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Cornish Dialect - Use It or Lose It

by Joy Stevenson  (Maid Lowenna)

(Bard Of The Cornish Gorsedd)

One sign of change in Cornwall has been the decline of our lovely old dialect. However, when two or more Cornish people meet to chat it is still very much in evidence, with its own vocabulary, individual sounds of vowel and consonant and the very special way these are woven into phrases and sentences.

Despite analytic and phonological investigations our dialect defies linguistic and grammatical rules and simply remains a unique, indigenous form of spoken word handed down from generation to generation.

Over the many years I have recorded our dialect I sometimes feel that dialect recorders, speakers and writers are looked on as licensed fools.

Certainly there have been times when I am led to believe that work on dialect is not important, especially in the eyes of linguistic snobs.

This has never bothered me because I know that our dialect is a part of our heritage which enshrines the very spirit of Cornwall and is as important as our old crosses, standing stones and cromlechs. The day we no longer hear the rich sounds of it will be a death knell of a Cornishness which can never be resurrected or put in a museum.

The sad thing is that in this century our dialect was banished from the classrooms by educationists and children were made to feel inferior when they spoke in broad dialect. I well remember a girl in my class at school saying: "I would like to learn French Miss."

She was told in a sarcastic manner: "My dear child you can't speak English yet." I have never forgotten the tears welling up in the girl's eyes.

Many got rid of their dialect and some almost became ashamed of the way their parents spoke. Children were told that certain words were only fit for people who aspired to no higher than menial jobs all their lives. The deliberate act of omitting to tell us that we once had our own language from which many of our dialect words came from has a lot to answer for.

Cornish self-esteem was eroded and too many Cornish tried to ape the English accent. For some reason they got the feeling that sounding "English" made them superior in some way. This is an attitude I have never understood and luckily have never suffered from. I was brought up to be proud not only to be Cornish but to sound Cornish.

Many countries are so proud of their dialects. The old Venetian speech can be heard in the medieval town of Marostica near Venice, for instance. In the town square is a huge chess board where the moves are called out in their old dialect as the human chess pieces move. Yet in this country we seem obsessed with the idea of getting rid of  regional accents and replacing them with flavourless English.

Dominated as we are by experts and literal facts, we are also fast losing the habit of instant metaphor which comes so naturally to dialect speakers.

For whatever the faults and limitations of dialect it is a language which though down to earth, gives scope to the imagination found in no other form of speaking or writing. We all know people who speak in a pompous manner for two hours yet say nothing, but this is impossible when speaking Cornish dialect as it has the delicious inborn quality to deflate pretentious pomposity and is one reason why I love it so much.

Some criticise the grammar in Cornish dialect and I maintain that the sacred grammatical maxims have no place in our dialect. It is a speech form and speech was with us long before grammar. I think Sir Arthur Quiller Couch got it right when he said: "Cornishmen are bilingual, they can speak dialect of English."

We are lucky we can speak both, yet too many neglect their dialect and it will be lost if we don't use it. A "cultured" Cornishman or woman is a supreme example of the oxymoron - "falsely true" - and sums up for me any Cornish who exclude their dialect. Too many write books on Cornwall, shout from the rooftops that they are Cornish and carry around their family tree, yet have worked deliberately to eliminate the one thing which is essentially Cornish - their dialect.

An interesting study published by Mintel recently about the regeneration of regional accents describes a marked cultural phenomenon. Some areas becoming so run down and depressed have developed a "dog in the manger" provincialism which makes them reject anything to do with the prosperous south east, including its accent.

Isn't it odd that despite Cornwall being more depressed than most in this century, it seems to have taken the opposite view and rejected its own lovely dialect. How can a race of people as ancient and proud as the Cornish allow their unique dialect to die? It is so full of remnants of our old language, has so much humour. Even when speaking English many Cornish mean something quite different from the actual words they utter, giving rise to blank looks whilst the Cornish grizzle in their pasties.

Recording Cornish dialect soon dispels any idea that one is an expert. The essence of an expert is man yearning to be God. You soon realise this is not so when speaking perhaps to an old lady in a small village who puts you firmly in your place with the remark: "Aw, we dawnt say un like that up ere my andsum."

My message to all the Cornish is: don't deny your identity, use your rich dialect as often as you can and pass it on to your children. Use it or lose it, but never be ashamed of it. I shall always use it and promote it. It is one of the wonderful diversities of accents found in this island of ours. Speak it with pride.