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19 April 2014
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Cornish today
History of Cornish

Cornish today by Kenneth MacKinnon

With only a few hundred speakers today, it's hard to believe that once Cornish was the everyday language of as many as 38,000 people. However, thanks to the efforts of the revivalist movement, Cornish, while still an endangered language, continues to claw its way back from the brink of extinction.

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A reasonable estimate of the current number of speakers able to use Cornish effectively for everyday purposes is around 300 in Cornwall itself, with a further 50 reported for the London area. The language is spoken in a wide variety of situations: the conduct of business in Cornish organisations; in cultural events; in a wide variety of social settings; and most importantly in the homes of a handful of families. It is also used increasingly in public worship and in public ceremonies and ritual. There are over 40 organisations which promote Cornish, such as the Cornish Language Fellowship and Gorseth Kernow.

Contemporary written Cornish is also continuing to develop in quantity and quality. There have been a number of literary publications which have developed the essay, the short story and poetry in Cornish. More recently novels have been produced, along with an increasing amount of children's publications. In terms of output and publications per head of language users this may constitute a record even higher than Icelandic. Texts from medieval times, especially drama, have also been revived in modern performances, allowing plays enjoyed centuries ago to find new contemporary audiences.

Education, at both school and adult levels, plays a crucial role in the revival of any minority language. There are currently 32 formal adult education classes in Cornish, mostly organised by further education colleges or Cornish advocacy groups. It is estimated that over 200 people are attending these classes. There are classes held in London and overseas, as well as a correspondence course organised outside Cornwall.

Twelve primary schools in Cornwall include some Cornish in their lesson plans. However recent changes to the national curriculum has seen the demise of Cornish as a subject at GCSE level due to low participant numbers.

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Your Comments
What is your experience of Cornish?

Caroline of Ontario, Canada
When I was last in Cornwall I purchased a book and tape on learning to speak Cornish. My mother and her parents have a long cornish history of which I am so proud. In Canada each ethnic group is also very proud to display and own their individual cultures. For a long time in our schools we of British descent felt embarassed or ashamed to be the seed of a race that conquered and then treated others in the world so cruelly. Hence I am very proud to claim my heritage and learn its language. It doesn't matter to me how much of the Cornish is orginal or new. There will be in it enough remainders of my ancestors tongue in it to please me and others. Speakers of Chaucer's English would have a very hard time communicating with us to-day.

Simon from Calstock
Until recently, I spent my entire life growing up in a small Cornish village and now that I have moved away (to Essex of all places!), I always speak of my home with pride. Something that always amazes me is the ignorance of people - so many people don't know we have our own flag, let alone our own language! I wish I had of had the option to learn Cornish in school (having attended primary, secondary and sixth form all in Cornwall). It really would be a great shame and a great loss if we were to lose OUR language forever.

Alicia from Australia
I am a direct descendent of Dolly Pentreath and have been researching her life for sometime now, and I was wondering if you think it true that Native Cornish really died with her? She was the last person to speak it as a first language after all... Regards, Alicia

Chris from Loegr
I just spent a week in Kernow, I was amazed how much Cornish I could understand, its at times quite similar to Welsh.

Yowann Byghan from Dumfries
I learned Cornish in the early 1970s, and have managed to remain fairly fluent for over thirty years, despite living in America for about half of that time (and now living in Scotland). My American wife is a Welsh speaker (so I have learned a little Welsh from her), and I am now learning Gaidhlig (Scots Gaelic). I watch and listen to Welsh and Gaiidhlig tv and radio broadcasting with both pleasure and envy. I think achieving regular broadcast status is the next and most significant challenge for Cornish. In the meantime, a few unsung heroes - Wella Brown, Graham Sandercock, Mo Pierce, Ken George, Jori Ansell, Ray Edwards to name just a few - have worked tirelessly over these past 30 years and more to bring us to the exciting place where we are now. How, when or even whether Cornish died no longer matters: Cornish lives now, and will continue to live for as long as there is a Cornwall, I'm sure of it. Kernow bys vykken!

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