The Evening Class;Mind and body

23rd April 1999 at 01:00

Cornish has what must be the most elegant metaphor in any language for futile behaviour or wasting time - the verb gwibessa, literally "to hunt gnats".

Some might argue that to study a minority Celtic language that was in terminal decline by the end of the 18th century is the intellectual equivalent of gnat-hunting, but dyskador (teacher) George Ansell and his pupils are keen to talk about why it is worth keeping it alive.

Koreen Twydell, one of only two Cornish-born pupils in this class of seven, has been learning for several years and can chat fluently with the three other advanced learners. "I came back to Cornwall after spending most of my life away, and decided I wanted to find out where Cornish culture comes from." She argues that universal education marginalised and effectively killed the language.

Several non-Cornish pupils say they took up Cornish in order to understand the meanings behind the place names in their adopted county, such as Crows-an-wra (witches' cross), and then became hooked.

There is something appealing about words such as pellgowser (telephone), skrifennyades (secretary) and psykador (fisherman). Cornish idiosyncracies are just as striking: to talk about 23 cows, you say "three cows and 20", and nouns tend to be plural until you singularise them. For example, heligan, a willow tree, comes from helig, willow trees. "It's much harder than French," says Janet Jones, a retired teacher.

Mr Ansell says there are about 100 fluent Cornish speakers, 3,000 with some knowledge and 1,000 learners. Pronunciation largely has been inferred from the few texts, particularly poems, surviving from the Middle Ages.

But the future of the language looks a little brighter since the Government promised to consider promoting its inclusion in the European charter for regional or minority languages.

This class took place at Penwith College, Penzance, Cornwall TR18 2SA. Tel: 01736 335010.

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