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Cornwall is an evocative place. A Celtic land with a rich mythology, a land of caves and coves, of cream teas and country lanes. At least that's the image that has long attracted travellers and settlers. Yet it's also a land that has, over the last century, faced dramatic social and economic changes: the decline of the traditional fishing, tin and clay industries and the growth of tourism.

Today, with the arrival of newcomers and the departure of industry, the Cornish dialect is seldom heard. But does this mean it no longer exists? This week Melvyn Bragg travels west to discover whether Cornish really is a dialect in crisis.

You may need to download the free Real Player to hear the clips.

The roots of Cornish

Bert Biscoe is a local poet, Truro councillor and Cornish enthusiast. He believes that, far from extinction, the Cornish dialect continues to thrive, not least because of its rich heritage. audio clip

For Richard Gendall, Research Fellow at the Institute of Cornish Studies at Exeter University, the Cornish dialect is a subtle, complex thing, which has evolved across time and across the region. audio clip

Lost words

Les Lean worked in china clay extraction at Wheal Martyn near St. Austell. It was a self-contained world with its own terminology, which, along with the industry itself, is now extinct. Les returned to reminisce about his days as a "kettle-boy". audio clip

The fishing industry also had its own dialect which, like the language of 'the clay', is now little more than a memory, as Richard Gendall and his wife Jan explain. audio clip

The dramatic changes to local talk in Cornwall can be heard in playwright Nick Darke's recording of his late neighbour, fisherman Jack Brenton. audio clip

Cornish in crisis?

Although it is increasingly rare to hear the Cornish dialect, particularly in the media, Bert Biscoe believes it can still be heard - in the right company. audio clip

Cornishwoman Joyce Stevenson agrees. She explains how her friends and neighbours use Cornish selectively. audio clip

It's not just social change that is to blame for the decline of the Cornish dialect. With it's distinctive 'r' sounds and idiomatic phrases, Cornish has long been the butt of ridicule, as Les Lean soon learnt when he left the Duchy for National Service. audio clip

The future sound of Cornwall

The ridicule of Cornish talk has clearly affected the attitudes of the region's young people, many of whom display more south-eastern dialect traits than those of their native Cornwall. audio clip

Optimist Bert Biscoe believes that there is a future for the Cornish dialect, and that the Duchy's young people will, perhaps unwittingly, shape the future sound of Cornwall. audio clip


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