Ertach Kernow - Keep it Kernewek

One of the many differences between Cornwall and England and aligns us with other Celtic nations is our language, Kernewek. That we have our own living language here in Cornwall is a great source of pride and has encouraged thousands of people to take up the challenge of learning Kernewek, even if just enough to say hello or a few words of greeting and goodbye. That Kernewek has been saved and growing in use is a wonderful thing and since 2010 when United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation changed its classification from extinct to critically endangered, user numbers have grown still further.

Although use of Cornish was in retreat during the middle ages, what has become known as the Prayerbook Rebellion of 1549 was a turning point for the Cornish language with enforcement of the use of English. This article is not about the history of the Cornish language, which was at the threshold of extinction from the early 19th century and revived by people such as Henry Jenner. That Dolly Pentreath was the last Cornish speaker would now be considered untrue. Although Cornish was not perhaps used widely in daily conversation it would have been used within wider family groups albeit maybe in a limited form.

Dolly Pentreath by unknown engraver, pubd 1781 (after R. Scaddan)
Golden Tree - Go Cornish Launch

We must look on the revival over the past hundred years with great positivity. At least in Cornwall and Wales the Brythonic Celtic languages have some governmental support, in Brittany the Breton language, very similar to Cornish, is being virtually suppressed by the French government. Huge increases in the number of people willing to access online learning has benefited Celtic language education and learning including Kernewek. A major initiative through the work of Golden Tree Productions with their Go Cornish project offers some excellent online learning material as well as widespread publicity. This has recently been augmented by a series of short videos supplemented by learning material to encourage use in daily life.

Organisations that work at teaching and promoting Kernewek include Agan Tavas who promote the use and study of the Cornish language and of any traditional forms of Cornish speech and spelling which have developed naturally in Cornwall. Possibly the most well-known and major partner in Speak Cornish Week is Kowethas Yeth an Kernewek, The Cornish Language Fellowship. They run a number of events each year including the Cornish Language Weekends, a gathering of Cornish speakers that includes classes supporting those taking examinations in the Cornish language. Unfortunately, COVID restricted these recently to online events, hopefully 2022 will see these again take place physically. Kowethas Yeth an Kernewek also supports and promotes online weekly radio Cornish language programmes produced by Radyo an Gernewegva and the monthly ‘An Mis’ television video Cornish news programme produced by Pellwolok an Gernewegva. Hugely important they allow people to see and hear ordinary people using our Cornish language.

Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek
An Mis - Matthi & Shaun
Award winning group 'The Rowan Tree' perform songs in Kernewek
An Tonji - Shaun McBride

Music has always been an important part of Cornish culture and singing in Kernewek is a growing trend, especially amongst younger people. There are numerous festivals and events within the UK and internationally that are aimed at musicians singing in Celtic languages including Cornish. This is a positive way to promote our language, and Cornwall, through the use of Cornish culture. Groups such as award winning ‘The Rowan Tree’ have been successful at these events along with a number of Cornish singer songwriters. Welsh born Gwenno Saunders was credited with raising the profile of Kernewek hugely through her album Le Kov, sung entirely in Cornish. This was released in 2018  to critical acclaim. Recent ‘An Mis’ music productions entitled ‘An Tonji’ have included many Cornish language groups and is fronted by young Cornish language speaker Shaun McBride.

The Lowender Peran Celtic Festival that takes place in Newquay at the end of October has encouraged use and interest in Cornish along with other Celtic languages. The stirring Cornish national anthem ‘Bro Goth Agan Tasow’, sharing the tune of the Breton and Welsh national anthems, is one of a number of songs sung in Cornish with words underneath allowing people to join in whilst watching on video. The Lowender Peran outreach project ‘Morgannow’ fronted by duo Dee and Dave Brotherton as ‘Tir ha Tavas’ supported by Matt Blewett encourages audience participation in using Cornish by singing well-known sea shanties.

Tir ha Tavas Dee and Dave Brotherton part of the Morgannow team with Matt Blewett
An Gruffalo - translated by Ray Chubb
Ordinalia written in historic Cornish has been translated language to modern Cornish

The annual International Celtic Congress will be taking place shortly and use of the six Celtic languages including Kernewek will be prevalent throughout, along with English translations. For those interested in and helping preserve not just Cornish, but other Celtic languages hearing them spoken is a wonderful thing.

There are now many more books being written and translated into Kernewek, especially for children. For example, Will Coleman has written a series of books that integrated many Cornish words within the stories. Some were recorded by Elizabeth Carne, Grand Bard of Gorsedh Kernow, for the Newquay St Piran’s Virtual Festival in March this year. Recently Ray Chubb, Chair of Cornish language group Agan Tavas and Celtic Congress Cornwall, has translated The Gruffalo into Cornish. Reading these books with children makes a fun way of learning the Cornish language for both child and adult.

Throughout Cornwall there are a number of Cornish classes with tutors including Elizabeth Carne, Ray Chubb and Mark Trevethan the Cornish Language Lead at Cornwall Council. Some of these have moved online via Zoom during the pandemic and have had great success in retaining students and engaging new ones worldwide. Liz Carne’s Newquay Cornish Language Class has been particularly successful with this. Also moving online has been some regular ‘Yeth an Werin’ events throughout Cornwall where Cornish speakers get together to chat and exercise their language skills. Yeth an Werin Warlinen is a Facebook page that is now running to do just this, especially useful for those overseas, and will carry on when the pandemic is over.

Elizabeth Carne reading Kanker by Will Coleman
Celtic Congress - Urban Kelt - Celtic Coffee Shop Event
Speak Cornish - Theme 2021 'Meur ras'

Between 19th and 27th June, the 2021 ‘Speak Cornish Week’ will be taking place. Every year this event has a theme word or phrase, last year the phrase was ‘My a gar’ meaning I love, this year the theme word is ‘Meur ras‘, meaning thank you. As we emerge from lockdown and a difficult time for all they thought it appropriate to help people express what they are thankful for right now. There will be a programme of events throughout the week, which will be published soon, with opportunities to learn Cornish online or in person, speak Cornish with others and for all the many things going on involving the language to be showcased.

This article will we hope help promote some of the many organisations and people working hard preserving and extending use of Kernewek. It will also assure people in Cornwall that our Cornish language is far from dead and is growing in use with many thousands of people throughout Cornwall and the worldwide Cornish Diaspora speaking and learning Kernewek. 

We hope that people throughout Cornwall will engage in some way with ‘Speak Cornish Week’ whether by attending an event online or in person. Our website at www.cornwallheritage.com will have a dedicated page to help support ‘Speak Cornish Week’. This will have a list of information and links to a variety of event websites, including those mentioned here and social media, as well as further information about learning Cornish. Perhaps this week will encourage more people to engage with speaking at least a little Kernewek within their daily lives. Maybe more people will go on to learn far more by utilising online facilities or attending a local Cornish language class in their area.

Ertach Kernow - Keep it Kernewek
Ertach Kernow - Keep it Kernewek