The Cornish language “Kernewek” is one of the oldest tongues still spoken in Britain today. Like Welsh, Breton – its closest relatives – Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx Gaelic, Kernewek is a Celtic language. Yet it has not enjoyed the same protection that some of the former have. Now the British government is cutting the funding that supports the survival of this language.
The period following the Norman conquest was the era of Cornish classical literature, when the Cornish miracle plays – one of the earliest forms of theatre – were written. This episode came to an abrupt halt, however, with the accession of the Tudor dynasty, when, following a series of unsuccessful rebellions, the Cornish-speaking population was brutally reduced and Kernewek went into rapid decline.
By the beginning of the 18th Century, Kernewek was confined to the far west of Cornwall. But, by the early 20th century, speaker numbers slowly grew once more. In 2010 the language was officially brought “back from the dead”, as UNESCO changed its classification of Kernewek from extinct to critically endangered. Today it is guarded by the few hundred fluent speakers left.
Though fierce, this current local protection and celebration of the Cornish language is apparently not persuasive enough for it to be protected like other British languages.
The Department of Communities and Local Government recently wrote to Lys Kernow/Cornwall Council stating that the central UK government would no longer provide funding for the Cornish language. This announcement came as a shock to the Cornish language community as it was expected that the financial support would continue. Since 2003, the UK government had been providing between £120,000 and £150,000 a year to support the Cornish language, since it was recognised as a regional and minority language in 2003.
The money covered a range of educational activities and resources, essential for revitalising Cornwall’s language. Over the past five years, this investment has resulted in increased use of the Cornish language.
The use of the Cornish language also supports both the local and visitor economy in Cornwall, as demonstrated by the increase in the use of the language in marketing and tourism materials.
Now, not only have new Cornish street names and signage been granted, the language has cropped up more and more in mainstream and social media. In fact, the first television advert spoken in nearly fluent Kernewek appeared in a prime-time spot just weeks after the funding cut announcement.
Destroying Cornish rights
The government’s decision to axe funding is not simply a matter of internal politics: it flouts numerous international agreements which the UK government has signed.
The first of these is Part II of the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, under which the Cornish language was recognised in 2003. As a signatory to the charter, the UK government commits to recognise Cornish as an expression of cultural wealth; recognise the need for resolute action to promote Cornish; facilitate and encourage of the use of Cornish; and prohibit all forms of unjustified distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference relating to the use of Cornish – amongst other things.
In addition, since April 2014, the Cornish people have been recognised as a national minority within the scope of the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, giving them the same status as the UK’s other Celtic people: the Scots, Welsh and Irish.
When a language like Cornish dies, the world loses four important things: linguistic, intellectual, and cultural diversity, and cultural identity. Linguistic diversity is an enshrined right under the European Charter of Fundamental Rightsand the Treaty on European Union, under which signatories agree to respect the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of Europe, and ensure that cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.
Elsewhere in Europe, there has been great success in supporting minority languages. Frisian, for example, is a minority language spoken in Frislân in the Netherlands. The Dutch government has signed an agreement with the Frisian-speaking community to safeguard the language. Importantly this includes substantial support for Frisian language education at preschool, primary and secondary levels, and in higher education. The same could and should be done for Cornish.
When a language is lost, its intellectual assets are lost. Languages encode culture, the different aspects of our beliefs, habits, history and our humour. The extinction of a language leads to loss of the knowledge embedded in that language, along with value systems, philosophy and spiritual knowledge.
Certain aspects of Cornish literature cannot be translated into English. The medieval Cornish miracle plays, on the surface, seem to be concerned with the stories of the bible and the lives of saints. And in English translation that is all that is conveyed. However, the subtle introduction of English phrases and loanwords into the Cornish language text is used to portray the tyrannical oppression that Cornwall was experiencing under the English during this period. This is something that is totally lost in translation.
From a perspective of good governance, protecting minority languages like Cornish is a human rights obligation. It helps to construct an equal, and politically and socially stable society, averting tension and conflict in society. The Cornish language community merely wants what is theirs by right: support for their linguistic heritage and to be able to access this through the education system, which they pay for out of taxation.