Has the Standard Written Form of Cornish failed?

For a lot of us the debate over the proper base for the revived Cornish language is about as relevant as medieval theologians arguing over the number of angels that can stand on the head of a pin. Nonetheless, the Cornish language, revived or not, is of considerable symbolic importance for Cornwall and its identity  and therefore the nature of revived Cornish should also be of wider interest. From the 1980s to the 2000s the Cornish language revival was bedevilled by arguments over its most appropriate base. Should it be based on the Cornish of the dramas of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries or the more vernacular but sketchier works from the late seventeenth century? The majority of learners and speakers preferred the former (or were blissfully unaware of the basis for the variety they were learning.) A minority opted for the latter, wishing to pick up the language from where it had left off.

In 2007 a deal was brokered that led to the Standard Written Form (SWF) of revived Cornish. The central element of this was the acceptance that ‘middle’ and ‘late’ versions of revived Cornish were of equal status. This was explicitly stated as ‘The SWF recognises Revived Middle Cornish (RMC), Revived Late Cornish (RLC), and Tudor Cornish as variants of equal standing’. (Tudor Cornish uses a combination of middle and late Cornish variants.) Effectively therefore, RMC and RLC were henceforth to be the two equal ‘main forms’ of the revived language, each with variant spellings for certain words.

The last example of written traditional Cornish

At the time, as one of those brokering this deal, I welcomed it as providing a workable compromise between different factions. I also believed that RLC, or as we preferred to call it, ‘Modern Cornish’, had at last attained equality with the middle version on which Morton Nance had reconstructed his Unified Cornish and Ken George his phonemic Cornish. Unfortunately, I was proved wrong.

Since that time Revived Late Cornish, despite being one of the two supposedly equal ‘main forms’ of the SWF, has been systematically marginalised. It now has little presence in teaching materials and even in signage, where Cornish based on the fifteenth century is bizarrely preferred even in parts of Cornwall where the language was still being spoken into the eighteenth century.

Sadly, the equality of the two main forms has been ignored in practice. The most blatant example of this appears in A Learners’ Cornish Dictionary in the Standard Written Form, published in 2018. The introduction to this completely fails to mention the fact of the two main forms. Instead, it claims that in the dictionary, ‘there are no spelling variants’ but then supplies only Revived Middle Cornish variants throughout!

The process whereby this occurred has now been comprehensively documented in an article published this year in Language Problems and Language Planning. This argues that what it calls pluricentricity in Cornwall has failed. The intended equality of the two variants has not worked out in practice. It enumerates the reasons.

  • Learners and users of Cornish fail to understand the function of the two variants.
  • Confusion about main forms and variants has been exacerbated by the presence of ‘main and ‘traditional’ graphs and the secondary status of the latter.
  • There has been no clear guidance from official sources such as the Cornish Language Office (CLO), or the Academy Kernewek (AK) and neither the CLO, Cornwall Council, AK nor Golden Tree (a community interest company producing teaching materials) show any commitment to equality in practice.
  • The fact that RMC users were in a majority in 2007 and RLC proponents were insufficiently involved once the SWF was initiated meant that Late forms became largely invisible, which then contributes to their continuing invisibility.

It also suggests some remedies.

  • Revise the online SWF dictionary to explain the variants more clearly.
  • RLC users should make the late form of the SWF more visible.

Personally, I have no intention of adopting the SWF late form as it is far too close to revised medieval Cornish for my taste. On the rare occasions I write Cornish I shall continue to use the native spellings of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the last recorded phase of the traditional language. In fact, I agree with Ken George, who argues that middle and late varieties of Cornish are too far apart to be satisfactorily combined in one orthography.

Charles Causley

The Cornish poet Charles Causley was born in Launceston on August 24th, 1917.

The Seasons in North Cornwall

O Spring has set off her green fuses
Down by the Tamar today,
And careless, like tide-marks, the hedges
Are bursting with almond and may.

Here lie I waiting for old summer,
A red face and straw-coloured hair has he:
I shall meet him on the road from Marazion
And the Mediterranean Sea.

September has flung a spray of rooks
On the sea-chart of the sky,
The tall shipmasts crack in the forest
And the banners of autumn fly.

My room is a bright glass cabin,
All Cornwall thunders at my door,
And the white ships of winter lie
In the sea-roads of the moor.

Admiral Boscawen

There used to be a pub in Truro called the Admiral Boscawen. But who was Admiral Boscawen? Born this week in 1711, Edward Boscawen was the third son of the first Viscount Falmouth of nearby Tregothnan. He went on to become one of the leading naval officers of the day and a British war hero. In the 1600s the Cornish had been known for their martial prowess on land during the civil wars of mid-century. By the 1700s their exploits were more likely to happen at sea. Because of Cornwall’s maritime location and the activities of press gangs in its ports, the Cornish-born component of the Royal Navy – at three per cent of its complement – was around three times what its population might suggest. With quantity also came quality.

