From Yahoo News Sunday October 24, 07:59 PM

Cornish clings to life

By Ben Blanchard

TENCREEK HOLIDAY PARK (Reuters) - Lisa Simpson, the spiky-haired U.S. cartoon character, may just be the spark that revives an ancient language and fuels a tiny political movement at the tip of the southwest English coast.

The sister of bad-boy Bart and daughter of bumbling Homer will appear in a special episode of "The Simpsons" shouting out support for the independence of Cornwall in the nearly dead language of ancient Cornish as an alternative broadcast to the Queen's traditional Christmas address.

Matthew Clarke, Lisa Simpson's translator and a member of the Cornish Language Fellowship, told Reuters that news of the Christmas special has ignited more than the usual mocking interest in a language which some say was the lingua franca of such British legends as King Arthur and Boadicea.

"Before you got a lot of people writing on the Cornish language as a bit of a joke," he said.

Clarke said the way much of the media viewed Cornish changed almost overnight when the press discovered it would feature in a cartoon series that is famed for lampooning American life and gained international currency poking fun at other stereotypes in Australia, Britain, Canada, France, and elsewhere.

Clarke said the number of people using the Web site he runs,, doubled after news got out on The Simpsons' Christmas special.

"To have that connection with Cornish, everyone who spoke to me treated it in a serious way which has never happened before."

That was a big boost for a language which predates English in the British Isles, almost died out in the 19th century, and today has only some 200 fluent speakers.

Cornish, related to Welsh and Breton -- spoken in parts of France's Brittany -- is part of a larger language family that includes Irish and Scots Gaelic.

It has little official status, is barely taught in Cornish schools and is struggling to make its voice heard above the dominant sound of English. Cornwall has no political autonomy, unlike Wales and Scotland.

All today's Cornish speakers have learnt it since the melodic-sounding language began a revival last century, and around 3,000 people claim some knowledge of it -- less than half a percent of Cornwall's population.

That compares to the roughly 20 percent of Welsh who speak their native tongue, a mandatory subject in Welsh schools and a language with the same official status in Wales as English.

"There are 6,000 languages in the world. In 100 years' time it is thought 75 percent of them may die out," said Ken George, a member of the Cornish Language Board, who is fighting to prevent it going the way of Latin and other dead tongues.

"In Europe one sees straight away that people tend to be multi-lingual. In parts of England it's regarded as a curiosity," George told Reuters at a Cornish language weekend camp outside the seaside Cornish town of Looe.


The long decline of Cornish and other Celtic languages began over 1,500 years ago, when Germanic tribes invaded Britain at the end of the Roman occupation, pushing back the native tribes and bringing with them languages that eventually became English.

The legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table probably would have spoken Cornish. Celtic Queen Boadicea spoke an early version of the language that would eventually become Cornish, Welsh and Breton.

The last reputed monoglot Cornish speaker, Dolly Pentreath, died in 1777, though others claimed a strong native command of the language up to the end of the 19th century.

Modern speakers of Kernewek, as Cornish is also called, are under no illusions about the state of the language.

"There's the ordinary people who live in Cornwall, and then there's the Cornish language people," said Chris Wilson, 40, a speaker who lives in Japan.

"They're quite separated and they think it's strange to be a Cornish language speaker. It's very much a minority."

But it is fighting back. The New Testament of the Bible has just been published in Cornish, the world's first Cornish-language cartoon will premiere in November and there are hopes for greater official recognition and teaching in schools.


Many Cornish language supporters have a bigger goal -- devolved political power from London and a separate assembly for Cornwall, like Wales and Scotland have been granted.

"We should have at least as much independence as Scotland does," said Loveday Jenkin, a councillor for the Mebyon Kernow ("Sons of Cornwall") political party.

Pawl Dunbar, who runs a Cornish language and culture bookshop, said that letting people know Cornwall even has -- or used to have -- its own language is the first battle in the fight for a wider political movement.

"We are denied our language, culture and history in school," said Dunbar. "The so-called United Kingdom is well past its sell-by date."

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