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Keeping the Cornish language alive enriches every one of us

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 12, 2012

An old bilingual sign marks the river border near Thurdon in North Cornwall SIMON PARKER

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The Cornish language is all around us. Its beautiful cadences roll off the tongue like honey, as familiar as mother's milk to those who have grown up with it.

Hang on! But no one really speaks Cornish any more. Do they?

According to the latest figures from The Cornish Language Strategy, some 2,000 people are now classed as "fluent" in the language – although this is open to interpretation of the definition of fluent – while many times that number are able to hold a simple conversation. Nearly everyone west of the Tamar has the odd word – whether they realise it or not.

Night classes for all levels of learners take place in towns and villages every week, exams are taken, new road signs are bilingual and there are innumerable websites devoted to the idiom, along with books, a radio station and even an online TV channel.

To say Cornish is a "dead" language, therefore, is to blindly ignore the successes of the revival movement over the past 20 or so years. A generation ago, you would hardly even hear the word "Kernow" – yet today there's no one in Cornwall who doesn't know its translation.

In addition to all that, anyone living in Cornwall speaks Cornish every single day – in place-names. From Perranzabuloe to Ponsanooth, Goonhilly to Gonamena, Morvah to Marazion, Trencrom to Tywardreath, there's no getting away from it. Nowhere else in the world – except a few pockets settled by the Cornish Diaspora – ring to those harmonies.

So it's galling to be continually bombarded by critics who say the promotion of Cornish should be abandoned, to be allowed to slip down the cultural agenda and allowed to stagnate once again.

A few months ago I heard a typically anti-Cornish outburst in Pengwarras (mmm, what's the linguistic derivation of this thoroughfare, I wonder?) Street, Camborne.

"We don't need Cornish taught in schools, we need better English!" an elderly man was telling another elderly man, who was nodding enthusiastically.

It is an opinion often expressed and, many would argue, a reasonable position to adopt. English is the predominant language of Cornwall – so why do we need another? Fair point, but surely such sentiments represent the first steps on the road to ignorance.

Language is a way of unlocking mysteries, of helping us to understand and enjoy our surroundings and, crucially, to value them as unique and distinctive in an increasingly homogenous world.

After all, we in Cornwall speak Cornish every single day.

"I blimmin' well don't," the man on the Camborne omnibus might retort.

But of course almost every place-name we have today was on the lips of our forebears eons before English words were ever uttered west of the Tamar (or east of it for that matter).

So why this constant sniping at Cornish? Why the continual fear of increasing our knowledge? What are we afraid of? It's not an either-or situation that is being promoted by those working hard to promote Cornish, but rather a harmonious cohabitation. Surely we ought to be celebrating the fact that we live in this unique place that has its own language – instead of being mealy-mouthed and aggressive.

Wales faced similarly vehement opposition two decades ago when that nation's language began to be seriously protected, promoted and subsidised. The anti-Welsh brigade, like the current anti-Cornish brigade, banged on about English being more important – completely missing the point.

It doesn't help the argument that the Cornish language campaign has in its ranks a few big-mouthed English-haters, those who rather childishly call for the Tamar to be closed, to be insular, instead of the outward-looking land Cornwall has been for centuries, embracing its neighbours and visitors.

The simple fact is that if we aspire to being an intelligent, cultured society, we need more language, not less. Today, children all over Wales learn basic, conversational Welsh in a single term. The same could be done for Cornish, offering our young people advantages over their monoglot contemporaries.

North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson this week appears in the latest episode of Tamm ha Tamm, an excellent resource for those interested in getting to grips with the practicalities of spoken Cornish.

"I have always stood up to promote and protect Cornish as an integral part of the region's distinct heritage and culture and I try to use and promote our language as much as possible," declared Dan on his TV appearance.

Cynics might accuse him of orchestrating the stunt in the hope of securing a few desperately-needed votes at the next election, but whatever his motivation, any high-profile support for Cornish is welcome.

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  • Lafrowda  |  November 05 2012, 1:15PM

    Well balanced presentation, but keep political opportunists out of the equation please.