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.
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.