Tuesday, 14 October 2008

CAN YOU SPEAK KERNEWEK?

The local BBC news channel today reported a story (see link below) about Year 3 children in Cornwall being given a book of stories in the Cornish language, the idea being to keep the language alive in the minds of the young.

The problem is, the Cornish language died out nearly three hundred years ago. What's left of it today is a sort of resurrection - I say sort of because for a thing to be resurrected it has to be made to live again, in the same guise and in the same context as it lived before, which isn't the case with Cornish. It's become a linguistic experiment, like that other great white hope of internationalist linguistics, Esperanto; and Cornish too is embroiled in 'nationalist' politics. But what it isn't, and can't ever be again, is a living language, widely and fluently spoken in a natural and unaffected fashion down the generations, without a three hundred year 'break'; and it seems to me to be  a stupid and rather irresponsible waste of the local education and literature budgets (and a waste of trees) to publish and dole out storybooks in Cornish to children here, some of whom may have difficulty enough with reading and expressing themselves in English! English, on the other hand,  is very much a living language, and we should all celebrate it (including the Cornish, who are English really) for its marvellous richness and diversity. That said, I have nothing at all against storybooks in Welsh or Irish or Breton or Hungarian or any other living 'minority' language that has proved its credentials over the years and more than holds its own. Nor have I anything against long dead 'spoken' languages like Latin and Classical Greek, because they have an immensely rich literature which has been the bedrock of civilizing thought and soundly deserved their place in the school curriculum - although nobody, except scholars labelled 'elitist', complains about their being kicked off it. Not so, sadly, with Cornish, which is probably why it died out in the first place: because nobody wrote anything of note in it,  and the only people who spoke it quickly learned that it was more effective to use English for any kind of advancement in the world. This, rightly or wrongly, is still the case today. 

But somebody here is evidently making something out of the venture - even if it is only something close to the hearts of certain types of Cornishmen: a golden sop (or should that be a golden pasty) to nationalist (and dreadfully insular) pride, to be paraded about with the Cornish tartan at the annual Bard-fest known as the Gorseth, another falsely resurrected 'tradition' at which slightly crazed people in Druidic robes congratulate each other on their ability to make speeches in Kernewek for all of half an hour.  I think most Year 3 children here would easily dispense with them, and with their funny language.

It almost - almost - makes Gunter Von Hagens's dismal ventures look as though they have some point to them. (See previous post VON HAGENS AT THE 02 CENTRE)  And they're dead too!

2 comments:

Bryce said...

This is a very interesting blog. I'm sure it stimulates quite a bit of conversation in the local community.

Just if you're interested, here's a website that's actually in Cornish:

Kernewek wiki browser

Morgellyn said...

Thanks for commenting, Bryce. But I'm still none the wiser - and I read the English language version! The words What and Point suggest themselves to me...

Several 'Cornish' friends have grumbled privately to me about this post, and while I regret giving offence to anyone, I am stickng firmly to my guns on this one. That's not to say I am against consenting adults speaking Cornish, if they want to, but inflicting it as a subject on schoolkids here is quite beyond the pale. That said, my daughter (and I) cherish the Kernow Bys Wyken (spelling??) she was given to celebrate The Millenium, although, cynic, as I am, I know that few 'real' Cornish were involved in its making, and the cream, as usual, went to the usual crowd of arty incomers and hangers-on!