The Renaissance of Kernewek 1900-2017 Part III

Cultural Identity Theory

Cultural Identity Theory is “generated by political antecedents; the possession of…collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past (Mill: 1972: p 391).

The history of Cornwall is one full of pride. Whether it be the stirring tales from the Prayer Book Rebellion and the march to Blackheath (Payton: 2004, Parker: 1998, Rowse: 1941), or, in more modern parlance, the achievement of what those in Cornwall consider to be the Cornish ‘national’ rugby union team in making Twickenham finals in the County Championship (Gregory: 1991, Clarke & Harry: 1991). These battles have ultimately led to what Mill suggests is, a “humiliation” of losing a widely spoken indigenous language and eventual subjugation by the English in terms of culture, industry and finance.  Yet, indigenous Cornish people would never use the term of humiliation to describe their past. In my experience, the overwhelming emotion is pride in their sense of a different identity, and in talking about how it can only be a matter of time before more Cornish people join together to regain some of what they have lost.

Benedict Anderson’s theory of the ‘Imagined Community’, one in which “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members (Anderson: 2006: p 6), could see Cornwall as an example of a “sub-nation… which, naturally, dream(s) of shedding this ‘sub-ness’ one happy day” (ibid p 3). Anderson also highlights a number of social phenomena which has prevented Cornwall from asserting its perceived separate identity – notably the absence of widely read print media publishing in Kernewek, something which is still the case today – which he presents as the consequence of “print-capitalism” by the English language in “creat(ing) languages of power” (2006: p 45), and associated argument that “in 1840, even in Britain…almost half the population was still illiterate” (ibid p 75). With virtually all of the printed material in Cornwall in this period being in English due to it being the language of commerce (Kent: 2000), it became increasingly important for the Cornish population to read and write in English rather than Kernewek. Anderson also believes that education being controlled by the wider state led to “cadres for governmental and corporate hierarchies” (2006: p 116). Among my respondents in Cornwall, several pointed to the consequences of a Westminster imposed National Curriculum which offers limited scope for studies in Cornish history and language, leading to Cornish schools being no more than what Anderson has termed  “state sponsored lycees” (2006: p 127).

Yet, where Anderson’s observations run into problems are the wide differences between Cornwall and the United Kingdom’s other Celtic regions. Unlike Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, Cornwall has no indigenous language newspaper or television stations. In 1998, Westcountry Television, ITV’s South-West England franchise holder broadcast a half-hour series, Kernowpalooza entirely in Kernewek (Harvey et al: 2002), but this remained a short-lived experiment, and no Kernewek is spoken on television at the present time. Why have other Celtic regions been able to break through of the chains imposed in Anderson’s narrative? Generally because of varying degrees of devolution that have been given to them, including Brittany, and the Isle of Man’s status as a Crown Dependency. The Government may point to doing a devolution deal with Cornwall Council in July 2015 (Department for Communities & Local Government/Department for Business and Skills: 2015), but this does not include a Senedh Kernow (Cornish Assembly) and crucially contains little or no powers over housing, education, media and transport – which means there can be no provision for adapting the National Curriculum or actively protecting the rights of indigenous Cornish people over access to affordable housing. Anderson has also been criticised by Joseph (2004) for ignoring the fact that “national identities shape national languages…very profoundly” (p 13). This view has parallels with the situation in Cornwall. Whilst it is perfectly correct to state that Kernewek is a language where words have been borrowed from Cymraeg (Welsh) and to a lesser extent Brezhoneg (Breton), it is equally important to recognise that there are perfectly good reasons for this. Cornwall’s gradual growth of its indigenous identity, as a possible reaction to geopolitical and social issues, has meant that in order to evolve and reflect modern phenomena, it has needed to intertwine with its fellow Brythonic Celtic regions. The fact is that the demand to create new words in Kernewek has to have been present in order for it to occur, something which Anderson does not consider in depth within his study.

