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Kernowek Rocks!

Giugno 2018
La Cornovaglia, la penisola che si trova nella zona sud-occidentale della Gran Bretagna, è una delle mete turistiche più amate dai britannici. Questa regione offre panorami mozzafiato e un tesoro culturale di estremo valore: la lingua locale.

di Sarah Presant Collins

File audio:

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Cornish flag
Cornish flag

Speaker: Alex Warner (British accent)

Cornish, or Kernowek, is a Celtic language that dates back to around 600 AD and is related to Welsh (spoken in Wales) and Breton (spoken in Brittany, France.) In fact these three languages would have been mutually understandable in the Middle Ages.


But while Cornish was developing in the far south-west, Anglo Saxon and later English were gaining power in the east. As English spread west, Cornish came under threat.
In 1549, the Church of England replaced the official Latin prayer book with an English one. The people of Devon and Cornwall were furious about the change and rebelled. They said that Cornish men (some of whom understood no English) absolutely refused this new English. King Edward VI sent an army to stop the rebellion and more than five thousand people were killed in the fighting.


According to legend, the last monoglot speaker died in 1777. Her name was Dorothy Pentreath, and she claimed to speak only Cornish and no English. The story isn’t quite true but does show how rare Cornish had become as a first language. That said, many Cornish people would still use Kernowek in certain situations, or mix Kernowek vocabulary in with their English.


Cornish grammar was set out for the first time in 1904. It was a turning point in the fortunes of Cornish that started a slow revival. Finally, in 2008, a standard form of written Cornish was agreed on, a big step forward in getting the language used in education and public life.


But soon after this breakthrough came a shocking announcement. The Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, published by UNESCO in February 2009, pronounced the Cornish language officially extinct. Dead?! The Cornish Language Partnership was horrified, pointing out that according to a 2007 survey, two thousand people spoke fluent Cornish, up from just three hundred seven years before. News of the alleged extinction fuelled the language’s revival. Soon, Cornwall council began putting up bilingual street signs in Cornish as well as in English, and encouraging its use in schools. Cornish was reclassified from ‘extinct’ to ‘critically endangered’.


Now if you visit Cornwall to try those famous pasties you might find a tourist guide welcoming you in Cornish: ‘Dynnargh’. Or asking: ‘Fatla genes?’ How are you? A directive urges council workers to use Cornish where they can. There is a nursery where the children are spoken to exclusively in Kernowek and a few families are bringing up their children to speak only Kernowek at home. In the 2011 UK census, 557 people said that Cornish – not English – was their main language. Last March singer-songwriter Gwenno released an album called Le Kov sung entirely in Cornish. The critics love it!   


If you ever visit Cornwall, you’ll hear plenty of people on the streets mixing Cornish dialect in with their English. Most Cornish dialect words are variants of English.

Here are just two of numerous examples:
Allo, me ansome!” is a common greeting to a male friend. ‘Allo’ derives from ‘hello’; me from ‘my’; ansome from ‘handsome’.
Didnus do well?” ‘Didnus’ is a variant of ‘didn’t we’.

Other dialect words derive from Cornish.
“I was cold as a quilkin,” meaning ‘frog’ (from the Cornish ‘qwilkyn’).
“That was a long old stank”, meaning a ‘long, hard walk’ (from the Cornish ‘stankya’).

Despite the signs of revival, there is still a long old stank ahead for Cornish before it gets off the ‘critically endangered’ list. So, to those who refuse to let their language die, Chons da! Good luck!

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