The Renaissance of Kernewek 1900-2017 Part VI

Introduction to Primary Data Collection & Kernewek as a reaction to In-Migration, Second Home Ownership and Tourism

The process of primary data collection commenced with individual interviews before initiating focus group recruitment. This allowed me to develop awareness of a range of issues which could then be explored in greater depth when the focus groups began. I was particularly conscious of getting as wide a range of opinions as possible during the in-depth interview stage, which was carried out between October 2016 and January 2017. To avoid an ‘echo-chamber’ scenario, I needed to source the observations of those who were in-comers to Cornwall and outside the academic or language campaigning fields as well as those who had lived in the territory from birth. This was achieved by being interviewed on BBC Radio Cornwall’s Saturday Breakfast Show with Donna Birrell where it was particularly emphasised that I wanted the opinions of these different groups of people. I was also able to draw on contacts within the Cornish media and the Institute of Cornish Studies in terms of gaining access to the academic community, politicians, language policy stakeholders and cultural groups. Due to geographic distance and financial reasons, all but three of the fifteen in-depth interviews were carried out either by email or on Skype.

Once this process was complete, I spent several weeks going through the 2011 census data relating to Cornwall to compile a shortlist of potential locations to carry out my focus groups. This was a particularly valuable exercise as it confirmed the major differences between various parts of Cornwall in terms of percentages of second home ownership, highest qualification achieved and numbers of Cornish speakers. The areas of Penzance/Newlyn, Falmouth/Penryn, Redruth/Camborne and St. Austell offered the biggest contrast in figures. The next stage was to organise venues within these areas to hold the focus groups. I was able to call upon contacts at Penryn Rugby Football club to hold a meeting there, and had the assistance of the Institute of Cornish Studies in being able to use both the Cornish Studies Library Meeting Room in Redruth and the Rescorla Centre for Local History and Culture just outside St. Austell with the final group taking place at the Newlyn Centre.

Recruitment for the focus groups took place in January 2017, and consisted of another interview with BBC Radio Cornwall, a social media campaign, articles published in the Cornish press, friends in Cornwall spreading the word and the help of the Institute of Cornish Studies. It was during this recruitment campaign that I received feedback from Cornish people, and those with Cornish ancestry living in London and the South-East wanting to take part, so an additional focus group was arranged in Barnes, South-West London. In the end, a total of five focus groups were held over a period of three weeks in January and February 2017. There was then a period of analysing the data gained to look specifically for trends and, equally importantly, highlighting any relationship between pattern of responses and social/demographic factors around the various locations that I held focus groups in Cornwall. Ultimately, I sought to discover whether Granville Price’s assertion that: “The old Celtic speech of Cornwall died out two centuries ago. It is still dead, and will remain evermore so.” (1984: p 134) was erroneous or not.


Within the following sections, I will examine the outcomes of my primary data collection against the three separate aims of this research stated in the Introduction section (Part I of this blog series). It will also consider the differing response between locations and potential reasons for this, drawing on data from the 2011 census.

Note:  Key to locations of response – Lon = London, New = Newlyn, Pen = Penryn, Red = Redruth, Res = Rescorla.

Kernewek as a reaction to In-Migration, Second Home Ownership and Tourism

Having a language which is derived from completely different roots to that of the larger surrounding nation is, ultimately the biggest possible signifier of that sense of ‘difference’ which is so important to Cornish people. This is very much reflected in the opinion of Kernewek revivalist Henry Jenner, who stated:

“Why should Cornishmen learn Cornish? There is no money in it, it serves no practical purpose, and the literature is scanty and of no great originality or value. The question is a fair one, the answer is simple. Because they are Cornishmen”

(2012: [1904] p xi)

Ultimately, for Jenner, the language was the badge that marked out Cornish people from inhabitants of England. It was key to making a wider population aware that there are people living in Cornwall who do not consider themselves to be English, and will use their indigenous language to signify this. For some of the respondents of my focus groups, the presence and use of Kernewek is “the ultimate expression of our identity” (G: Interview), which, as two different participants at my Rescorla focus group stated: “Is about preserving the Cornish culture which is distinct to others” (B: Res: 12 February 2017) and “It’s something the English don’t have! It’s unique to us!” (M: Res: 12 February 2017).

One of the most prominent, and expected narratives which emerged during my research was respondents suggesting that the increased visibility of Kernewek was a clear reaction against the increased numbers of non-indigenous Cornish people now living within the territory. One academic suggested to me that around 60% of the total population of Cornwall is made up of in-comers and second home owners (M1: New: 13 February 2017).  Cornwall Council Leader John Pollard told me that his body see the use and promotion of Kernewek as vital to “open people up to the different culture and history of Cornwall” (Interview). He recognised that the numbers of people moving into the territory created some antagonism with locals and pointed out that those relocating to Cornwall must “take on board local issues and feeling” (ibid). Pollard also pointed out that, under his leadership, the Council had taken on a degree of devolved powers from Westminster and have a policy which sees:-

“Council workers using Kernewek to welcome visitors, or when answering the         telephone. We have encouraged duel language signage…and First Kernow buses have responded to this with all their new buses having Kernewek displayed outside and inside (ibid).”