Whilst Cornwall may see its separate culture and history from England as one of its defining arguments in establishing itself as being more than another part of the South-West, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s work, ‘The Invention of Tradition’ (1983) sets out to highlight the contradiction of many cultural rituals not only being more modern than many believe, but also being modified or invented versions of events by disparate groups. Hobsbawm and Ranger attempt to place all invented traditions into three groups – “those which establish or symbolise social cohesion, establishing or legitimising institutions or states and those which concentrate on the inculcation of beliefs, value systems and conventions of behaviour” (ibid p 9). They highlight what they see as the spurious actions of the Welsh in recreating the Eisteddfod after over 500 years in abeyance (ibid p 56-57), Irish ballads being ‘transferred’ to Scottish settings to create Scottish folk songs (ibid p 17) and the questionable reintroduction of tartan and kilts into Scotland (p 19-22). Added to this is the status of the Cornish tartan, which was created in 1963 by E.E. Morton Nance (Cornish Culture Association Guide: 2015) and, indeed the St. Piran’s Flag (more commonly known as ‘the Cornish flag’), which was described in 1838 in the work of Davies Gilbert, who also notes its similarity to the family shield of the Saint-Peran family of Brittany, a land which has had historic trading links with its Celtic cousins in Cornwall for centuries (Gilbert: 1838: p 332). It is worth pointing out that Hobsbawm and Ranger do not just provide examples of Celtic nations as exhibiting invented or bogus traditions as part of national identity; they also investigate the roots of the British Monarchy’s ceremonial pageants.  For Hobsbawm and Ranger, invented traditions are caused by a clear desire, often coming out of a time of crisis for the cultural group or nation where its:-

very lifeblood…was ebbing away. It required a superhuman effort by a small        number of patriots to force their fellow countrymen to appreciate their    heritage…(by) ransack(ing)  the past and transform(ing) it with imagination (ibid p99).

At the turn of the 20th century, a concerted campaign to revitalise Cornish culture and identity centred around receiving recognition that Cornwall had a Celtic past (D.R. Williams: 2004). Made a bard of the Goursez Vreizh (Breton Gorseth) in 1903 for his work on the Cornish language, Henry Jenner sought Cornwall’s entry into the Celtic Congress, something which was finally accepted in 1904 (Lyon: 2008). The influence of the Goursez Vreizh, the Welsh Gorsedd and Eisteddfodau convinced Jenner that Cornwall should begin its own bardic community, or Gorsedh. Following almost exactly the ceremonies he had seen in both Brittany and Wales, he held the very first Gorsedh Kernow ceremony at Boscawen-Un in 1928 (D.R. Williams: 2004), when he and twelve other Cornish bards were initiated by the Welsh Archdruid (ibid). Eleven years later full bardic robes and regalia, directly modelled on the Welsh robes were introduced (Lyon: 2008 & D.R. Williams: 2004). If the Welsh Gorsedd was a highly modified version of a ceremony from the twelfth century by Iolo Morganwg, then some may venture that the Gorsedh Kernow ceremony was a copy of the ‘new’ Welsh version.

Finally within this section, there needs to be examination of regionalist discourse. Bourdieu (1991) stated how this is a “performative (one)…which aims to impose as legitimate, a new definition of the frontiers to get people to know and recognise the region” (p 223). Here we need to differentiate between performative in the shape of active regional arts and culture, and performative in terms of using an indigenous language. Whilst the arts may provide the widest possible entry point into a culture due to there being no language barriers and, potentially no detailed knowledge of indigenous history required (at least at the level of someone observing the culture, if not fully immersing themselves in it), a language as part of this culture is an extremely important additional component. Joseph (2004) states: “Language and culture are like ‘republics’ populated by words in the one case and ideas in the other” (p 108). I would go further by suggesting that language and culture need to be part of the same republic. Cultural and linguistic groups need to be as one in promoting identical messages and symbiotic events in order to build authenticity and the strongest chance of succeeding. Joseph also touches on the topic of membership of a particular nation – something which is vitally important in the narrative of my Methodology chapter in particular. He states:-

The two basic senses of ‘nation’ can never really coalesce. For them to do so, no-one but members of the nation-by-birth would inhabit the national territory, and no members of the nation-by-birth would live outside the territory (ibid p 92).

Therefore, can a nation be truly authentic unless the only people that live in it are born there and remain there? If you believe this to be true, then every single person who moves into an area acts as a diluent to indigenous culture (Deacon: 1984), and therefore there can be no real sense of an authentic national identity and culture in the vast majority of the world’s nations. Hecht et al’s Communication Theory of Identity (2001), provides additional elements to consider. By dividing an identity into four distinct parts (personal, enacted, relational and communal), there transpires a method by which a single person could act in different ways depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves – whether on their own, in language use and in relation to other people or groups. Nationalist Cornish people, I suspect would find it difficult to comprehend how someone could operate on a different level of identity depending on who they were with or where they were, yet it does provide some explanation for the phenomena of non-indigenous Cornish people moving into the territory and beginning to learn Kernewek and/or actively participate in local cultural groups. If such in-comers met up with friends or family from where they used to live before moving to Cornwall, you would not expect them to speak Kernewek to them or necessarily indulge in Cornish cultural pursuits with them – they would more likely be talking in English, perhaps even in the regional dialect of their previous town about issues closely related to their former home. Yet when around their local acquaintances in Cornwall, it would be more probable that their interest in Cornish cultural or language issues came to the fore.

NEXT WEEK: The Nation State and Internal Colonialism.


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