The Cornish language as symbolic icon

Stuart Dunmore, ‘A Cornish revival? The nascent iconization of a post-obsolescent language’, Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics, in press.

Much of the best work in Cornish Studies is now produced outside Cornwall. Here’s an example. In this article Stuart Dunmore investigates the relationship between language and identity in Cornwall. He begins by distinguishing between the communicative and symbolic functions of language. When the former disappears, as happened with Cornish at the end of the eighteenth century, the latter can remain and indeed grow in intensity. The basic thrust of his argument is therefore straightforward – even an obsolescent (in terms of communication) language can retain an ideological meaning for an ethnic group and become an ‘iconized symbol of identity’. In other words, the Cornish language retains an importance for notions of Cornishness.

Iconization is further defined as the production of perceptions of practice through ideology, as opposed to indexicality, which produces ideological associations through actual linguistic practice. In Cornwall, indexicality has only operated within a ‘tiny language community, with an even smaller number of regular users’. Yet, Stuart Dunmore finds evidence, albeit rather sketchy, that in recent years the language has been iconized as a ‘totemic symbol in representations of distinctiveness’. It’s viewed as an important aspect of Cornishness, even among an ‘overwhelmingly monoglot English-speaking population’, along with several other icons.

This has occurred despite the death of the vernacular language, the marginality of the self-styled ‘revived’ language community and the former disputes within that community about the proper basis for the revived language. In passing, the article notes instances of polynomic language communities. Corsican furnishes an example of a language community defined by internal variation with speakers recognising unity in diversity, thus adding strength to Corsican identity. This could have happened in Cornwall but it didn’t. Instead, most members of the ‘revived language community’ are seemingly unaware of varieties other than a Cornish based on a fourteenth century register and spelt in a non-traditional way. Nonetheless, this appears to have had little effect on its symbolic function.

The bulk of the article is a descriptive account of language and identity in Cornwall. Most of this is familiar, although it’s disappointing to see a continuing reliance on Halliday’s sixty-year old History of Cornwall. Why is it that non-historians still refer to this when there are several more recent alternatives? The piece is also marred by one or two factual errors. ‘Many of the larger copper mines had long closed by the 1850s’. No; most had turned to tin production. Moreover, copper mining was actually at its height in terms of value in the 1850s and early 1860s. Similarly, Cornwall’s demographic revolution did not start in 1952 but a decade later.

Putting these quibbles aside, this remains a thought-provoking article. It fleshes out the throw-away statement I made over a decade ago in my Cornwall: A Concise History, when I wrote that the Cornish language had ‘symbolic application as an icon of Cornishness rather than a part of everyday life’ and puts it in greater context. Moreover, it introduces Cornish Studies to a new academic audience. Hopefully, this will be part of the process whereby Cornish Studies eventually breaks out of its ghetto.

One thought on “The Cornish language as symbolic icon

  1. Your assessment is spot on. This is a useful piece, with some helpful insights.

    Your point about the tendency to rely on outdated and/or erroneous sources is, alas, a clear and ever-present danger for anybody concerned with Cornish Studies. I’ve long ceased managing to be irritated at that quasi-paradigmatic reliance on the error-strewn and conceptually incoherent pronouncements of the late Glanville Price.


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