Edward Boscawen entered the Navy at the age of 15. It wasn’t too long before he displayed the appropriate aggressive instincts. In 1741 he led a near-suicidal night attack on Spanish shore batteries at Cartagena in modern-day Colombia and as a result was appointed captain. He followed this up by taking a leading role in attacking a French fleet off Cape Finisterre in 1746. Leading his ship in full sail towards the French and trusting the rest of the fleet would follow him, Boscawen was shot in the shoulder. He became a rear-admiral soon afterwards.

Sometimes bravery shaded into a willingness to go to the limits of orders and beyond. In 1755, on a mission in the north Atlantic to prevent the French reinforcing their colony at Quebec, Boscawen attacked three French ships, sinking two. Although relations with the French were at a low ebb, Britain was not actually at war with them. It soon was.

Admiral Boscawen

On that expedition Boscawen reported that half of his ship’s crew was on the sick list and overall his fleet lost 2,000 men to fever on that mission. However, he seems to have taken more than the usual effort to look after the health of his men, installing ventilators for example to circulate air below decks and ensuring supplies of fresh vegetables and fish if at all possible. Sometimes, this could backfire, as when several of his men died after eating a poisonous fish caught in the Indian Ocean. Although a strict disciplinarian typical of his times, he seems to have been popular and was given the nickname ‘Old Dreadnought’ by the men, after a ship he had commanded early in his career.

An MP for Truro from 1742, Boscawen managed to survive the changing government ministries of the time and retain his position at the Admiralty. He became best known for his exploits in 1758 when his capture of Louisburg and Cape Breton in Canada helped to turn the tide of the Seven Years’ War against France. A year later, he also destroyed some French ships of the line at the battle of Lagos off southern Portugal. Showing little respect for Portuguese neutrality, he scuppered the French plans to link up with their fleet at Brest.

Two years later however, Boscawen died of fever, probably typhus, at his newly built house at Hatchlands in Surrey, an estate bought in 1749.

His biographer calls him ‘determined and confident’, someone who combined ‘resolution with compassion, single mindedness with understanding’ and who was ‘thoroughly professional’. He was also the first among several Cornish naval heroes of the 1700s and early 1800s.

Reflections on dreckly

We’ll get around to dreckly dreckly. But first, a week or two ago the online dating site eharmony was reported as having completed a survey of accents to see which were the most ‘attractive’. The ‘Cornish accent’ came in 20th out of 20! Obviously, such ‘research’ probably tells us more about the stereotypes of the Cornish held by the respondents than they do about the ‘Cornish accent’. That’s an interesting subject in itself but let’s stick with accent for now.

In the survey people were asked to rank accents after hearing ‘an actor’ reading a couple of sentences. Was this ‘actor’ Cornish? Or did he or she put on what the media seem to think is a Cornish accent – a ‘faux-pirate’ mummerset travesty? If they were a native, which part of Cornwall did they come from? Which accent did they have? For there are, or were, before the mass in-migration of the past half-century or more, two distinct ‘Cornish’ accents. East of Bodmin we had the western branch of the Wessex accent of English. West of Bodmin there was a quite different accent, the differences reflecting the historic presence of the Cornish language.

Recently, there has been some research on the accents of English in Cornwall. However, their historic presence and use and their contemporary decline have yet to be adequately described. Moving from accent to dialect, one dialect word still widely in use is dreckly, a central part of Cornish identity. Dreckly is a temporal term indicating some indeterminate time in the future, maybe tomorrow, possibly next week, could be next year. Particularly popular among builders, the term is still widely used. So much so that in my childhood I thought dreckly was an entirely separate word from directly, its presumed origin.

But when did it appear? It’s not in the glossary of dialect words in William Sandys’ Specimens of the Cornish Dialect, published in 1846. Furthermore, neither does it appear in the glossaries of John Tregellas, the most prolific dialect writer of the 1850s and 60s. A quick skim through some of his tales reveals no examples of the word. If anyone does have a reference from the 1800s I’d be delighted to hear of it. (For some observations on dialect literature in the 1800s see my Industrial Celts, pp.63-69).

As Patrick Laviolette has proposed, dreckly is a ‘fine example of the cultural use of irony’, indicative of a ‘different’ way of doing things, meandering and roundabout. But why did it arise?

Here’s a couple of possible theories, for what they’re worth. Dreckly grew out of the word ‘directly’ at some point between the 1870s and the 1930s. It could have been a response to the more makeshift economy that emerged after mining began to contract, one that was necessarily more flexible, where deadlines became secondary to guaranteeing a quantity of work. Or perhaps it was a result of a deliberate distancing from the mainstream English use of directly, a response to an influx of visitors and new residents? Expect we’ll know dreckly.

