I recently spent four days in the beautiful county of Cornwall for a holiday and also to attend the annual Cornish Language Weekend.
I flew from the north of England down to Newquay, Cornwall as I didn’t fancy a 6 or 7 hour drive and so the flight was a very quick 40 minutes and then I picked up a hire car from the airport. My first two nights were spent in the picturesque village of St Agnes where I stayed in a 400-year-old hotel full of character. I was planning to use St. Agnes as a base while I drove around Cornwall in the hire car so I didn’t expect there to be much to see in the village. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I popped outside for a stroll. Firstly, the walk to the beach is gorgeous. You pass a row of delightful 18th century cottages that used to be occupied by ship captains. The street is called “Stippy Stappy Lane” which I thought was a strange sounding name.
Apparently it is thought this was old Cornish dialect referring to the steep steps that take you to the bottom of this stunning little street. Elsewhere in the village there is an old church with tiny, cute wooden doors on the side and the remains of one of Cornwall’s old industries, a 19th century tin mine. Tin mining was a very important industry in this part of Cornwall and it goes back hundreds of years. There are many old tin mines around the landscape in this part of Cornwall and they have been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The whole of Cornwall is steeped in history. The red dots on this map represent archaeological sites to visit. I would like to have been able to visit many of them but I was restricted for time. I managed to visit the villages of St. Teath and Tintagel in North Cornwall where I visited a medieval church and castle. In the church at St Teath, they have a list of all their vicars on the wall going back to the 13th century!
One place in Cornwall I had always wanted to visit was St.Michael’s Mount which is a small island with a population of about 35 people and lies off the south coast. It is similar to Mont St Michel off the north coast of France although it is smaller. The island has been occupied for more than 1000 years and it is estimated that a monastery was here around the 8th-11th centuries.
On the very south coast of Cornwall I visited the small villages of Paul and Mousehole. Here, allegedly, was where the last native speaker of the Cornish language lived. Her name was Dolly Penreath and she died in the year 1777. I managed to visit her grave. Linguists visited Cornwall from Wales and London in the 17th and 18th centuries to start trying to record what was left of this dying language.
Cornwall is a Celtic language, close to Breton and Welsh and was once the main language in Cornwall. During the Middle Ages, English started to creep into Cornwall from the north until the last Cornish speakers could only be found in the very south. There are several reasons for the decline in Cornish. For example, from the Middle Ages, trade at the ports with people from English speaking areas increased the need for the English language and the aristocracy started using English rather than Cornish names. Cornish was beginning to be seen as a language of the poor people. In the year 1549, the Act of Uniformity outlawed all languages except English from church services. Many Cornish people protested about this as they said many people in Cornwall could not understand English. Several thousand Cornish protesters were massacred by King Edward VI’s army. The Cornish language religious institution of Glasney College was destroyed in the year 1548. Many plays in Cornish were written and performed at Glasney. The subsequent spread of English into the religious lives of the Cornish people is seen as one of the main factors in the demise of the Cornish language.
The claim that Dolly Penreath was the last native speaker has been disputed for several reasons. For example, in 1776 a local fisherman named William Bodinar, sent this letter in Cornish and English to the antiquarian Daines Barrington, who had visited Cornwall searching for Cornish speakers. The letter states that around five people in the village were still speakers of Cornish at that time. Bodinar outlived Dolly by some twelve years. There are other examples of speakers who lived in the 19th century too. However, the true revival of the language started in the early 20th century when Henry Jenner published a book called “Handbook of the Cornish Language”. Other publications followed throughout the 20th century and the modern revival began.
Today, there are many books to buy in Cornish as well as many ‘classics’ that have been translated into Cornish. A large selection is available to buy online here. There are Cornish language classes held throughout Cornwall as well as a distance learning course. I completed the first few lessons on the distance learning course before attending the Cornish Language Weekend in Newquay.
The event is held every year and they cater for complete beginners right up to advanced levels. You can now even sit official exams in Cornish. As well as Cornish lessons, the Cornish Language Weekend included other activities such as an afternoon walk with commentary in Cornish and English, a ‘troyl’ (traditional Cornish dancing) and Cornish singing. The price for attending the weekend was very reasonable. If you would like to find out more about the Cornish weekend, please click here.