The Renaissance of Kernewek 1900-2017 – Part I

I am now in a position to begin publishing extracts from my MA Cultural Geography dissertation entitled The Renaissance of Kernewek 1900-2017. It is rather a long piece of work, and so will be broken down into many separate parts, published here over the next month or two.

This week, we begin with the first of a two part introduction which attempted to set the scene.


“Medh den heb davaz a gollaz i dir”

(T. Price: 1858: p 23)

Brezhoneg phrase which translates as “A man without language has lost his land”

Cornwall has had a historically complex and often tempestuous relationship with England. As the author and playwright Alan M. Kent observes, “It is and is not an English county. It is and it is not mentioned in the same breath as Wales, Scotland and Eire” (2000: p11). The territory had its own kings and spoke a different language.

Throughout history, the Cornish people have fought battles against the people of England. An early example of this was seen in 1497 when thousands of Cornishmen, led by Michael Joseph an Gof (the Smith) marched to London in protest at the raising of taxes by Henry VIII to fund a war against Scotland – a country with which the Cornish considered themselves to have a closer relationship than England (see Payton: 2004, Parker: 1998). During the English Civil War, Cornishmen joined the fight against Parliament (Payton: 2004, Rowse: 1941, Stoyle: 2002). At this time, the Earl of Essex and the Roundheads were forced to retreat when invading the territory with the consequence that 6,000 out of the original 7,000-strong Essex army were killed or taken prisoner (Knight: 2016). There is also evidence to suggest that Cornwall has never been legally incorporated into shire England (Angarrack 1999, 2002 & 2008) and questions persist over whether or not, legally speaking it is the Queen or the Duke of Cornwall who has the final say in Cornish matters (Kirkhope: 2014, Williams: 2004). Additionally, there are those in Cornwall who claim that their land has status as a quasi-independent ‘nation’ (Angarrack 1999, 2002 & 2008) due to Cornish Stannary Law. This, they argue gives Cornwall a power of veto over Westminster due to the fact that the Cornish Stannary Parliament, which last met in Truro in 1753, has never legally been dissolved (Rowe & Nute: 1996, Angarrack 1999, 2002 & 2008 and Kirkhope: 2014).

The very essence of what makes many Cornish people feel a race apart from those across the River Tamar border is the Celtic heritage that is seen to play a central role in establishing the foundations for their identity. The fact that; “Celtic identities are in part about class and place-based differences within white identities and privileges” (McCarthy & Hague: 2004: p 389) is crucial to where Cornwall has found itself historically, and where it remains today. Arguably the most important example of this ‘place-based difference’ is the Cornish language, Kernewek. The language reflects, and to some degree cements Cornwall’s historic ties with its Celtic cousins:-

“It was with the kindred Welsh and Bretons that we joined our forces in warlike enterprise…there was one event, of all others the most effectual in strengthening the alliance of the Cornish with their ancient friends, I mean the war against the infidels of the East (England)” (Polwhele: 1806a: p 6-7).

Celtic languages are divided into two classifications. Kernewek is known as a Brythonic Celtic language in common with Brezhoneg (Breton) and Cymraeg (Welsh). The other Celtic languages are grouped as Goidelic Celtic and cover the indigenous tongues of Ireland (Gaeilge), Scotland (Gàidhlig) and Gaelg or Gailck (Isle of Man) – (Berresford-Ellis: 2000). Whilst a recent study by Weatherhill (2016) has sought to disprove the long held theory that Kernewek died out towards the end of the eighteenth century (see also Parry: 1946), it is an inescapable fact that the imposition of the Common Prayer Book in English during 1549 did much to diminish the language. Unlike in Wales, where legislation was provided for the Bible and Common Prayer Book to be translated into Cymraeg, such an adaption was never ruled permissible for the Cornish language (Payton: 2004). The consequence of this linguistic exclusion was a major rebellion – the so called Prayer Book-Rebellion – which saw the Cornish lay siege to Exeter over the period of a month before ultimately being defeated in a battle at Clyst St. Mary in Devon (Rowse: 1941).