Covid-19 and Cornwall: an update

As the number of cases of Covid-19 in the UK creep up again as preventive measures gradually ease, nerves have started to jangle. It’s time therefore for an update on the situation in Cornwall. (For the first blog on this in June see here.) The most recent release of data on the number of detected cases has shown an ominous jump in the number in Cornwall from nine in the week ending August 2nd to 16 in that ending on August 9th.

However, let’s put that in context. The rate of Covid-19 cases in Cornwall is still relatively low, although now higher than many local authorities in southern England, including Devon and Dorset. The rate of new cases actually seems to be fluctuating, some days up, some down, as the chart below shows, with a very slight upwards trend since July.

Unfortunately, the data don’t give a full picture of where the recent rise in cases is occurring. At the lowest level (census areas called middle super output areas or MSOAs) all we know is that no MSOA in Cornwall has recently seen more than two cases in any one week. This was not the case back in April and May when incidents of three or more cases in MSOAs in Cornwall were not unknown, as the following map indicates.

Furthermore, the good news is that the number of deaths in Cornwall from Covid-19 has not increased significantly since June. This is despite the fact that the UK has the highest number of deaths per capita anywhere in the world, a fact which the media seem strangely reluctant to dwell on. Even after this week’s revision of death data and the loss of almost 5,000 Covid-related deaths, the number of deaths in the UK stands at 61 per million people, compared with rates of 42 to 49 per million in those countries usually cited as suffering the most – the USA, Brazil and Mexico. Moreover, deaths from covid-19 in the UK are still running at up to ten times the rate in comparable west European countries.

There is no reason for complacency, therefore. The virus has not gone away but is still quietly and efficiently circulating. For example, in Truro this week I was surprised to find the place was largely a mask-free zone. Meanwhile, social distancing appears to be a novel concept for many tourists. No surprise then that a lot of natives are playing safe and staying well away from the coast this summer.

That said, the widely feared surge of the pandemic triggered by the holidaymaking hordes has not transpired. For that we can be grateful. But, as we have seen from other places which are better prepared to cope than us, outbreaks can flare up unpredictably. So be careful out there.

Central or southern? Cornwall’s contested railway route

These days we tend to take the route of the current railway mainline in Cornwall from Penzance to Plymouth for granted. But from 1844 to 1846 a heated debate raged about which direction the railway in Cornwall should take. There were already two passenger railways in Cornwall. A short line from Bodmin to Wadebridge had opened in 1834 and the longer ten-mile Hayle railway linked that town with Redruth in 1838. The question remained. How should these railways link up with lines radiating out from London?

Travelling in style: third class carriage on Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway

In 1842 the Government announced that Falmouth would lose the packet service that brought mail from overseas. The packets were to move to Southampton, which the railway had reached in 1840. It was now a lot quicker for packets to land there and the mail be taken by rail to London. It was claimed in Cornwall that the packets brought £80-100,000 a year to the local economy (equal to £8-10 million nowadays). This was enough to concentrate minds on linking Falmouth to the emerging railway system as quickly as possible to get the packets back. As was stated at an earlier meeting in 1839: ‘if they had a railroad from Falmouth to Exeter nothing on earth could induce the government to change the [packet] station; but if not, Plymouth or Southampton must take it from us’.

By 1844 two separate schemes were in contention. The first – the Cornwall Railway – proposed a southern or coastal route, close to the current line, joining Falmouth and Plymouth. This was opposed by the Cornwall and Devon Railway, proposing a line from Falmouth to Bodmin and then north of Bodmin Moor via Launceston to Exeter. The advantage of a central line was argued to be its slightly shorter length and less need for tight curves and viaducts, the possibility of ‘improving’ the land and avoidance of the ‘dangers’ of crossing the Tamar at Devonport (it wasn’t clear at this stage if this was to be by bridge or ferry). Its proponents also questioned the wisdom of building a railway line right by the sea between Dawlish and Teignmouth. The supporters of the southern line pointed to the lack of traffic in the ‘desolate’ country served by the central line and the way the southern route communicated with Cornwall’s main harbours as well as joined its three main mining districts at Camborne-Redruth, St Austell and the then booming Liskeard district in the east.

The proposed central line ran from Bodmin to Launceston

Although the central line mounted the more effective public relations exercise, with support from several MPs, a majority of Cornwall’s landed gentry and enthusiastic meetings up and down Cornwall, the southern route had the backing of influential figures such as Lord Falmouth, Joseph Treffry, the mid-Cornwall industrialist, and the Tweedy banking family, plus the Royal Cornwall Gazette newspaper. Crucially, it was also backed by the Great Western Railway, which had already got permission for its South Devon line from Exeter to Plymouth in 1844 and was beginning to build that line, which was to reach Plymouth by 1848. In contrast, the alliance of the central line with the South Western Railway was more fitful and the South Western had still to reach Exeter.

