The Cornish language: polemics and plans

Two booklets have appeared recently on the subject of the Cornish language and here I provide a review and summary of them.

Rod Lyon’s Colloquial doesn’t mean Corrupt: Observations on contemporary revived Cornish is a searing indictment of the stilted and unconvincing spoken Cornish of many Cornish users. This is something Rod argues is the result of an excessive search for purism on the part of revivalists since the 1920s. For a lively, fluent and more idiomatic spoken Cornish he calls for a re-focusing of the language away from its conservative, medieval base and towards its later days.

Ken MacKinnon’s ‘Papers on Cornwall and the Cornish Language’ on the other hand focuses not on what revived Cornish should be, although Ken has his own views on that, but how revived Cornish of whatever kind might be planned. This collection of papers was mostly written in the short-lived period of optimism about the language’s prospects in the 2000s when the standard written form, official status and government funding appeared to herald a rosy future. It is perhaps more valuable now as a historical record of that period than as an achievable template for action.

In addition, his collection also includes papers on placenames, which Ken argues need to be appreciated in terms of their change over time and their meaning for us nowadays, rather than merely in terms of etymology and derivation. Both Ken’s papers and Rod’s book make convincing use of placenames, previously a sadly under-utilised source for language revivalists.

4 thoughts on “The Cornish language: polemics and plans

  1. While respecting your scholarship, your review appears to contains some counterfactuals, or nearlybout.

    E.g.is there a ‘single’ as you say or just a ‘standard’ written form? That’s depending on who you d’ask.
    2 supposedly equal ‘medieval’-ly based SWF orthographies? Certain papers have pointed out that there’s really, sadly, only 1 such paramount.
    ‘Dolly’ Pentreath claimed to be the last speaker of ‘Cornish’? This is by no means claimed by all.

    I could go on. But I’d be no more helpful.

    This knockabout smacks more of entertaining controversy, flogging the dead horse of Cornish culture, than useful study. I had hoped for better.

    But I would agree if you might be saying that the future of Cornish language has been well & truly f’d up, along with the future of Cornish people.

    I look forward to reading more of your excellent historical posts, and, along with them, if you must, more like this!

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    1. Can’t win them all, Peter. You’re right – it should have been standard, not single, and has been duly corrected. I was obviously distracted by Ken’s chapter titled ‘single written form’. The two terms were used fairly interchangeably at the time the SWF was agreed. As for two medieval based variants, I would submit they’re both effectively based on middle Cornish, which is what makes the ‘late’ version inappropriate. I agree that in practice they’re not regarded as equal but in theory they’re supposed to be. That was what was agreed at the Treyarnon talks back in the mid-2000s. I was there!

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  2. Very interesting. However, absent any reference to empirical data (e.g. fieldwork on spoken Modern Cornish, analysis of a corpus of written Modern Cornish, it doesn’t really tell us anything – apart from recording an intention to use symbols in a particular way, as dear old Freddie Ayer used to say.

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