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Cornish language 1777 – 1904

8 April 2020

3 minutes to read

Cornish language 1777 – 1904

My a studh rag doktourieth yn Pennskol Garesk, gans arghasans dhyworth Trest Ertach Kernow.  My a hwither studh an yeth Kernewek ynter 1777-1904 ha res yw dhymm kavos mar peu kewsys an yeth.  My a vynnsa gwelhe lok Kernewek yn adhyskans ughella.

(I’m studying for a PhD at Exeter university, with funding from the Cornwall Heritage Trust.  I’m researching the status of the Cornish language between 1777-1904 and I’m looking to discover if the language was being spoken.  I would also like to increase the profile of Cornish in Higher Education.)

Kensa Broadhurst is a PhD student in the Institute of Cornish Studies, based in Penryn.  Her research is funded by the Cornwall Heritage Trust.  She is investigating the use of the Cornish language in the period between 1777 and 1904, when the language is generally regarded as being extinct.  Her supervisor is Dr Garry Tregidga, Director of the Institute.

Perceived history of the Cornish language

Through my research I am hoping to find evidence that the Cornish language was being used between 1777-1904.  This could change the perceived history of the language, and counter the argument faced by current speakers of the language that it is a made-up language, by proving that it has been in continuous use.  I have been researching the processes through which languages both die out and are successfully revived and am investigating the decline of Irish and its revival in Northern Ireland as a comparison with another Celtic language.   

I had heard through the Cornish Language community that my PhD Studentship was going to be advertised and when I was made redundant from my last teaching post in the summer of 2019 it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. 

The common perception is that Dolly Pentreath, a fish-seller from Mousehole, was the last speaker of Cornish and when she died in 1777, the language died with her.  During the nineteenth century, several antiquarians did publish texts about the language, culminating in the publication in 1904 of Henry Jenner’s ‘Handbook of the Cornish Language’ which sparked the revival of Cornish as a community language which continues to this day.  I am researching use of the language between these dates in Cornwall, by Cornish people.  The Victorian gentlemen antiquarians mainly re-wrote previous research on the language, and don’t seem to have made much of an effort to engage with the common people of Cornwall who could well have still been using the language, so it is their stories, lives and possible use of Cornish I am searching for.  Fortunately, in Cornwall we are blessed with several useful archives and libraries, including the newly opened Kresen Kernow (Cornwall Centre) which houses the former County Records Office and Cornish Studies Library, as well as the Morrab Library and the Royal Institute of Cornwall library.   

Learning Cornish

I started learning Cornish about four years ago, initially as an academic exercise!  I’ve always enjoyed learning new things and had previously  done my MA in Music through distance learning with the Open University.  Although I have a Cornish name, one side of my family is Cornish, and I had lived here on and off for about fifteen years, I really didn’t know very much about the language. 

My undergraduate degree was in French and Italian, and I had spent many of the intervening years as a languages teacher and examiner, but I quickly discovered Cornish is nothing like the languages we study at school! 

It is one of the five traditional Celtic languages of the British Isles along with Welsh, Gaelic, Irish and Manx, but is most closely related to Breton.  Although there are some similarities to the languages I was familiar with in terms of grammar, much of the sentence structure is completely different, and so is the vocabulary.  

Over the past four years I worked my way through the Cornish exam syllabus and in the summer of 2019, passed my final exams in language, medieval and modern literature, history of the language and Cornish place names.  I now teach an evening class to beginners, tutor for an online Cornish course, set exams for the exam board and contribute to the training of my fellow Cornish teachers. 

Raising the profile of the Cornish Language

I also write and read the weekly news bulletin in Cornish on BBC Radio Cornwall as part of a small team!  Our bulletin is broadcast on Sundays at 2pm.  This week I’m writing the bulletin, I should also be reading it but, understandably, am unable to go into the studio to record it.  Luckily one of my colleagues is able to do the recording from home.   

One of the stipulations of my studentship is raising the profile of the Cornish Language within Higher Education, so I hope that as well as completing my PhD, I will also manage to do this.  I hope that I can add to the tweeting and blogging I already do in Cornish by promoting my use of the language in symposiums and the Doctoral College events here at Exeter.  Watch this space! 


Kensa Broadhurst


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