Researching the Cornish Language in the Late 1700s to Early 1900s – A PhD

I am in the very early days of PhD research at the Institute of Cornish Studies, based at the Humanities department of the University of Exeter’s campus in Penryn, Cornwall. My research, generously financed by the Cornwall Heritage Trust is on ‘The Cornish Language: 18th Century to the Early 20th Century’. This PhD was the culmination of a MA Cultural Geography Research degree in the outstanding Faculty of Geography and Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, where my dissertation was entitled ‘The Renaissance of Kernewek: The Indigenous Cornish Language: 1900 – 2017’ – a paper which will be published in this blog in an abridged version over several parts in the near future.

My PhD has three main research questions:

i) What was the reach of Kernewek in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Within this era in Cornwall, mass emigration was taking place and a vital part of my research attempts to examine the relationships between remaining Kernewek speakers and the wider indigenous Cornish groups both within Cornwall and among the diaspora. Discussions that I have had with other Cornish language researchers over the course of my Masters dissertation suggest that there may well have been pockets of Kernewek speakers in the area around Summercourt in Mid-Cornwall and Lanherne, near Newquay, as well as some Kernewek being spoken and written on the Lizard peninsula much later than previously thought. If research in these particular areas could prove this, then it could, potentially, lead to the east/west model of language retreat being rethought. Lyon (2001) offers  potential locations and individuals that would serve as starting points for this particular branch of the research. There are two examples within Lyon’s work which I am particularly interested to investigate further. Firstly, the potential identity of the several hundred miners “using uncouth jargon” (ibid p 11), in 1795 around Flushing, which quite possibly was a form of Kernewek.  Lyon suggests this group may have come from the St. Day and Carharrack area. Secondly, the example of John Davey who died in Boswednack in 1891 (ibid p 18-19). Morton Nance expressed doubts about Davey’s use of Cornish, suggesting instead that he picked it up from reading Pryce’s work Archaeologia Cornu-Britannica but Lyon asserts that he “would have had a good knowledge of Cornish, learned traditionally at home” (ibid p 19).  Due to Davey dying in the late nineteenth century, it would be, potentially highly significant to discover whether or not he had learned the language and, perhaps if he was in a position to speak it or teach it to others.

A final aspect of my research within this first framework, would be to consider whether or not Kernewek was used as an example of resistance against the earlier imposition of English – a situation which Gramsci (1971) may recognise as Passive Revolution. It would be particularly fruitful to investigate whether or not there were examples of local figures who were actively involved in the use/promotion of Kernewek and attempting to discover their motivation.
ii) How was Kernewek language use recorded?

Within this section of my research, I wish to examine the locations of language use with an emphasis on the communications between Cornish emigrants and their families and friends who remained in Cornwall.  In terms of the Cornish language community within Cornwall in the period, I wish to examine the relationship between Kernewek as a day-to-day domestically spoken language and the influence of some of its words on Cornish dialect within the English language to see the extent to which there may have been a cross-over in this era. Using the existing research of Lyon (2001) as a starting point, it would be worth examining records from areas around the Lizard and Zennor – both locations in which he suggests that the Cornish language may have still existed to a degree throughout the nineteenth century.

Creating interest among the young generations will be vital in the progression of my research, and I am very keen to use my experience as a qualified primary school teacher to develop ‘Language Detective’ sessions with Cornish primary schools in conjunction with the Institute of Cornish Studies and the Cornwall Heritage Trust, to get as many people on board with finding out what their own families may know or what documents they may have. The next generation of Cornwall needs to have some ownership of this research as they will be the ones who will take it forward in the future.

An additional route that my research would take would be to examine the interconnection between Cornish words in the English dialect and the intersection between them. It is highly likely that much of this cross-over took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Looking closely at early examples of this, and the people who were writing in Cornish dialect may open avenues to explore whether or not these people may have been communicating in Cornish for longer than had previously been thought. A consideration of gender issues could also prove worthwhile – it is possible that the language use of Cornish women, as a socio-economic group has been ignored, with only the men’s language choice being recorded. Research in this area, again, potentially in the form of written correspondence, could unearth evidence of women using Kernewek into the nineteenth century.

iii) What relationships were developed with other Celtic groups and nations, particularly Brittany?

With reference to the Celtic Revival and separate literature surrounding the establishment of the Breton Goursez, I believe it is particularly important to research the connections between the Cornish language communities and their Celtic cousins in Brittany. Stoyle (2002) and Spriggs (2003 and 2005) have noted the emphasis placed by Scawen on the loss of links between Cornwall and Brittany having a negative impact on the use of Kernewek. Despite this, I believe it would be important to investigate what links remained linguistically, particularly within the maritime and fishing industries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Attempting to discover use of Kernewek by Newlyn fishermen and whether or not they may have used aspects of the language when conversing with their Breton counterparts who began fishing around Cornwall from 1902 could offer some important information.

There has been a long history of trade between the regions of Cornwall and Brittany, but more research is needed to discover what written correspondence took place between the two areas in the nineteenth century. Discovering if any letters or written documents remain in Kernewek or Brezhoneg and if so, finding out about the identity and roles of the people who wrote them could be extremely worthwhile. It is known that in the post reformation period, there was a translation of saints from Cornwall to Brittany, and records in Breton monasteries could be a potential source of information as well as the public records offices and university libraries and archives in the territory. Preliminary links that I have made with Dr. Jean-Yves Le Disez at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale, who co-edited the book Bretagne/Cornouailles (Britanniques): Quelles Relations? will prove to be important in this area.

NEXT WEEK: Preliminary Research – in the archives of the British Library…

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Lyon, R.T. (2001): ‘Cornish: The Struggle for Survival’: Taves an Werin.

 

 

 

 

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5 comments

  1. Davydh Trethewey · October 6, 2017

    There is something I read once in the foreword or introduction to a Cornish book, claiming that in the mid-19th century there were Cornish speakers among those miners who migrated to mid-Wales to work in the lead/silver mines of Ceredigion. I’ll let you know if I find the exact quote.

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  2. Bernard Deacon · October 6, 2017

    As well as searching for the fragments will you be researching the fascinating issue of attitudes to language death (whether it was ir not). For instance Davies Gilbert betrays some very contradictory attitudes and would be a good starting point. The other key C19th moments were the growing popularity of Cornu-English dialect literature in the 1850s – see Nerthertons Almanacks – and the public events in West Penwith around the centenary of Dolly Pentreath’s death.

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    • bgilby2014 · October 7, 2017

      Many thanks Bernard – some of those issues related to language death are already popping up, and have started to get some material around the Centenary of the Language death. I’ll certainly be in touch with you – am reading your new book at present.

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