Not dead yet: John Gillingham on the Cornish Language

    This is the first in a series of interviews with speakers of indigenous and minority languages who are involved in language revitalization efforts and who use their languages online.

    I am excited to begin the series with the Cornish language (Kernewek), one of the six Celtic languages, spoken in Cornwall, at the southwestern-most tip of Great Britain.  Cornish is a particularly interesting case since it is among the languages to have been declared "dead" as far back as the 18th century, one of the first victims of the expansion of English that is threatening so many languages around the world to this day.  However, the reports of the death of Cornish have been greatly exaggerated!  Indeed, it is in many ways an inspiring case of language revival; today it is spoken by an active community of second-language learners and a number of children are being raised in the language, with the first Cornish language preschool opening just last year.

The language is also famous for a decades-long dispute over orthography that has hindered the revival movement in many ways; we touch on some of those issues in the interview below.  The good news is that in 2008 many of the major figures in the language community came to an agreement on a Standard Written Form (PDF link) for Cornish.  For other small language communities who are trying to produce written materials for language revitalization and are struggling with dialect variations or spellings differences, there are certainly important lessons to be learned from the Cornish experience.

John Gillingham, @Bodrugan
John Ellery Gillingham is a student of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter's Cornwall campus, Tremough, studying the decline of the language during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.  He has been learning Cornish since his teen years, and is trying to learn as many words orally from traditional speakers, or their families, as possible.  He is also active in the Cornish language community on Twitter (indeed, currently ranked number one on the Indigenous Tweets page for Cornish), as @Bodrugan.   I spoke with him about the current state of the language, both online and offline.

KPS: Can you give us a quick overview of the state of the language, for readers who may not be familiar with Cornish?  How many speakers are there?  Does it have any official status, and is it taught in schools?

JEG: There hasn't been any real census of the number and quality of speakers out there, but there are maybe a couple of dozen young people raised in the language, and around 200 fluent. There are also around 2000 people with a conversational level of Cornish. I feel that the numbers are increasing. Cornish was given protection under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages by the UK government in 2001 and has been receiving a limited amount of public funding in recent years. It has been taught in schools for a number of years now and the number of such classes is increasing. There have been Cornish language playgroups for preschool children over recent decades and there is now, since 2010, a Cornish language creche, Skol Veythrin Karenza, which not only teaches the children, but also teaches the parents how to use Cornish around the home. At the moment there are no schools using Cornish to teach.

Men an Tol, an ancient stone structure in W. Cornwall

KPS: What opportunities are there to use the language online? Are there websites (Facebook, Google search, Wikipedia) translated into your language? What about software and other resources (web browsers, office software, online dictionaries, spell checkers)?

JEG: The internet is no problem, we had broadband rolled out across Cornwall very early on, and now we are having high speed broadband installed. There have been projects to translate things into Cornish but I don't really use them [e.g. translations of Ubuntu Linux and the digital music manager Songbird]. Some of Wikipedia has been translated but people have been reluctant to do too much while there is uncertainty over the spelling system used for the language. A new spelling system has recently been devised after decades of infighting over how to spell Cornish.  The divisions led to a lot of people refusing or otherwise reluctant to converse with each other either in public or on the internet. There is a regular radio podcast available on the internet called Radyo an Gernewegva and also weekly news in Cornish on local radio.
Procession in honor of St. Piran, with the national flag of Cornwall

KPS: Many speakers of indigenous and minority languages are reluctant to use their languages online because of difficulties with terminology, orthography, keyboard input, etc., or simply because they are more comfortable with English/French/Spanish.  Are any of these issues relevant for speakers of your language? What is the general attitude toward using the language online?

JEG: One thing is people not being confident with the new standard spelling system, there were four or five different spelling systems before, so people will often write in English to avoid any such problems. A lot of people just learn to use the computer in English but that is a different thing entirely to getting people to write in the language on-line.

KPS: Many indigenous and minority languages lack computing terminology. Is this an issue for your language? How is/was terminology developed? Is there a "language board" or are terms developed naturally by the community? If there are official terms, how are they communicated to the community?
Bolenowe, where John lives

JEG: There has definitely been a movement from the younger part of the language community to keep Cornish up to date with modern technology. There are various language organisations publishing new material and keeping the language in the present. 'Official' new words are disseminated through books, dictionaries and magazines as well as on radio.

KPS: Why multiple organisations?  Are the different organisations in charge of different terminology domains, or is it more of a free-for-all?

JEG:  The different organisations are as a result of the arguments over spelling systems. I expect that the Cornish Language Partnership would publish them if they had the time. They are the official, government funded organisation.  [Other organisations include:] 
And yes it is a bit of a free for all, but in the end, to be accepted, they have to be used by the language community. If the words pertain to your profession or field of interest then it is likely that you are going to come up with them and use them.

KPS: Are there other special challenges your community faces in terms of developing technology for the language and/or communicating online?

JEG: Hopefully the problems to do with spelling systems will reduce in the coming few years. There are a great many older members of the language community and it is unlikely that many of them will get involved in using Cornish on social media, but there are some who certainly do use it.
18th century Cornish inscription found in one of John's books

KPS: Are young people using the language online? Do you think social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are helping encourage language use by younger speakers?

JEG: Yes, and I think things like Indigenous Tweets are helping with that.  I think that there has been a problem in the past where young speakers have been very much isolated from each other and have therefore reverted to using English on a daily basis with no Cornish.

KPS: What is your vision for your language in ten years, both in general terms and in terms of software/online use?

JEG: In general I want schools to begin teaching in the language, and every school to run Cornish classes. I would like to see an on-line news service in Cornish, and Cornish television (even if it's just on the internet).


  1. Very insightful interview! I found the issue of the multiple spelling systems interesting, particularly in how it had an effect on the online use of the Cornish.

  2. Great interview... I didn't know about this language before this article. Great to see how people are fighting hard to keep their language alive.

  3. Pur dha! I've just done nessa gradh Kernewek (Kemmyn)at Skol Weeth hedhyw. Indigenous Tweets has linked me up with several Cornish speakers which is really helping me use the language, learn vocabulary and gain confidence.

  4. @gilly Thanks for writing - that's great to hear - exactly what the site is trying to achieve!