbolism. More people are now able to speak the language than have done for decades, duel language signage around the territory is more evident than ever before (something which will only increase in years to come) and it is protected under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Eight years ago saw Kernewek established in a Standard Written Form, and 2010 saw UNESCO announce that its former classification of the language as “extinct” was “no longer accurate” (BBC News: 2010)

For Vink (1993), this separate identity from England is all down to “contact and conflict” – whether it be through Athelstan’s setting of the borders and the Prayer Book Rebellions. Contemporary issues clearly resonate with Vink’s work from almost a quarter of a century ago. To her original examples should be added the current housing crises related to the high percentage of second home owners from outside of Cornwall’s territorial borders which led to the recent referendum in St. Ives and other issues such as cutting in funding to the Cornish language and the present battles to avoid the imposition of a Devonwall constituency during the current parliamentary boundary changes – despite the fact that this would be completely against several articles in the Framework Convention document.

In the original chapter, writers cited a Commission For Racial Equality report as a reason for needing a Cornish Identity Theory. The report pointed to the fact that “a substantial number of indigenous Cornish people … feel disadvantaged compared with ‘incomers’ in relation to class, income, housing (and) employment” (Jay: 1992). I would argue that this feeling has now gone significantly further. It has now gone to full blown anger at the potential dilution of a Cornish identity, and the incomers’ complete lack of comprehension of the unique issues which face Cornwall – something which risks only increasing the sense of alienation from Westminster. Recent large protests in Falmouth against university plans for student accommodation and the recent referendum on building no more second homes in St. Ives are perfect examples of this.

The original work identified five stages of Cornish identity which drew on the work of Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 1972), Jackson & Hardiman (Racial Identity Development: Implications for Managing the Multiracial Work Force: 1983) and Vitvo & Sargent (The NTL Managers’ Handbook: 1983). They are as follows:

Naivety – Individuals unaware of distinctions between Cornish and English identity.

Acceptance – Either a Cornish person self-defines as English in order to avoid controversy/derision. Or, a Cornish person acts self-depreciatingly and will, seemingly willingly be a victim to “informal social apartheid” (Deacon: 1983).

Naming & Resistance – Anger and Pride – for example, anger that in-migrants can come into Cornwall so easily and the fact that indigenous Cornish are forced to leave in order to find better employment prospects. Sympathy held for the view that Cornwall is not merely a county.

Reflection and Redefinition – Reflection on what being Cornish means. Re-examination of what the Cornish are. Deep focus on indigenous language, history and key moments. Efforts to present Cornwall as part of a Pan-Celtic World.

Multiperspective Integration – An attempt to utilise the best of varying cultural frameworks. Recognition that, in some cases, an English tradition may be more effective than a Cornish one. Awareness of parallels between Cornish-English situation and those between Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians.

My own research for my Postgraduate thesis, which is about to begin, will attempt to use Payton & Ivey’s work and look in detail at the contemporary situation within the territory in a bid to update the theory as we approach the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original chapter, through the medium of the Re-emergence of the Indigenous Cornish language. As this work develops, further blog posts will appear on this site.


BBC News (2010): Cornish Language No Longer Extinct, Says UN: 7th December 2010, retreived on 9th June 2016 at:

Deacon, Bernard (1983): Is Cornwall an Internal Colony in Cathal O’Luain, For a Celtic Future: Celtic League: Dublin.

Jay, Eric (1992): Keep Them In Birmingham: Challenging Racism in the South-West of England

Payton, Philip & Ivey, Allen E. (1994) Towards A Cornish Identity Theory in Philip Payton (ed) Cornish Studies Two: University of Exeter Press: Exeter.

Phinney, J (1990): Ethnic Identity in Adolescents and Adults: Review of Research in Psychological Bulletin No. 108.

Vink, Caroline (1993): Be Forever Cornish! Unpublished University of Amsterdam Doctoral Thesis.


One comment

  1. Ronald M. James · June 9, 2016

    Well done! Looking forward to seeing your analysis unfold.


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