Cornish toddlers to get their chops around native tongue

15th January 2010 at 00:00
County's first bilingual pre-school will give children a taste of their Celtic heritage

They might not yet know the difference between mar pleg and meur ras* - but children living in the only English county with its own language will soon get the chance to use their native tongue at an early age.

Those gwrys yn Kernow, or made in Cornwall, will now learn Kernewek as toddlers and Cornish teaching in schools is set to expand.

The Celtic language was virtually killed off by the growth of English by the beginning of the 20th century, but it has made something of a comeback in recent years as a result of the efforts of those trying to preserve Cornish culture.

Skol dy'Sadorn Kernewek is the first Cornish bilingual pre-school and others are also interested in using the language as part of their work. In fact, increased central government investment in the language is set to provide schools with more resources in the next 12 months.

The language is now taught in a fifth of all the secondary schools in the county, and two new education officers will help increase its presence in primary schools and produce new resources for teachers.

"This is going to be something which is useful for children in many ways," says Jenefer Lowe, development manager for the Cornish Language Partnership (CLP).

"As well as having a second language, which is an advantage to their development, the children will also be able to understand more about where they are living and the local culture.

"We want to develop Cornish language teaching in the way schools want, so we will concentrate on new materials such as books and interactive CDs."

The new Movyans-Skolyow-Meythrin, or Cornish Nursery Schools Movement, aims to increase bilingual pre-school teaching in the county.

It was formed by Rhisiart Tal-e-bot, a college lecturer and former primary teacher. Mr Tal-e-bot will also lead the new pre-school, Skol dy'Sadorn Kernewek, which is funded by the CLP.

"We are basing this introduction on work done to revive non-community languages elsewhere, for example the Isle of Man, through work with children," he said.

"The aim is the language becomes part of the child's routine. We've noticed parents are now very interested in the Cornish culture - and the language explains much about it, for example the local place names.

"We have seven children signed up to start when the pre-school opens this week, and we hope more will follow."

Studies by the CLP, which is funded by Cornwall Council and the Government, show only 1.2 per cent of Cornish speakers surveyed are between one and 15 years old, compared with 27 per cent who are aged between 55 and 64.

The majority started learning the language in the last 10 years - but this was much more likely to be the case with older people. Just 12.8 per cent of those who began learning in the last decade were aged 15 or under.

It is estimated around 300 people can hold simple conversations in the language, and around 100 can understand complex spoken Cornish. Another 250 know a few sentences or phrases.

*please and thank you


Come here! - deus omma

Come inside - deus a-ji

Shut up - taw tavessyns dha glapp

Don't do that - na wra henna

Go and see the headteacher - Ke ha gweles an penndyskador

The bell is for me and not for you - An klogh yw ragov nyns yw ragowgh


Cornish is related to Welsh and Breton rather than the Gaelic Irish and Scots. It was spoken throughout Cornwall and west Devon, up as far as Exeter, until the Saxon king Athelstan defeated Hywel, the last independent king of Cornwall, in 936AD and drove the people over the river Tamar.

The county retained its traditions and language, with many religious plays and prose produced. The Cornish were a rebellious nation and lead an uprising against Henry VII in 1497.

This had a devastating effect on the language. When Edward VI sent commissioners to enforce use of the Book of Common Prayer in Cornwall they were met with resistance and riots. The battle reduced the male Cornish population by 22 per cent.

Cheston Marchant of Gwithian, reputed to be the last monoglot Cornish speaker, died in 1676, although fishermen continued to speak the language at sea. Cornish is now regarded as 'living' and is recognised under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

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