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Cornish coming back from the brink

For a member of a supposedly extinct species, Craig Wetherill does a pretty good impression of the living. He responds to premature reports of his demise by launching into a local fairy tale.

“Y’n termyn eus passys, ‘th era tregas yn Selevan den ha benyn yn tyller cries Chi an Hordh. . . . “

The story he’s recounting is “John of the Ram’s House.” The language he’s speaking is Cornish. And the battle he’s waging -- to keep alive a Celtic tongue thousands of years old -- is in full swing here at the westernmost tip of England, in the scenic county of Cornwall.

It’s not an easy fight when your enemies include the United Nations, which has officially declared Cornish to be dead, and the ignorance of a world more apt to associate Cornish with the words “game hen” than “language.”

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Or when plenty of your fellow Brits don’t realize that Cornish was flourishing on this rainy island ages before Anglo-Saxon interlopers arrived and changed the course of linguistic history.

“The Cornish language has been around for far, far longer than ever English was. It’s a direct descendant of the language spoken at the time of the Romans and before the time of the Romans in this country,” says Matthew Clarke, 39, a local radio newsman. “It’s that long history that I don’t want to see broken.”

The struggle for linguistic survival has come down to the efforts of a hardy band of devotees like Wetherill and Clarke, who see Cornish as an ineluctable component of local identity, albeit one ignored by most of the people of Cornwall. Fluent speakers are estimated to number only about 300 out of a population of half a million, though several thousand residents probably know a smattering of words and phrases.

Preservationists have some helpful allies, such as the British government, which has provided a small pot of money for promoting Cornish on signs and in schools and for other outreach material.

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Cooler yet is the moral support from the American town of Springfield (state unknown), where spiky-haired do-gooder Lisa Simpson appeared on TV a few years ago boosting her latest obscure cause by shouting, “Rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn!” (“Freedom for Cornwall now!”)

That episode of “The Simpsons” was broadcast only in Britain, as a tongue-in-cheek response to the annual Christmas Day speech by Queen Elizabeth II. But it gave the topics of Cornish independence, which is not really a serious issue, and the Cornish language, which is, their highest-profile airing ever.

“That raised a whole lot of attention,” Clarke recalls, relishing the impression made by an animated character on the fortunes of an almost inanimate language. “You need to do things out of the stereotypical mold.”

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Then again, many residents of Cornwall have long prided themselves on being different from the rest of England, perched here on the country’s southwestern edge, on a finger of land pointing toward the open seas of the Atlantic.

Like the Welsh and the Scots, the Cornish trace their origins to the Celtic tribes that settled in Britain several millenniums ago. They maintain some distinctive customs, such as step dances and tartans; their own flag, a white cross on a black field; their own dishes, including saffron cakes and pasties (similar to turnovers); and, for a small cohort, their own language.

Cornwall is also one of only two royal duchies in Britain, with much of the land belonging to the Duke of Cornwall -- or, as he’s more commonly known, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne.

Not that the man who would be king speaks the Cornish language himself or rallies his subjects to the cause.

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“He’s as much use to us as a chocolate fireguard,” Wetherill says with a snort.

Swamped by English, the Cornish language came close to dying out at the end of the 19th century. By then, there was no one using it exclusively or as a first language; some say that the last such person died in 1777 in the town of Mousehole (rhymes with “tousle”).

A revival movement flowered briefly in the early 20th century with the publication of a handbook by scholar Henry Jenner, considered a hero by many here for a seminal speech he delivered, in Cornish, before the Celtic Congress, an association founded to preserve Celtic culture. When skeptical attendees from Wales and Brittany discovered that they could understand it, because of similarities with their own indigenous tongues, they were forced to accept Cornish culture as authentically Celtic.

Like Welsh and its more distant relative, Irish, Cornish is a lilting language easily set to music. Unlike in English, the letters Y and W crop up everywhere. There’s also the unusual consonant blend “dn,” which can be a bit hard for Anglophones to pronounce, while the combination “arr” (as in karr, Cornish for “car”) sounds as if spoken by pirates, which seems appropriate (at least for Gilbert and Sullivan fans), since Cornwall is home to Penzance.

Not a lot of literature in Cornish survives; the bulk of what is available dates to the 15th and 16th centuries, and is mostly religious in nature -- miracle plays and the like. There are also a few folk tales, such as “John of the Ram’s House,” about a poor man who goes out in search of work and discovers wisdom instead. (The opening line, quoted above, translates as: “Once upon a time, there lived in St. Levan a man and a woman in a place called the Ram’s House.”)

The scarcity of the written language has forced modern-day enthusiasts to come up with new words to make Cornish accessible to today’s learners and suitable for life in the 21st century.

“You have to do it. You can’t turn around and say to a child, ‘Sorry, we don’t have a word for skateboard,’ ” says Jenefer Lowe of the Cornish Language Partnership, a state-funded body. “Otherwise, it’s not truly a daily language.”

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In February, the U.N.'s cultural arm published its updated “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.” Cornish didn’t make the endangered list. It came under the heading of “extinct.” Cornish speakers were outraged.

The atlas’ editor has since acknowledged the efforts to revitalize Cornish, saying that the language was not extinct “but merely sleeping.”

The campaign to keep Cornish alive received its most important boost in 2002, when the tongue was recognized by the European Union as a minority language. That opened the way for creation of the Cornish Language Partnership.

Another major step forward took place last year when experts finally agreed on a standard written form -- a process fraught with the kind of rancor and tension that only the bickering die-hards of a tiny, almost cult-like community seem capable of generating.

The decision allowed Lowe’s organization to draft Cornish teaching materials, including storybooks, games and CDs, which are now in use in more than 50 elementary schools.

For Clarke, a bookish-looking man who carries around a well-thumbed Cornish mini-dictionary, buoying an ancient language means taking advantage of modern technology. He produces and hosts a monthly half-hour podcast in Cornish that gets hits from as far away as Australia and the Northern California town of Grass Valley, which was a magnet for tin miners from Cornwall in the 19th century.

Clarke also caused a minor stir in 2006 when his band, Skwardya (“Ripping”), performed rhyming Cornish versions of the Beatles hits “Eight Days a Week” and “I Feel Fine.” Another songwriter tackled “Yesterday,” though to make it fit the song’s meter, “yesterday” had to be replaced with the Cornish word for “recently,” which rather dulled the lyricism.

Still, “what bigger two global icons can you get than the Simpsons and the Beatles?” Clarke says of the Cornish language’s biggest PR coups.

Wetherill is doing his part by offering Cornish lessons at a pub here in Newbridge, a sleepy village not far from Penzance. Recently (but not yesterday), a few students sat around a wooden table in front of a 17th century fireplace, practicing everyday phrases such as “The cat is on the chair” (“Ma’n gath war’n gador”) while Wetherill, 58, looked on approvingly.

An architect as well as an amateur local historian, he developed an interest in the language as a boy, when curiosity led him to look up nearby place names in a Cornish dictionary.

He feels Cornish through and through, as opposed to English. He refers to the influx of outsiders who have settled in Cornwall over the last 50 years as “mass immigration from England.”

His eye is on the young people, who he hopes will recognize the importance of ensuring that their linguistic heritage is perpetuated.

“There is an old saying in Cornish: ‘A man without his language has lost his land.’ Without the language we are nothing -- we just become chaff driven by the wind,” Wetherill says.

“We’ve been here something like 6,000 or 7,000 years, and we’re still here. And we will always be here.”

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henry.chu@latimes.com


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