The Cornish language – why should Britain care?


The ancient monuments of Britain’s landscape are loved, nurtured and cared for. Every year, thousands of people descend on the great stone circles of Stonehenge, Avebury and Callanish, or the medieval castles of Tintagel, Corfe, Windsor and Warwick. All these and more are protected by an Act of Parliament, and large budgets are allocated for their continued preservation.
But heritage comes in more than one package, and none is less valuable than another. As well as the great sites of our built heritage, Britain has an equally important linguistic heritage that is older than any of those, and it is a heritage in danger.
Ordinalia openingIt is now acknowledged that Celtic languages have been spoken in Britain for 5,000 years – the very name ‘Britain’ is itself a Celtic word! It was once the language of the entire island, and the surviving Celtic languages symbolise a history of international maritime trade that is equally old, and once spanned the Atlantic coastlines from Gibraltar to the Hebrides.
Today, on the mainland of Britain, only three languages survive that have directly descended from that tongue first heard here 5,000 years ago: Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish. Of these, Cornish is the smallest and at no given moment in history have more than 40,000 people spoken it.
It is listed by UNESCO as “seriously endangered”, although it narrowly escaped total extinction in the late 19th century, and has increased by revival from a mere handful of speakers a century ago to the 5,000 or more who can currently use Cornish with a respectable degree of competency, with many more in the stages of learning.
That number represents more than 12.5% of that 40,000. Since 2002, the language has surged with the aid of funding obligated by official recognition and protection under the European Charter for the Protection of Minority Languages, an international agreement between Britain and 46 other nations.
Now, that funding has been cruelly cancelled at the uninformed whim of a single Government Minister, without either debate or vote by our elected representatives.
Why should such an ancient and beautiful tongue – descended from the indigenous language of the entire island – not be treated, respected, protected and funded in the same way as that which is enjoyed by our built heritage?
Why is it it not regarded as an equally important part of that overall heritage, as it deserves?
Why is its preservation, promotion and funding not guaranteed by an Act of Parliament? After all, it is no less important and valuable than any other facet of Britain’s rich heritage.
 Taclow da a veu gwres dhe vos gwelys – Good things were made to be seen.
Craig Weatherhill