January 06, 2005

And now to revive Cornish?

I love The Economist, as you know. But I have to admit that almost every story they do on language is goofy. (Perhaps everyone goes goofy when they talk about language, we often remark as we chat around the water cooler in our new office building, Language Log Plaza.) The December 18 issue reports very credulously on a putative revival of the Cornish language — the Celtic language once spoken in the extreme south-west promontory of Great Britain. I don't doubt that there are enthusiasts who study Cornish from available descriptions and surviving texts, but these are hobbyists, not speakers. I don't want to upset them, but I have to tell you, there is not going to be any revival of Cornish that turns it into a living language again. To suggest otherwise would be to utterly trivialize the issue of language endangerment.

The reputed last native speaker of Cornish, Dolly Pentreath, died in 1777 with no one left to speak the language to. British editions of The Guinness Book of Records used to say that in the paragraph about languages in Britain with most and least numbers of speakers. But by about 1970 someone had persuaded Guinness Superlatives to drop the reference to Dolly's death completely and instead to mention gratuitously that "A movement exists to revive the use of Cornish." Suspicious: where did Dolly go?

By 1983 someone had discovered evidence of a man called John Davey who supposedly spoke Cornish fluently and lived until 1891, and the Guinness Book mentioned that fact. (They don't mention, though, that a 1922 document quoted here says that "Had not the whole history of the language prepared us for such neglect, it would have seemed far less credible that as recently as 1891, the year of his death, John Davey's Cornish, like that of Dolly Pentreath or William Bodener a century earlier, was allowed to perish unrecorded, than that at so late a date a man still lived who could recite some traditional Cornish. Less astonishing, but even more sad, is that not one word of all his store is known to his descendants today, although it is well remembered that he possessed it." It seems clear that no one really has any data on whether he spoke it fluently or not. From what I know, I would suspect he did not.)

Now it is reported in The Economist that yet another Cornishman, named Henry Jenner, could speak Cornish fluently around the same time, and so could his wife, and in 1896 they started "reviving" the language.

And The Economist goes on to talk breathlessly of lessons in Australia (enrollment: 15), proficiency exams, weekly news broadcasts, and (I swear to God) a Britain-only Christmas Day episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa shouts a liberation slogan (Rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn!") in the Cornish language. The article admits, though, that the modern descendant of this movement is "plagued by squabbles, particularly among the academics specializing in Cornish" (what? linguists squabble?), there being "four rival versions of the written language, each with differing degrees of authenticity, ease of use, and linguistic consistency." In other words, even the written form of the language is not clearly preserved in a definite form, as opposed to hinted at in various fragments in different orthographies.

Let me remind you what is necessary for a language to be living: there must be little kids who speak the language with each other because it is their only language or else their favorite. Little kids who would speak it even if they were told not to. It is not enough that a community of grownups (squabbling or not) has learned it from books and reads to each other each Tuesday night in someone's living room.

Cornish is dead, sadly. Stone dead. No one alive has ever heard a conversation between two native speakers in it, let alone lived with them for long enough to acquire native competence as a child. Talk of "the beginnings of official recognition from both the European Union (EU) and Whitehall" (the U.K. government), and a county council planning "to use Cornish ‘where practicable’," is simply nuts — a philological hobby out of control, and national governments gone mad.

Don't get me wrong: I don't want Cornish to be dead; I love languages, and I traveled on my own initiative to the Isle of Man when I was an undergraduate in 1968 so that I could go and see the last native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell, and record him telling a story. I would have gone to see Dolly Pentreath too. But I was 200 years too late. Everybody is.

Re-read what my colleague Jim McCloskey said (here) about Irish: it will be dead in thirty years, and nothing can save it now, despite thousands and thousands of enthusiastic second language speakers who will keep a different form of it alive for a generation or two. That's a language with several thousand native speakers alive now who you can go and speak to any time you like. And still Irish is dying, and its death apparently cannot be stopped. With Cornish the chance of doing anything was pretty well over before the 19th century began.

Always remember this, as we head into the sad time of massive language extinctions that is coming. Ask around the village and find the age of the youngest people using a language every day for all their normal conversational interaction. If the answer is a number larger than 5, the language is probably dying. If the answer is a number larger than 10, it is very probably doomed. If the answer is a number larger than 20, you can kiss it goodbye right now: no amount of nostalgic appreciation of it will make it last even one more generation as a going concern. That's the way languages are. And it's the way Cornish once was. It would not be sensible for the EU to encourage the idea of adding it to the already frightening list of languages they have to arrange translation into and out of.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 6, 2005 01:48 AM