The Cornish Language
[A statement in the House on 22 February 1999 by Mr. Andrew George MP for St. Ives]
"In many ways, I wish that there had been no need for the debate. I wish that the self-evident case for the
official recognition of the Cornish language was accepted for the foregone
conclusion that it should be. That may still be so, but the primary point of
raising the issue this evening is that the Foreign Office has not yet been
informed which of the home Departments has the capacity and responsibility to
assess the case. I am not apportioning blame for that, because it has been so
for many years. It is not the fault of this Government.
During the debate, I should like to explain the growing interest in the revival of the
Cornish language; the fact that Cornwall wants to make a small but significant
contribution to the celebration of the diversity of cultures and languages
throughout the British Isles and Europe; and to make the case for the official
recognition of the Cornish language.
Cornish is one of the Brythonic Celtic languages, which include Welsh, Breton and,
originally, Cumbrian. The related languages of Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx
are known are known as Goidelic and are based on a different spelling system.
Even at the time of the Prayer Book rebellion 450 years ago in 1549, which was a
reaction to Parliament passing the first Act of Uniformity, people in many areas
of Cornwall, including most of west Cornwall, understood little English. Place
names throughout Cornwall bear witness to that.
We have to keep everything in proportion. The Cornish language is not now a life
and death issue, but in 1549 it was. Many Cornish people protesting against the
imposition of an English Prayer book were massacred by the King's army. Their
leaders were executed and the people suffered numerous reprisals.
The Cornish language is supposed to have died out in about 1800--a year after the
death of Dolly Pentreath
, whose native language it was and who could speak
little English. However, it carried on throughout the 19th century and into the
20th century. Even in my constituency of St. Ives, fishermen were counting fish
in the Cornish language into the 1940s. In the early part of the century, my
grandparents on the Lizard were speaking Cornish in a dialect form at home, and
a dialect form of Cornish continues to this day in some areas.
One might ask the extent to which the language is now spoken. The night before last,
I was judging the finals of the Pan-Celtic song for Cornwall competition on
local radio. There were 32 entries - all sung in the Cornish language -in a
variety of genres from folk to classical, rock, punk, indie and rap. Many groups
were young people. One of the finalists consisted of five members with an
average age of 14. Some of it was fairly ordinary, but the majority was
impressive, and the finalists were breathtaking.
It is estimated that there are approximately 3,000 Cornish speakers. Many thousands
more are like me, and either speak some Cornish or have a knowledge of the language. The vast
majority, if not the whole population, see Cornish as an emblem of pride.
Cornish, of course, exists in place names, and a knowledge of the language
really helps to read the landscape. Many Cornish names are adopted for children,
pets, houses and boats.
Cornwall county council has an established policy to support the language, and last week
passed a motion supporting it being specified within the European charter for
regional or minority languages. There are at least three regular periodicals
solely in the language--An Gannas, An Gowser and An
Garrick. The two local radio stations, Radio Cornwall and Pirate FM, have
regular news broadcasts in Cornish, and have other programmes and features for
learners and enthusiasts.
Local newspapers such as the Western Morning News have regular articles in
Cornish, and newspapers such as The Packet, The West Briton and
The Cornishman have also supported the movement. The St Ives Times
& Echo felt so confident about local knowledge of the language that it
circulated Christmas messages and cards saying:
"Nadelek Lowen ha Blethen Noweth da
and offered no translation to the English version:
"Wishing You a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year".
The language has financial sponsorship from many sources, including the Millennium
Commission. The Bishop's advisory committee on Cornish language services
provides advice and support to churches wishing to use the language.
Increasingly, churches have visitors' instructions in Cornish and English.
The take-up of the language is now becoming so widespread that organisations such as
Kevas an taves Kernewek, the Cornish Language Board, are finding it difficult to
keep up with demand. Others include the Cornish sub-group of the European bureau
for lesser-used languages, Teere ha Tavas--or land and language--Gorseth Kernow,
Cussel an Tavas Kernuack, Cowethas an Yeth, Agan Tavas and Dalleth, the last of
which is the organisation promoting language to pre-school children. There are
many popular ceremonies--some ancient, some modern--which either use the
language or are entirely in the language.
Cornwall has many other cultural events associated with the language, including the
prestigious international Celtic film festival, which we hosted in St. Ives in
1997, with the programme in Cornish, English and French. There are many
films--some televised--made entirely, or significantly, in the language; the
latest on the Cornish surfing culture.
Commercially, Cornish is taking off, with shops selling only Cornish material, such as An
Lyverjy Kernewak, the Cornish book shop in the town of Helston in the south of
my constituency. Many companies are preferring to use Cornish names, and the GP
overnight service in the county is now called Kernowdoc. A great deal now goes
on in our schools--more than in my day--and there are many who study Cornish at
degree level in places such as Aberystwyth, Wales, and Harvard, USA.
One may ask what benefit that brings. In a world where many commercial and
multinational forces are producing bland uniformity, people want to hold on
to--and even develop--the fragments of cultural remains. In Cornwall, I would
argue that we have more than simply fragments, and we generate significant
cultural tourism not only in itself, but as an added dimension to the tourist
That has also been significant in helping Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly to secure
objective 1 status, which we hope will be secured at the end of March in the
next EU funding programme. Eurostat, in its statement agreeing to the splitting
of Cornwall from Devon for statistical purposes, made very specific reference to
"Cornwall's . . . distinctive cultural and historic factors
reflecting a Celtic background."
Before Cornish can rightfully take its place as an officially recognised language, we
need to sort out which Department is responsible for assessing Cornwall's case
for being specified under part II of the European charter for regional or
minority languages. It has been considered by the Department for Education and
Employment, the Home Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Welsh Office; I
have asked the Cabinet Office to determine responsibility, but it has put the
question back to the Foreign Office.
Cornwall has an unassailable case for being specified under part II, and some argue that
it should also be specified under part III of the charter, but it cannot get to
the starting blocks because no Department recognises its responsibility."
Postscript - The government is set to officially recognise the Cornish language for the first time, an MP has claimed. Andrew George, the MP for St Ives, said he expected Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford to make an announcement to Parliament by the end of July 1999.