Attitudes to the promotion of revived Cornish

Siarl Ferdinand, ‘The Promotion of Cornish in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly: Attitudes towards the language and recommendations for policy’, Studia Celtica Fennica 16 (2019), pp.107-130.

Siarl Ferdinand’s article sets out to examine to what extent the ‘promotion of Cornish [is] supported by inhabitants of Cornwall and Scilly’. This is a research question that indeed cries out for more detailed investigation. The Cornish language exists in an ocean of English-speakers. It is vital to understand the attitudes of that wider population in order to assess whether it will sink, swim or continue to flap around desperately trying to keep afloat.

Although this article is not the most readable, the results are interesting. Moreover, the findings include some unwelcome, although hardly unexpected, evidence that needs to be confronted much more directly by those involved in the language’s revival. However, Ferdinand’s results live or die on the strength of his research methodology. A snowball technique was employed, inviting responses to an online and paper questionnaire via language organisations and various official bodies. This resulted in 220 responses from those with ‘skills in spoken Cornish’ and 147 from non-Cornish speakers. Ferdinand claims that the margin of error is 10% although no actual confidence levels are provided. Moreover, the number of non-learners is low if this is the group the research was primarily setting out to analyse. Notwithstanding the relatively low number, the numbers are probably sufficient to draw out the contrasts between ‘speakers’ and ‘non-speakers’. In the article the ‘non-speakers’ are further divided between those who identified themselves as Cornish, whom I shall call Cornish non-speakers, and those who did not identify as Cornish, or English non-speakers. The numbers involved here when comparing the mere 42 Cornish non-speakers with the 105 English non-speakers are insufficiently robust, but as the contrast between those groups was marked, again they are able to more than hint at some relationships.

Ferdinand notes that the two groups of speakers and non-speakers had a similar age, gender and socioeconomic breakdown and that this allows for comparison between them. That may be so, but this is hardly a proper random sample of the actual Cornish population. The median age of around 60 looks to be high for example. More basically, we don’t know how far the attitudes of those sufficiently interested to fill in a questionnaire on the Cornish language reflect general opinion. A self-selecting sample like this may well understate a general apathy or lack of knowledge about the language. It cannot be said to be representative of the views of the actual population.

Let’s put those serious caveats aside for the moment. What of the findings? The good news for the language revivalists is that the majority, even among the non-Cornish speakers, is broadly positive about the Cornish language. The bad news is that a considerable minority of this sample feel that official support for Cornish is a waste of resources, that the language should not have official status, that the authorities should not promote it, street signage should not automatically include Cornish and that the language should not be introduced into schools.

It’s perhaps not surprising to find that there’s a difference between those non-speakers who identify as Cornish and those who do not. The latter are clearly much more hostile to official support for the language and more likely to label such support as a waste of resources. While around half of the Cornish non-speakers expressed a willingness to learn some Cornish, only 17% of the English non-speakers did, with three quarters showing no interest at all.

The high in-migration over the past two generations and the continuing official policy of encouraging a high population growth strategy has produced what is plainly a very large cuckoo in the nest. The response of Siarl Ferdinand is to urge language activists in Cornwall to exercise caution and tread carefully, even while calling for increased visibility for the revived language. The key conclusion seems to be to avoid obligation or compulsion. For example, introducing Cornish into the schools must be ‘carefully planned … to prevent it being considered an imposition by the half of the population who are not favourable’. Instead, emphasis must be on changing attitudes through internet campaigns ‘free from any political ideology’. ‘Political ideology’ here seems to include ‘people’s national views’, in other words their self-identification as Cornish or not. The language’s role as a marker of cultural distinctiveness has therefore to be played down. It should instead be sold mainly as a ‘cognitive asset’ or as part of local heritage. However, it’s difficult to see why non-Cornish people would choose Cornish to experience the ‘benefits of bilingualism’ rather than Chinese or Spanish. It’s also questionable whether the increased visibility of written revived medieval Cornish on official platforms would serve to intrigue or just irritate those hostile or apathetic about Cornish.

This article contains another point of relevance. There appears to be a disjunction between the fairly apathetic attitude to the language revealed by this research, especially as the sample was self-selected, and the grandiose and over-ambitious Cornish Language Strategy. This, with its overblown rhetoric about making Cornish a ‘widely-spoken community language’ and developing ‘Cornish as a dynamic language that can be used for a full range of purposes in all fields of human activity’ can be contrasted with the findings here. Even in this survey, only one in five of the ‘Cornish-speakers’ defined themselves as ‘fluent’. As many as 60% admitted to not even being able to hold short conversations in Cornish. Maybe ‘Cornish-speakers’ should have more properly been termed ‘Cornish-learners’.

While the 50 or so fluent speakers of Cornish that this research implies might suggest that we have a fairly long way to go before Cornish is a ‘community language’, the recommendation to be cautious because of the perceived hostility of some in Cornwall makes that path even longer. Some might question why a minority of the population should be allowed to veto the development of revived Cornish, the property of the indigenous population, merely by coming to live here. Unlike earlier generations of Cornish learners, only 15% of the speakers in this survey saw any link between language and political activism. While this may result from a fear of being painted as ‘nationalists’, if political action is not taken to reverse the ongoing demographic transformation then there seems little prospect that Cornish will ever become a properly functioning living community language. Instead, it will remain a lifestyle choice. If the native Cornish are reduced to a small minority in their own homeland then the Cornish language will just be a quaint bit of heritage in a living museum, of as much practical significance as the decision whether to put jam or cream first on a scone.

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