The issue of second home ownership has become a particular issue in St. Ives and Padstow where, the councils claim that over 25% of the town’s total housing stock is taken up by second home owners. The Mayor of St. Ives, Linda Taylor told me about the rationale behind her council’s decision to insert a section in the St. Ives Neighbourhood Plan which aims to ensure that no newly built developments within the town can be bought as a second home:-

“The national average wage is around £20,000 a year. In St. Ives, it is around £16,000          a year, which was having a real impact on recruitment and retention of key workers, specifically teachers, firemen and nurses. Local people came to us and wanted to fund part of the plan to see what could be done to help the local population” (Interview).

She spelt out to me that new builds will have a legal covenant in the deeds, and people moving into these properties would have to prove that they already pay council tax in the area and are registered with a local doctor.

Preservation of the past became another important narrative in my research. Respondents, particularly in industrial heartlands of Redruth (with its history of tin mining) and Rescorla (part of the ‘clay country’), pointed to the fact that, contrary to popular mis-conceptions, the Cornish language never totally died out with the passing in 1777 of Dolly Pentreath in Mousehole. Closely allied to this was the fact that these locations produced the strongest sense of language being a clear example as a marker between ‘them’ (the in-comers) and ‘us’ (the indigenous Cornish):-

“We are a distinct race and a separate land and our language is an important signifier against everything the English represent. They move down here and take from us. We pay more to Westminster in taxes than comes back to us. This is magnified by English people moving here and using our NHS and schools.” (M: Red 12 February 2017). 

Those of the view that the Cornish language revival is a response to in-comers also pointed to the fact that there is a feeling among some in the territory that they have, been effectively “under siege” (H: Red: 12 February 2017) from in-migration since the 1960s. If this is the case, why is it being perceived as not only a particular problem now, but also as a driver for a renaissance in Cornish culture and identity? Indeed, Buck et al (1993) produced a study focusing on the inherent difficulties that indigenous Cornish people faced in obtaining affordable housing due to competition with those moving into the area from other parts of England who could afford higher prices. Deacon (1984) and Penhaligon (1989) highlighted that the overwhelming number of in-comers to Cornwall in the period after the 1960s were retirees, who lived in the area for the last ten or twenty years of their life. Now, the belief among my respondents, particularly in Redruth and Rescorla, is that the in-comers, including second-home owners are much younger and, as well as living in Cornwall for the majority of their adult life, they work in the territory and send their children to school, which puts additional pressure on local access to work, housing, health care and schooling. Additionally, it is felt that these larger proportions of people cannot comprehend what it means to be Cornish due to “an inability to have a relationship with our land…which is about the strong sense of place” (M: Red: 12 February 2017).

Whilst there was universal praise for the rise in numbers speaking Kernewek, from in-comers as well as the indigenous community, it was fascinating to discover just who is learning the language, and how this differs around Cornwall. It is also worth pointing out, that around 10% of those who identified their first language as being Kernewek in the 2011 census live in London, with the Cornish language class at The City Literacy Institute in Covent Garden having a larger cohort of Kernewek learners than many classes in Cornwall (BBC Voices: 2014 & Williams: 2013). Those who attended my London focus group were concerned about who is speaking the language in Cornwall. They felt it broke down into two groups, those who they identified as Nationalists, and the affluent Middle Classes. For them, this made the rise in people speaking Kernewek unsustainable due to a need for it to become a community language. “It needs to become part of a larger cultural movement…make it part of the everyday experience” (T: Lon: 28 January 2017).

Within Cornwall itself, I saw the concerns of the London focus group in evidence first hand. All of the Cornish focus groups bar one (Redruth), contained people who learned the language as something to do in their retirement. Interestingly, this was recognised by the participants as a situation which they knew others would leap upon to deride Kernewek as “a hobby language” (M2: New: 28 January 2017). They identified the fact that this poses dangers to the potential sustained growth in people speaking the language as “No-one has to speak Kernewek. You hear more Polish and Lithuanian than Cornish in Cornwall” (L: interview). Notably, when the potential dangers of Cornish being seen as a hobby language was raised in Redruth, the respondents turned this into a positive: “The fact is more people are speaking the language. I know several people who are retired and have learned that language who are now teaching it to their grandchildren” (B: Red: 12 February 2017). The status of the language among the young is one which was particularly mentioned during my focus group in Penryn. This small town, with a population of 6,812 at the time of the 2011 census, is home to main university campus in Cornwall, and the participants were vocal about both the benefits and negatives that this has brought to their area. A prevailing thought was that it has made “being Cornish cool, and the language is part of that” (J: Pen: 11 February 2017). The university, which is also home to the Institute of Cornish Studies, has led to a clear definition of Cornishness in the town, which some at the focus group felt was a direct result of several thousand students from outside of Cornwall living in their immediate area. “It’s even reflected in our local schools now. My boys have learned a bit of Cornish history now thanks to a project by the university” (J: Pen: 11 February 2017). A first year university student, originally from the North-West of England was present at the focus group, and offered an insightful opinion on why Kernewek is now more visible:-

