Growing pressure: the early 1500s to 1700

Over this period Cornish appears to have died out in mid-Cornwall east of Truro. However, we should avoid the temptation to view this as a simplistic and gradual westwards retreat, something encouraged by maps that purport to show clear-cut linguistic boundaries. These are fundamentally misleading. The process was more like a gradual submerging of the Cornish areas by English. Islands of Cornishness might hold out for a generation or two while the area around would undergo language change. It looks as if, in the second half of the 1500s, Cornish was still being spoken in mid-Cornwall. But it seems to have been fading, first in Pydar hundred to the north and then in Powder. Yet the places proposed as the home of John Tregear, translator of Catholic homilies into Cornish in the 1550s, were Newlyn East or St Allen in Pydar. Further south, in a court case at St Ewe in Powder, it was reported in 1595 that two women had been talking together in both Cornish and English, while fishermen at Goran still required an interpreter in a court case of 1583.

At the end of the 16th century Richard Carew wrote that ‘the English speech does still encroach upon [Cornish] and has driven the same into the uttermost skirts of the shire. Most of the inhabitants can speak no word of Cornish, but very few are ignorant of the English’. ‘Uttermost skirts’ is on a par with the 14th century bishop’s ‘in extremis’ and open to many interpretations. It could also be questioned how much Carew, based as far east as it was possible to get without being in Devon, was really aware of the linguistic situation in west Cornwall.

We can make use of another sound change to identify where Cornish was spoken around 1600. During the 1500s the sounds of /n/ and /m/ sometimes changed after a stressed vowel to become /dn/ and /bm/, this being known as pre-occlusion. There are hints of this change in the extant text of Bewnans Meriasek, written as early as 1504, while a more secure example appears in the visitor Andrew Borde’s recorded ‘me vyden’ around 1540. Written Cornish, still influenced by the Cornish scribal tradition, did not normally show this change. But placenames did from the 1560s. There are early examples from Constantine, Crowan, Feock, Stithians, St Just in Penwith and Towednack. All of these were in the west, where Cornish was still spoken. So a map of placenames which show pre-occlusion may well indicate the extent of Cornish-speaking districts around 1600. Here it is.

Cornish did cling on after 1600 east of Truro, but only on the Roseland peninsula and along the south coast towards St Austell. This map suggests that the loss of the language by this date was more severe to the north of the peninsula than the south. Was the greater resilience of Cornish along the southern coasts related to the easier contact with Brittany perhaps?

We can reach three conclusions about the state of Cornish in the early decades of the 17th century. First, east of Truro by the end of the 16th century Cornish would rarely be encountered by a casual visitor. By this time Cornish-speakers would only be found in places on the Roseland and the south coast as far east as St Austell Bay. Second, west of Truro there were Cornish-speaking communities and a widespread knowledge of the language remained, even among the gentry, who, according to Norden in the 1580s, spoke to their servants in Cornish. Third, there was a high level of bilingualism, with few monoglot speakers. This latter aspect was effectively a death-knell for the language, given both the relative status and the practical factors stacked in favour of English. In consequence Norden concluded that ‘in a few years the Cornish language will be by little and little abandoned’.

During the British wars of the mid-seventeenth century a visiting soldier, Richard Symonds, stated that Cornish was spoken ‘at Goonhilly and about Pendennis, and at Land’s End they speak no English. All beyond Truro they speak the Cornish language’. If it indicates anything, this vague formula might suggest that monoglot speakers could still be met with in west Penwith and perhaps on the Lizard, while Cornish-speaking communities existed elsewhere in Kerrier. This is borne out by the claim that the vicar of Feock used Cornish in his services into the mid-seventeenth century. In the 1680s William Scawen also reported that the parson of the parish of Landewednack had preached in Cornish ‘not long since’, as there were still parishioners there who were unable easily to understand English. Yet the 1670s is also proposed as the decade in which the last monoglot speaker died.

At the end of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth we are on firmer ground, with reliable accounts of the location of Cornish-speaking parishes from the native Nicholas Boson and from Edward Lhuyd. The parishes Lhuyd recorded where Cornish could still be heard are on the map below, with the additions of Boson’s remarks that Cornish could still be found ‘towards’ Redruth and Falmouth. Yet Boson admitted that ‘the young men speak it less and less, and worse and worse’. The scene was set for the final act of the tragedy.