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Cornish coming back from the brink

The Celtic language has been termed extinct. Just don't say that to the band of language activists who are pulling out all the media stops to raise enthusiasm for the ancient tongue.

July 25, 2009|Henry Chu

NEWBRIDGE, ENGLAND — For a member of a supposedly extinct species, Craig Wetherill does a pretty good impression of the living. He responds to premature reports of his demise by launching into a local fairy tale.

"Y'n termyn eus passys, 'th era tregas yn Selevan den ha benyn yn tyller cries Chi an Hordh. . . . "

The story he's recounting is "John of the Ram's House." The language he's speaking is Cornish. And the battle he's waging -- to keep alive a Celtic tongue thousands of years old -- is in full swing here at the westernmost tip of England, in the scenic county of Cornwall.

It's not an easy fight when your enemies include the United Nations, which has officially declared Cornish to be dead, and the ignorance of a world more apt to associate Cornish with the words "game hen" than "language."

Or when plenty of your fellow Brits don't realize that Cornish was flourishing on this rainy island ages before Anglo-Saxon interlopers arrived and changed the course of linguistic history.

"The Cornish language has been around for far, far longer than ever English was. It's a direct descendant of the language spoken at the time of the Romans and before the time of the Romans in this country," says Matthew Clarke, 39, a local radio newsman. "It's that long history that I don't want to see broken."

The struggle for linguistic survival has come down to the efforts of a hardy band of devotees like Wetherill and Clarke, who see Cornish as an ineluctable component of local identity, albeit one ignored by most of the people of Cornwall. Fluent speakers are estimated to number only about 300 out of a population of half a million, though several thousand residents probably know a smattering of words and phrases.

Preservationists have some helpful allies, such as the British government, which has provided a small pot of money for promoting Cornish on signs and in schools and for other outreach material.

Cooler yet is the moral support from the American town of Springfield (state unknown), where spiky-haired do-gooder Lisa Simpson appeared on TV a few years ago boosting her latest obscure cause by shouting, "Rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn!" ("Freedom for Cornwall now!")

That episode of "The Simpsons" was broadcast only in Britain, as a tongue-in-cheek response to the annual Christmas Day speech by Queen Elizabeth II. But it gave the topics of Cornish independence, which is not really a serious issue, and the Cornish language, which is, their highest-profile airing ever.

"That raised a whole lot of attention," Clarke recalls, relishing the impression made by an animated character on the fortunes of an almost inanimate language. "You need to do things out of the stereotypical mold."


Then again, many residents of Cornwall have long prided themselves on being different from the rest of England, perched here on the country's southwestern edge, on a finger of land pointing toward the open seas of the Atlantic.

Like the Welsh and the Scots, the Cornish trace their origins to the Celtic tribes that settled in Britain several millenniums ago. They maintain some distinctive customs, such as step dances and tartans; their own flag, a white cross on a black field; their own dishes, including saffron cakes and pasties (similar to turnovers); and, for a small cohort, their own language.

Cornwall is also one of only two royal duchies in Britain, with much of the land belonging to the Duke of Cornwall -- or, as he's more commonly known, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne.

Not that the man who would be king speaks the Cornish language himself or rallies his subjects to the cause.

"He's as much use to us as a chocolate fireguard," Wetherill says with a snort.

Swamped by English, the Cornish language came close to dying out at the end of the 19th century. By then, there was no one using it exclusively or as a first language; some say that the last such person died in 1777 in the town of Mousehole (rhymes with "tousle").

A revival movement flowered briefly in the early 20th century with the publication of a handbook by scholar Henry Jenner, considered a hero by many here for a seminal speech he delivered, in Cornish, before the Celtic Congress, an association founded to preserve Celtic culture. When skeptical attendees from Wales and Brittany discovered that they could understand it, because of similarities with their own indigenous tongues, they were forced to accept Cornish culture as authentically Celtic.

Like Welsh and its more distant relative, Irish, Cornish is a lilting language easily set to music. Unlike in English, the letters Y and W crop up everywhere. There's also the unusual consonant blend "dn," which can be a bit hard for Anglophones to pronounce, while the combination "arr" (as in karr, Cornish for "car") sounds as if spoken by pirates, which seems appropriate (at least for Gilbert and Sullivan fans), since Cornwall is home to Penzance.

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