“There is support for preserving languages and dialects around Britain. It’s really     important, especially now as people are very into trying to reclaim their identity. I think the university here is embracing that, and helping it along with its language classes and projects in local schools.”  (B: Pen: 11 February 2017).

Whilst the campaign led by the university to develop greater awareness of Cornish culture, history and language in the Falmouth and Penryn area is undoubtedly a positive, critics may claim that this is an example of a middle class institution encouraging people to learn a language, creating false hopes for the future. There are those in Cornwall who are concerned that the numbers of people, who they would identify as middle class (who, they also claim are often in-comers) are using the Cornish language as a status symbol to become accepted in Cornwall, or simply “to use to try and impress their friends from up-country” (H: Red: 12 February 2017). The potential consequences of this are discussed in depth in Section 5.23.

There is an additional irony which several in-comers I spoke to did not pick up on. On more than one occasion, and in more than one location, people who were in-comers to Cornwall stated that the primary reason behind moving to the territory was because they felt that their original home town had lost its sense of English identity due to multiculturalism, which, they felt was particularly caused by EU migration. Each of those who highlighted this situation had views similar to: “I came to Cornwall because it feels like what England used to be like. There is a framework here of old ways, old style working class people” (P: Res: 13 February 2017). Yet, in-comers with this opinion don’t quite understand that their arrival in an area that they perceive to be ‘old England’ is actually a further example to a large number of the indigenous Cornish people that I spoke to of in-comers arriving and having no comprehension about the difference between Cornwall and England, and the potential consequences that their arrival has on indigenous culture and identity:-

“I had an argument with a man who had just moved here from Kent. We were on a bus in Saltash. He was raging ‘The problem in this country is all these people coming here and taking our jobs’. I said ‘I can’t agree with you more. The problem is it’s all the English people coming into Cornwall and taking our jobs!”  (M1: New: 13th February 2017).

The perceived negative impact of the arrival of people from outside Cornwall is not just confined to those coming to live in the territory. Over the last eighteen months further concerns are being raised by the indigenous community about missed opportunities to use the Cornish language in promotional campaigns and the ‘Disneyfication’ of Cornish culture (Morris: 2016). This, they argue has been seen with a carving of Merlin into the rocks and a King Arthur statue at Tintagel as well as plans to build drive-through fast food restaurants at the Heartlands World Heritage Site (Whitehouse: 2017), and state that it is an example of tourism having a negative impact on sites that are hugely important in Cornish culture and history. Such concerns were echoed in the compliance report of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in March 2017, as it highlighted concerns that “Cornish history is (being) distorted” (Doronieth Kernow and Morris: 2017).

In response, Malcolm Bell, the CEO of Visit Cornwall told me that “The tourism industry is responsible for over 20% of all jobs in Cornwall, and in 2015 brought in £491,755,000 into the Cornish economy”, which shows the essential status of the industry in the area. He pointed to a 2012 ‘Community Attitudes survey’ that identified that 89% of residents feel tourism is good for Cornwall. When I questioned him about the more recent criticism surrounding ‘Disneyfication’, Bell replied:

“We have to be honest and authentic and to some that may be Disney, to others it is not. We need to ensure that the culture is interpreted in a way that firstly gains the support of local people and local communities as well as being able to be understood by tourists coming to Cornwall” (Interview). 

In terms of Kernewek, Bell admitted that Visit Cornwall “do not actively promote it as all our customers would not be aware of it, let alone being able to understand it…(but) we did ask a question in 2015 and discovered that 33% of visitors knew that there was a Cornish language” (Interview).

The views of Malcolm Bell were put to the members of my focus groups, and the general consensus was that the percentage of visitors demonstrating a knowledge of the Cornish language without any marketing was far higher than they would expect – and therefore could quite conceivably be used in an advertising campaign by Visit Cornwall to “emphasise a notion Cornwall being a different land within England” (E: Res: 12 February 2017).

NEXT WEEK: Kernewek, Politics and Representation


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