In 1845 the two schemes were scrutinised in London. The Board of Trade declared in favour of the southern route. It would have more traffic, its gradients were less severe and a line was already being built to Plymouth. In addition, it preferred it for national security reasons, lying closer to the coast in case of invasion! The central railway looked doomed and its shareholders merged with the Cornwall Railway.

But then the Cornwall Railway Bill was held up in the House of Lords. Sensing a second chance, and in the midst of the ‘railway mania’ gripping the UK, supporters of a central route renewed their efforts and launched another Cornwall and Devon Central Railway Company. However, their hastily drawn-up scheme was rejected by Parliament in 1846 because of technical errors. The Act for a Cornwall Railway was then passed and by 1859 Brunel had built his bridge across the Tamar. The rest is history.

Brunel’s bridge under construction

In hindsight, the choice of the southern route looks inevitable. The sparse population north of the moors and the difficulties experienced later by the Southern Railway’s north Cornwall branch would seem to support this. Yet consider the ongoing problems of the line at Dawlish, something the climate crisis and rising sea levels will hardly lessen. And note the warning of Sir William Hussey Vivian MP in 1839: ‘if Plymouth got a line before Falmouth, the former will supersede the latter’, which is exactly what happened.

Henry Jenner

On this day in 1848 Henry Jenner was born at St Columb. Jenner played a key role in the Cornish ‘revival’ that began in the 1870s and has long been regarded as the patriarch of Cornish revivalism. However, he wasn’t brought up in Cornwall, having been taken with his family to Essex and then Kent at the tender age of three. He didn’t return even for a visit until he was 19. Nevertheless, the young Henry nurtured an intense emotional yearning for Cornwall. This was possibly exacerbated by his unwordly education at an Anglo-Catholic boarding school. Both the school and his clergyman father’s High Church perspective bequeathed young Henry his world-view, one that he loyally took with him to his grave in 1934.

Discovering the Cornish language as a teenager, Jenner found a romantic surrogate, a consolation for his lost homeland and one moreover that gelled with his general attachment to all things old, preferably from before the Reformation. His work as a keeper at the British Museum from 1870 to his retirement in 1909 was an appropriate base for his interests. In the mid-1870s, he published articles on the Cornish language and toured West Penwith in a largely disappointing quest to find some fragments of the traditional spoken language.

Jenner as Grand Bard in what became required regalia for any self-respecting Cornish Celt

After an interlude, Jenner was drawn back to the Cornish language at the turn of the century. He wrote his Handbook of the Cornish Language in 1904. This has been widely seen as kick-starting the re-invention of the language, while Jenner also played a vital role in getting Cornwall accepted as a Celtic nation. Returning to Cornwall on his retirement in 1909 he became a central and unmistakeable figure in the ‘revival’. Among other posts, he was President of the first Old Cornwall Society at St Ives in 1920 and inevitably the first Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorseth in 1928. He had written a draft ceremony for this body as early as 1907.

In recent years Jenner’s wider affiliations have come in for more scrutiny. For instance, for Jenner language was a less important factor in Cornish nationality than race. As Tim Saunders has shown – in his chapter in Henry and Katharine Jenner (2004) – he viewed the Celts (and the Anglo-Saxons come to that) as superior to the ‘aboriginal’ inhabitants of Britain, who he thought made up the bulk of the English working class. Politically Jenner was no Cornish nationalist; instead he was a unionist with views that were pretty far off the scale. While ‘opposing every radical cause from Italian unity onward’ he also looked forward to the restoration of legitimist monarchies, whether Stuarts in Britain or Carlists in Spain. In fact, any monarch at all was preferable to democracy, which he described as ‘hateful’. This wasn’t just an academic affectation. Sharon Lowenna (in Cornish Studies Twelve) showed how Jenner was involved in preparing secret codes for the Firefly plot in 1899. This was a plan cooked up to smuggle firearms to Carlists in Spain. It was eventually scuppered by the Spanish navy.

Jenner’s commitment was to faith (in the Anglo-Catholic church), throne (as long as Stuarts sat on it), and fatherland (both Cornwall and Empire). This dreamworld ideology was unlikely to appeal readily to the practical, down-to-earth and dour Methodist modernism of the average Cornish person of the Edwardian period. It was also a context for a view that learning Cornish was essentially a sacramental act, a personal commitment to land and ancestry. Nonetheless, his Handbook was based on the living Cornish of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Paradoxically, it was his less ethereal successors who took it further back in time, grounding it in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and making it even more ‘classical’ and sacramental in the process.