The Death and Revival of Cornish

How a language dies — and how it can come back to life

Adam M Wakeling

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Lizard Point, Cornwall (Wikimedia Commons)

“Me deskey Cornoack moas da more gen tees coath”

(I learnt Cornish going to sea with old men)

From a letter from William Bodinar to Daines Barrington, 1776, one of the last surviving written lines of traditional Cornish

EEighteenth-century Mousehole was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bustling place. The residents of the small, out-of-the-way Cornish village about two miles south of Penzance spent their time fishing, repairing their boats and nets, and doing their best to keep the Atlantic gales out of their cottages. Mousehole is one of the most south-westerly places in Britain, and sits on one of the few sheltered bays on the coast of a peninsula with the ocean on three sides.

The villagers would no doubt have been surprised, one day in 1768, to find a well-spoken, well-dressed man from London standing in their marketplace. He was Daines Barrington, lawyer, antiquarian, and man of letters, whose writings had spanned such diverse topics as Experiments and Observations on the Singing of Birds to Tracts on the Probability of reaching the North Pole. His interests included linguistics, and he had come to Mousehole in search of Cornish speakers.

The ancient Celtic language of Cornwall, known to its speakers as Kernowek, was believed to be extinct. In 1758, a Cornish historian and naturalist, Dr William Borlase, had written in his Natural History of Cornwall that the language “had altogether ceased, so as not to be spoken anywhere in conversation.” Barrington, however, was not so sure. In 1746, his brother, a captain in the Royal Navy, had found that a Cornish sailor could make himself understood to the Bretons across the English Channel, the Breton and Cornish languages being related. If there had been a Cornish-speaking sailor in the Royal Navy a little over a decade before, surely Barrington could find a Cornish speaker in Cornwall.

The residents of Mousehole directed Barrington to the home of an old fisherwoman named Dolly Pentreath, living on the charity of the parish. He introduced himself to her, saying he had made a bet that there was no-one still alive who could speak Cornish. According to Barrington, she then…

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Adam M Wakeling

Adam Wakeling is an Australian writer, lawyer and historian. He is online at https://www.amwakeling.com/ and on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.