Thursday, 29 December 2016

Celts that came from afterlife

In this post, I'm going to change from usual remote geography topics to linguistics topics, or rather "remote linguistics". I'll start writing about an European language that has the impressive amount of.... 700 speakers: Cornish.
But what is most impressive about this language is that it has returned from afterlife! It was completely extinguished, and now has reborn!

Let me travel a lit bit back in time. Just mere 2,500 years ... At this time the Celtic languages dominated Western Europe. They were divided into two groups:

  • Continentals: among others, Celtiberian from the Iberian Peninsula, Lepontic language from southern Switzerland and northern Italy, and Gaulic (or Gaulish) from Gaul,... yes, Asterix and Obelix obviously did not speak anything remotely similar to French. They spoke a Welsh related language that became extinct before year 600 DC.
  • Insulars: Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton (Hey! Brittany is in France so not an island and should, therefore, be a Continental Group language...). Other languages, as Cornish and  Manx are also Insular Celtic.

    The Romans arrival, and some years later the invasions of Franks and Goths (in Continental Europe), and Angles and Saxons (in Britain), shelved these languages that formerly had dominated Western Europe for centuries. The Lepontic language disappeared, and so did Celtiberian and Gaulish. Britonnic took refuge in France becoming present-day Breton (nowadays 200,000 speakers) and that's why, even being spoken in France, so "Continental" Europe, Breton belongs to the Insular Group, as its ancestor is "Insular" Britonnic. Other Celtic languages, as Irish and Scotish Gaelic, struggle to survive, and only Welsh resists the attack, but suffering a lot.

    And a similar fate suffered Cornish:

    Cornish language was spoken in Cornwall, which is the region located in the southwesternmost point of the Great Britain island.

    Cornish was a close relative of Britonnic, the language spoken in England when Romans arrived. And, therefore, related also to Breton, currently spoken in Brittany, France (Brittany, before Bretons migration was known by the Romans as Armorica, and there was where Asterix' village).

    Around year 1300, Cornish reaches its moment of maximum splendor and extension. But in the sixteenth century, the British government decided to create a law, the Act of Uniformity that aims English as lingua franca, role played until this moment by Latin. That law shows that English government was aware that, in Cornwall (and also in other parts f the kingdom), there was a large part of the population not able to speak a single word in English,... so they were Cornish-only speakers. In a report addressed to King Edward VI in 1549 is said:

    "In Cornwall is two speches, the one is naughty Englysshe, and the other is Cornysshe speche. And there be many men and women the which cannot speake one worde of Englysshe, but all Cornyshe."

    The new law did not try to remove Cornish language(or Welsh, Scots or ...) but since 1400, Cornish was already losing speakers. English language pressure was harassing Cornish to the west.

    It is considered that Cornish language disappeared completely during the eighteenth century. But a quite big amount of Cornish-written books remained. All of them were written without any standardized grammar and orthography. So each author wrote the way he wanted.

    The last monolingual speaker of Cornish died in 1676. His name was Chesten Marchant, and it's said he had only a very basic knowledge of English. The
    last person to be able to speak Cornish fluently was a fishwife from Mousehole village called Dolly Pentreath. He died in 1777 and, after her, no one else was able to speak Cornish fluently. Only a few old men were able to understand it o sing some old songs.

    In the early twentieth century, of course, no one could speak or understand Cornish. The only rembembrance of the disapeared language were some books and a few names of towns, rivers and mountains of Cornwall. But in 1904, Henry Jenner created a series of manuals intended to teach Cornish, and 25 years later Robert Morton Nance published a Cornish grammar (as Pompeu Fabra had already done for Catalan language some years before). This standard Cornish became known as Unified Cornish and was based on the Cornish spoken during its apogee, around year 1300.

    During the following years several new grammars appeared and fighting started among linguists. Ugh! Linguists fighting; must be worse than gangs brawls!

    Anyway, at the beginning of the 21st century, an agency to regulate Cornish language was created, the Cornish Language Partnership and a definitive grammar was agreed. Incredibly, year by year, a sense of cultural identity began to rise around Cornwall. Some years ago, schools began to teach Cornish. Even in 2010 the Cornwall College kindergarten in Camborne began a Cornish language immersion program for children from ages 2 to 5. The problem came when they realized they needed to teach Cornish to kids' parents, so immersion could also be done at home! Also BBC Radio Cornwall and some regional broadcasters have begun to introduce programs in Cornish.

    And the result has been spectacular! This map shows the percentage of households in each municipality whose main language is Cornish:

    This might seem ridiculous, even for me, a Catalan speaker; I know that these rates are very low, but consider that, for a language that 30 years ago nobody even understood, there is now a 1% of households that have Cornish as their main language!

    So, for the first time in history, UNESCO has been forced to make a small but significant step, and change the classification of a dead language: Cornish changed from "extinct" to "strongly endangered"! Never before, an extinct language had its status been changed... and it happened twice! Another Celtic language has also recently returned from the kingdom of dead languages .... Guess which one?

    Here you have a video so you can hear how Cornish sounds. If its progression continues, who knows if Cornish will become the language of the future!


    1. Simply brilliant ... An inspiration for those that try to keep alive their mother language

    2. I have immerse respect and admiration for the celtic and finno-ugric languages.......... for some reason.

      1. Some years ago, I tried to learn Hungarian and.... It's really difficult. I just can say some few polite sentences. But finno-ugric family is very interesting. And Celtic one, just seeing what they were around year 0AD, it was an big and diverse family. But also Basque (and Aquitanian) is a very interesting mistery...

      2. Is no finno-ugric language Hungarian is Hungarian has no connection to Finnish all was made by the Has-burgs in the 18 century to demoralize the Hungarian population. Hungarian language comes from Hun and Scythians unique by his nature non of today existing languages are related to Hungarian

      3. You are right. I've also read about Finno-Ugric as an "old style" categorization. But honnestly, ther should be a Linguistic category called "Extremely difficult languages" and Finish and Hungarian at the top of this category ;-)
        By the way, many thanks for posting a comment. I hope you enjoy the blog!

      4. For whatever reason, Hungarians were deeply offended when their language was SUGGESTED to be related to Finnish, as if Finns are subhumans or something. So far, all the evidence suggests the languages ARE related.

    3. A couple of points - Chesten Marchant, of Gwithian, was a woman, not a man (Chesten = Christine). Also, Cornish did not quite die out (and Dolly Pentreath was a long way from being the last native speaker. That myth is a constant vexation). The remoter western parishes contained several Cornish speaking families throughout the 19th century, and at least two native speakers lived into the early years of the 20th century. One of these, Richard Mann of St Just, but formerly of Zennor, was still alive, aged 80 in 1914, well after the revival had got under way. Gans bolonjedh da, Craig.

      1. Hi Craig. Thanks for your comments. I'll try to correct the post with your helpful information. I was planning also a post about Manx. Maybe you have some good info about it. At the end, even at the global era, with intenet and so, distance is still a problem. And writing about Cornish sitting in Catalonia it's not so easy. Many thanks!!