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Thursday, 22 August, 2002, 06:03 GMT 07:03 UK
Back from the dead: UK's new language

Britain is about to get a new official language. It dates back to the 9th Century and is hundreds of years older than modern English. But there's one problem - which version to use?
The English language is far and away Britannia's greatest export. It is geographically the most widespread language on Earth and 40% of Europeans claim to know English as a foreign tongue.

At home however, things are rather different. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of ancient Celtic tongues around the British Isles.

Rick Stein and his dog
Cornwall's greatest export? Seafood chef Rick Stein
Several have official minority status and now Cornish looks like joining them as a protected language.

Don't hold your breath if you are expecting bi-lingual road signs around the South West, as is the case in Wales.

Rather, public bodies will have to protect and promote the use of Cornish. It will be illegal for them to discriminate against Cornish speakers and they will have a duty not to suppress the language.

Its new status is not yet official but St Ives MP Andrew George says he has been given the governmental nod and an announcement is expected in the autumn.
UK's official minority languages
  • 1: Welsh
  • 2: Gaelic (Scottish)
  • 3: Gaelic (Irish)
  • 4: Scots
  • 5: Ulster Scots

  • The news is a victory for the handful of fluent speakers of the language.

    "The last government wasn't interested and we've been campaigning for this for about seven years," says George Ansell, of the Cornish Language Board.

    Yet amid the back slapping, there is disagreement over which brand of Cornish should get the official stamp.

    "It's an emotionally charged issue," acknowledges Prof Philip Payton, of the Institute of Cornish Studies.

    The language has at least three strands, based around different spellings and some varying vocabulary. They are:

    • Modern Cornish
    • Unified Cornish
    • Common Cornish

    Dating back to the 9th Century, the Cornish language evolved over hundreds of years and claimed an estimated 40,000 speakers at the time of the Norman Conquest, before dying out around 1800.

    Modern Cornish heralds from the end of that period, drawing on points of grammar and pronunciation that were documented as the language expired.

    King Arthur
    The country has a rich and fascinating history
    At the time, Cornish was becoming heavily influenced by English which had steamrollered its way through the county.

    That spirit is maintained in the revised version of Modern Cornish used today, which is not shy about borrowing English words such as "telephone" and "television".

    Yet when the first Cornish revival picked up steam in the 20th Century, it drew instead on an older version of the language.

    Keeping a distance

    By the 1920s this revised form became known as Unified Cornish. And 1988 saw a breakaway faction known as Common Cornish.

    It'll certainly fool the tourists
    Each version uses its own unique spellings, and new words have been thought up to steer clear of the English influence.

    "Pellgowser" is the Common Cornish word for "telephone" (it literally translates as "far-speaker"); "pellwollok" is "television" and "gwydheo" is "video".

    There are even words for "internet" - "kesroesweyth" and "e-mail" - "e-bost" (literally, "e-post").

    Modern Cornish devotee Richard Gendall says the rival dialects are "makey uppy" and "pseudo Celtic".

    Dressing it up

    "It was all part of a drive in the last century to overstate Cornwall's Celtic roots. They even came up with a Cornish kilt and Cornish bagpipes. These never existed," says Mr Glendall.

    Eden Project
    Eden Project? Is there a Common Cornish translation
    "I'm a pragmatist. I accept that Cornish was heavily influenced by English culture and language before it died out."

    Yet Common Cornish speaker Paul Dunbar winces at the thought of English infecting the Cornish tongue.

    "Students don't want to be breaking into English several times in a sentence when talking about something technical. It's irritating to have to use the language that bloody murdered Cornish," he says.

    It's impossible say who has the high ground. There are few hard facts, but it's generally agreed Common Cornish is the most widely spoken. It has been particularly successful at cornering the market for new learners.

    Yet Modern Cornish is purer, says Prof Payton, who "shares the academic scepticism" about its main rival.

    Land's End
    The language saw some rocky years
    So what does the future hold? Prof Payton and George Ansell agree the generic Cornish language will be officially recognised, rather than one particular dialect.

    After that "it's for the people of the Cornish language to decide" says Prof Payton.

    "It may be we chose one at the expense of the other, or that we agree to recognise a plurality, or that some years down the line there will be a convergence of them all."

    What does Cornish sound like? Here Modern Cornish speaker Richard Gendall translates some phrases tourists may find useful.

    "This blistering Cornish sunshine has left me absolutely parched..."

    "I wasn't expecting to surf in Newquay today..."

    "I was looking forward to a lovely plate of Bigbury Bay Oysters..."

    The BBC's John Kay
    "Minorities around the world are recognising their own cultures"

    See also:

    22 Jul 02 | England
    19 Mar 02 | England
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