The Cornish language is a minority language closely related to Welsh and Breton, and a little more distantly to Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic. Unlike Welsh and Breton though, it only has a small pool of speakers. More than one in four people in Wales speaks Welsh, and Breton still has hundreds of thousands of native speakers – so what is the situation in Cornwall?
Dolly Pentreath is frequently named as the 'last speaker of the Cornish language'. However, it would be more accurate to say that she was among the last monoglot Cornish speakers. This fish seller from Mousehole died in 1777. The records show that plenty of people in the village understood her and there was even enough knowledge of the language to write some phrases in Kernewek in her honour. It is sad that there wasn't a concerted effort to record her knowledge. The only phrase attributed to her was: "ty groenek hager du" (you ugly black toad).
In the following century, there were several recordings of evidence that the language was still in living memory with the final people with 'traditional knowledge' dying in the late nineteenth century (and maybe the early 20th). However, it is possible to say that the language did not actually die out because by this time, the revival was underway. Critics of this theory would say that this was not a handover of knowledge.
The revival grew at a slow pace in the early 20th century, but there were important landmarks along the way. Unified Cornish was developed by Robert Morton Nance out of the early work laid down by Henry Jenner. This took a wide variety of unregulated spellings and combined them into a system. Nance also attempted to reconstruct some of the missing words and verbs. Some of these have proved to be incorrect following the discovery of new pieces of traditional literature, others have been found to be spot on.
Many people ask: "how can we know how to speak the language"?
The answer is: because there is a sizeable comparative study carried out while Cornish was still spoken by a Welsh speaker called Edward Llwyd. He wrote out Cornish using his spelling system. We know how he heard words and represented the sounds, because we can relate it to Welsh. It is also important to point out that languages change. We probably do not sound like Cornish speakers sounded 400 years ago. However, it is true to say that English speakers do not speak English as spoken in the time of Chaucer or Shakespeare. What is spoken now is a modern variant.
What we can tell is that the Cornish language revival is continuing apace. New mediaeval miracle play discoveries have clarified points of grammar and vocabulary, and there are more and more people learning the language. The next stage is the creation of language communities so that it can be used in a more natural way. This will be a big leap forward – but not so difficult now that the internet is connecting more and more people into a virtual 'Kernewegva'.