In the UK’s South West, efforts to revitalize Cornwall’s indigenous language Kernewek are stronger than ever.
The ancient language can be traced back 4000 years and was considered a dead language as long ago as 1777—a plaque remaining in the village of Mousehole commemorates one of its last native speakers, Dolly Pentreath.
Kernewek, or Cornish, is derived from Common Brythonic, a Celtic language spoken by native Britons that eventually split and became Welsh, Breton (still actively spoken in Brittany, France), and Cumbric—spoken in the North of England, Scottish Borders, and Southern Scotland until approximately the 12th Century.
The isolated Cornish peninsula allowed the language to flourish, and as many as 38,000 people (out of a total population of around 50,000) spoke Kernewek at its peak in the Middle Ages.
Now thanks to online learning programs, community initiatives and apps, Kernewek is being learned by more than 4,000 pupils in 23 schools across the county. The language has also gained a boost in popularity due to the success of Welsh-Cornish singer Gwenno and Cornish comedian Kernow King.
Cornish was officially recognized by the UK government under Part II of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, in 2002. Currently, UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages reports Cornish as “critically endangered,” reclassifying the language from “extinct” in 2010.
Will Coleman, artistic director of Golden Tree Productions—a theater and arts company focused on promoting Cornish language and culture, said: “It’s pretty amazing that our little patch of the planet has its own language, which has roots dating back at least 4,000 years, and yet it’s just 20 years since our language officially got recognition.” He added “Since then we have been able to engage with our language, celebrate it publicly, and do some great stuff with children and young people as well.”
The Cornish Language Office—a local governmental organization aiming to increase the use of Cornish as a community language, has estimated that approximately 400 speakers are at an advanced level of proficiency, and 2,000 are conversational. Many thousands more have some knowledge of the language.
Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek or The Cornish Language Fellowship is a registered charity promoting the use and conservation of the Cornish Language. Coordinator Emma Jenkin told the BBC “In the five years that I’ve worked at the Cornish Language Fellowship, we’ve seen a massive shift towards people learning and speaking Cornish,”—”I was in the pub in Truro just last night, where our language group meets a few times a month to speak only in Cornish.”
The charity also saw a significant surge in signups for Cornish language lessons offered by Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek during the Covid-19 lockdown, and now they currently have more demand than there are teachers.
As the revival of the language gains momentum, linguistic experts now face challenges on language standardization. Coleman explained that Cornish is often subject to the “spelling wars,” a debate between different groups over spellings of the language.
Despite logistical teaching issues and gaps in funding, there is much promise for a full revitalization of the Cornish language. In 2022, Councillor Carol Mould expressed, “This is our identity, this is our heritage. In the last 20 years the language has come a long way to being reintroduced into our communities.”