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The Cornish Language
    [A statement in the House on 22 February 1999 by Mr. Andrew George MP for St. Ives]

Andrew George MP for St Ives
"In many ways, I wish that there had been no need for the debate. I wish that the self-evident case for the official recognition of the Cornish language was accepted for the foregone conclusion that it should be. That may still be so, but the primary point of raising the issue this evening is that the Foreign Office has not yet been informed which of the home Departments has the capacity and responsibility to assess the case. I am not apportioning blame for that, because it has been so for many years. It is not the fault of this Government.
During the debate, I should like to explain the growing interest in the revival of the Cornish language; the fact that Cornwall wants to make a small but significant contribution to the celebration of the diversity of cultures and languages throughout the British Isles and Europe; and to make the case for the official recognition of the Cornish language.
Cornish is one of the Brythonic Celtic languages, which include Welsh, Breton and, originally, Cumbrian. The related languages of Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx are known are known as Goidelic and are based on a different spelling system. Even at the time of the Prayer Book rebellion 450 years ago in 1549, which was a reaction to Parliament passing the first Act of Uniformity, people in many areas of Cornwall, including most of west Cornwall, understood little English. Place names throughout Cornwall bear witness to that.
We have to keep everything in proportion. The Cornish language is not now a life and death issue, but in 1549 it was. Many Cornish people protesting against the imposition of an English Prayer book were massacred by the King's army. Their leaders were executed and the people suffered numerous reprisals.
The Cornish language is supposed to have died out in about 1800--a year after the death of Dolly Pentreath, whose native language it was and who could speak little English. However, it carried on throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century. Even in my constituency of St. Ives, fishermen were counting fish in the Cornish language into the 1940s. In the early part of the century, my grandparents on the Lizard were speaking Cornish in a dialect form at home, and a dialect form of Cornish continues to this day in some areas.
One might ask the extent to which the language is now spoken. The night before last, I was judging the finals of the Pan-Celtic song for Cornwall competition on local radio. There were 32 entries - all sung in the Cornish language -in a variety of genres from folk to classical, rock, punk, indie and rap. Many groups were young people. One of the finalists consisted of five members with an average age of 14. Some of it was fairly ordinary, but the majority was impressive, and the finalists were breathtaking.
It is estimated that there are approximately 3,000 Cornish speakers. Many thousands more are like me, and either speak some Cornish or have a knowledge of the language. The vast majority, if not the whole population, see Cornish as an emblem of pride. Cornish, of course, exists in place names, and a knowledge of the language really helps to read the landscape. Many Cornish names are adopted for children, pets, houses and boats.
Cornwall county council has an established policy to support the language, and last week passed a motion supporting it being specified within the European charter for regional or minority languages. There are at least three regular periodicals solely in the language--An Gannas, An Gowser and An Garrick. The two local radio stations, Radio Cornwall and Pirate FM, have regular news broadcasts in Cornish, and have other programmes and features for learners and enthusiasts.
Local newspapers such as the Western Morning News have regular articles in Cornish, and newspapers such as The Packet, The West Briton and The Cornishman have also supported the movement. The St Ives Times & Echo felt so confident about local knowledge of the language that it circulated Christmas messages and cards saying:
"Nadelek Lowen ha Blethen Noweth da 
and offered no translation to the English version:
"Wishing You a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year".
The language has financial sponsorship from many sources, including the Millennium Commission. The Bishop's advisory committee on Cornish language services provides advice and support to churches wishing to use the language. Increasingly, churches have visitors' instructions in Cornish and English.
The take-up of the language is now becoming so widespread that organisations such as Kevas an taves Kernewek, the Cornish Language Board, are finding it difficult to keep up with demand. Others include the Cornish sub-group of the European bureau for lesser-used languages, Teere ha Tavas--or land and language--Gorseth Kernow, Cussel an Tavas Kernuack, Cowethas an Yeth, Agan Tavas and Dalleth, the last of which is the organisation promoting language to pre-school children. There are many popular ceremonies--some ancient, some modern--which either use the language or are entirely in the language.
Cornwall has many other cultural events associated with the language, including the prestigious international Celtic film festival, which we hosted in St. Ives in 1997, with the programme in Cornish, English and French. There are many films--some televised--made entirely, or significantly, in the language; the latest on the Cornish surfing culture.
Commercially, Cornish is taking off, with shops selling only Cornish material, such as An Lyverjy Kernewak, the Cornish book shop in the town of Helston in the south of my constituency. Many companies are preferring to use Cornish names, and the GP overnight service in the county is now called Kernowdoc. A great deal now goes on in our schools--more than in my day--and there are many who study Cornish at degree level in places such as Aberystwyth, Wales, and Harvard, USA.
One may ask what benefit that brings. In a world where many commercial and multinational forces are producing bland uniformity, people want to hold on to--and even develop--the fragments of cultural remains. In Cornwall, I would argue that we have more than simply fragments, and we generate significant cultural tourism not only in itself, but as an added dimension to the tourist experience.
That has also been significant in helping Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly to secure objective 1 status, which we hope will be secured at the end of March in the next EU funding programme. Eurostat, in its statement agreeing to the splitting of Cornwall from Devon for statistical purposes, made very specific reference to "Cornwall's . . . distinctive cultural and historic factors reflecting a Celtic background."
Before Cornish can rightfully take its place as an officially recognised language, we need to sort out which Department is responsible for assessing Cornwall's case for being specified under part II of the European charter for regional or minority languages. It has been considered by the Department for Education and Employment, the Home Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Welsh Office; I have asked the Cabinet Office to determine responsibility, but it has put the question back to the Foreign Office.
Cornwall has an unassailable case for being specified under part II, and some argue that it should also be specified under part III of the charter, but it cannot get to the starting blocks because no Department recognises its responsibility."
From Hansard
Postscript - The government is set to officially recognise the Cornish language for the first time, an MP has claimed. Andrew George, the MP for St Ives, said he expected Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford to make an announcement to Parliament by the end of July 1999.
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