By the end of the 17th century the last monoglot speakers of Cornish were dying and the death of their language would inevitably soon follow. Indeed, by 1758 the antiquarian writer, William Borlase, was declaring its last rites; ‘this language is now altogether ceased, so as not to be spoken anywhere in conversation’. Borlase was being premature. Ten years later Daines Barrington came to Cornwall specifically to search for the last Cornish speakers. He visited Sennen, expecting to find Cornish still spoken in Cornwall’s first and last parish. Disappointed there, he was directed towards Mousehole. In that village he came across Dolly Pentreath. Dolly spoke, according to Barrington, ‘for two or three minutes, and in a language which sounded very much like Welsh’. She was clearly not the only one left in Mousehole with some knowledge of Cornish, as a couple of other old women nearby understood her. Barrington was also told by his guide that at times ‘she grumbled to some other old women in an unknown tongue’.
A year before Dolly expired in 1777 a letter was written to Barrington from a Mousehole fisherman called William Bodener. He confirmed the existence of a small number of Cornish-speakers in this fishing port. Bodener had himself learnt Cornish from fishermen as a youth, probably in the 1720s. In fact, it’s quite possible that the last practical domain of the language was at sea, on fishing boats working out of Mousehole, Newlyn or St Ives. He concluded that ‘nag es moye vel pager pe pemp en dreav nye ell clappia Cornish leben, poble coath pager egence blouth, Cornoack ewe all neceaves geb poble younk’. However, Bodener himself wasn’t in his eighties, but his sixties. So it’s likely that the remnants of the language lingered on for another 20 years or so, surviving into the 1790s at least. There may of course been other small islands of Cornish-speaking families in remote parts of west Penwith or on the Lizard, keeping alive some traditional knowledge of Cornish into the first decades of the 19th century.
It wasn’t long before interest in the departed language re-emerged. Davies Gilbert reprinted an edition of the Creation of the World in 1826 and words and phrases of Cornish appeared in the popular Netherton’s Almanacs of the 1850s. The plentiful presence of written examples of Cornish in the first half of the century and the later teaching material that began to appear from the 1870s mean that reports of those with a traditional knowledge of the language surviving into the later 19th century, or even the 20th, have to be taken with a large dose of salt. As time went on, knowledge of Cornish could as easily be gleaned from books as from oral scraps passed on within families or neighbourhoods. The search for surviving remnants was and is understandable, but less important than the symbolic meanings that post-vernacular Cornish generations placed on the traditional language, or its relationship with the 20th century Cornish revival, topics which have yet to be fully researched.
Peter Berresford Ellis, The Cornish Language and its Literature, London, 1974.
Brian Murdoch, Cornish Literature, Cambridge, 1993.
Oliver Padel, Cornish Place-Name Elements, Nottingham, 1985.
Oliver Padel, A Popular Dictionary of Cornish Place-Names, Penzance, 1988, especially pp.25-34.
Matthew Spriggs, ‘Where Cornish was spoken and when: a provisional synthesis’, in Philip Payton (ed.), Cornish Studies Eleven, Exeter, 2003, pp.228-269.
Martyn Wakelin, Language and History in Cornwall, Leicester, 1975, Chapter 4.
Craig Weatherhill, Place Names in Cornwall and Scilly, Launceston, 2005.
Nicholas Williams, Towards Authentic Cornish, Westport, 2006, chapter 3 for the Cornish scribal tradition.