Additionally, the razing of Glasney College in Penryn a year earlier, in 1548, had a detrimental impact in terms of academic and literary writing in the Cornish language. It was at Glasney that many medieval mystery plays such as the Ordinalia were believed to have been written (Coleman: 2015, Kent: 2000, Whetter: 1988). These fourteenth century works, — comprising the plays Origo Mundi, Passio Christi and Resurrexio Domini have been highlighted by Coleman (2015) as being among the oldest surviving play scripts in Europe, with the oldest remaining stage diagrams in the world. After the loss of Glasney, only infrequently were literary works published in Cornish; the written word virtually died out by 1650 (Kent: 2000). Indeed, the razing of Glasney also meant that archival material of Cornish language texts were taken away from the territory to ensure their survival in the reformation period. Hawke (2001) and Coleman (2015) carried out intensive research which unearthed rare Cornish-language mystery plays in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and the Bodleian Library in Oxford which were written around 1500.

Some have ventured that the Cornish language could have survived in this period if it had been supported by the territory’s gentry. This was not, however, a realistic hope: Cornwall’s landowners, tin and copper mine owners and management had to speak English in order to sell their goods at market both across England and the British Empire. The workers of Cornwall had, therefore, to begin learning English in order “to converse with their superiors, (and) to address the Deity” (Polwhele 1806b). See also Wakelin (1975), Spriggs (2003), Mills (2010) and McMahon (2015).

The maintenance of Cornwall’s Celtic heritage was the driving force to get more people speaking the language. Stoyle (2002) identifies William Scawen, a Royalist Civil War soldier and MP for St. Germans & East Looe in 1640, as someone who was “the founding father of the modern Cornish language movement” (ibid: p 134). Scawen commissioned the translation of a fifteenth century Cornish poem, Passio Christi into English, and a book in English detailing Cornish identity entitled Antiquities Cornubrittanic (1688). Another important staging post in recognition of Cornwall’s separate identity came in 1707 with the publication of Edward Lhwyd’s Archaeologica Britannica. In this work, Lhwyd traced the Celtic languages and provided a dictionary of their terms. Lhwyd’s work provided a starting point in its linguistic description of the Cornish language (D.R. Williams: 2004) which would eventually be built upon by Henry Jenner.

It was not, however, until the early twentieth century that there was a concerted effort to raise the status of Kernewek. In 1904, Jenner published A Handbook of the Cornish Language before establishing the Gorsedh Kernow, the Cornish group of bards in 1928. The Gorsedh closely mirrored the work of Welshman Iolo Morganwg, who had similarly ‘invented’ a bardic community around his personal interpretation of a long deceased, ancient movement in Wales (see Morgan: 1983). Jenner’s work also included a Cornish-English dictionary published in 1938, which has been updated and can still be found today in bookshops around Cornwall. The revival’s bid to gather pace became increasingly bogged down in the 1980s and 1990s with heated arguments about what an authentic indigenous Cornish language should look like (George: 1995, Williams: 1996 & 2001, Grant: 1998, Everson: 1999, Mills: 1999 and Kennedy: 2001 & 2002). Unified Cornish, established by Robert Morton Nance, had its supporters as did Ken George’s Kernewek Kemmyn (Common Cornish). Also emerging during this period was Nicholas Williams’ Revised Unified Cornish. These unfortunate arguments led to Glanville Price, Professor Emeritus of French at the University of Aberystwyth, deriding the modern version of Kernewek as being akin to “a painting, so hastily restored as no longer to qualify as an authentic work” (1984: p 144). Finally, in the early twenty-first century, the establishment of MAGA (the Cornish Language Partnership), led to agreement on a standard written form of the language, and by 2010, UNESCO altered its classification of Cornish to recognise that its prior description of being an extinct language was no longer true.

The consequence of these events was that the profile of Kernewek increased rapidly. Kenneth McKinnon’s (2002 & 2004) research for the British Council estimated there were 300 people able to hold a conversation in Kernewek. By 2005, O’Neill & Texier’s survey claimed that the numbers had increased to 3,000. According to the 2011 census, 557 people in England and Wales stated that Kernewek was their first language (ONS: 2011).

NEXT WEEK: Wider Contemporary Identities in Europe – Politics, Culture and Language


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