Her father, Timothy Saunders, is a poet who spoke only Cornish to Gwenno and her sister as they were growing up. It was not her only language; her mother spoke Welsh to her, and she went to Welsh-language schools. Today she speaks Welsh to her son, though her grandfather speaks to him in Cornish.

Saunders, too, recalls a community of Cornish-speaking friends around her father, and was completely unaware of being one of the language’s only living native speakers. She says her fans are even more enthusiastic and curious about her work in Cornish than they are about her Welsh songs. For her, “using [Cornish] in my songwriting has been the most freeing, liberating experience.”

Pop music, like the eager handful of Cornish-users on social media, may boost the language’s relevance to the young. Mike Tresidder, formerly of the CLP, insists it must not be seen as “the preserve of retired schoolteachers”. At the conference in Penryn most people were indeed older; but a few young scholars joined them, their Cornish sometimes halting, sometimes quite comfortable. Next to presentations on Tregear’s Homilies, they discussed apps for teaching Cornish and tools for automatic translation.

One of the conference’s running themes was what to do now that government cuts have got rid of the few full-time jobs fighting for Cornish (Lowe and Tresidder both previously had government-funded jobs). Volunteerism and donations seem the only way forward, but they are not as forthcoming as the enthusiasts would wish. Tresidder decries the “passive” attitude of many in Cornwall. The activists envy the Isle of Man, which is partly self-governing; the Manx can decide for themselves whether their language is a luxury or an essential cultural heritage. Cornwall has no such autonomy, and fears being merged with neighbouring Devon; the dread word “Devonwall” is enunciated with scorn in Penryn.

From the mouths of babes

If Cornish is to have a future, more parents will have to raise their kids speaking it. Emilie Champliaud, a Frenchwoman married to a Cornish-speaking Welshman, is doing her part. An enthusiastic language-learner, she sought, however improbably, to learn Cornish on her arrival there. In 2010, she opened a small creche in Camborne, where she speaks only Cornish to the children (including three of her own).

The children understand what Champliaud and Esther Johns, another volunteer, say to them in Cornish. They mostly reply in English (or, in the case of Champliaud’s children, in French), which shows their passive competence to be better than their active usage. The adults’ occasional prompts to speak “yn Kernewek” will often get them to switch tongues. Rituals are important: a game based around a song in Cornish that everyone knows, for example.

A children’s poem in Cornish, “Two little birds.”
A children’s poem in Cornish, “Two little birds.”
Image: Lane Greene for Quartz

But earlier graduates of the creche have gone on to schools where their Cornish, unsupported, tends to wither; some have found themselves chided for using Cornish words. For the language to survive, it needs speakers of all ages. For now it has only small children, a few adults like Gwenno, and a band of mostly older enthusiasts. That’s a lot more than any other language trying to come back from the dead, but Cornish’s isolated speakers need to link up if the language is to truly thrive.

Cornish has the advantage of existing in a rich country that could afford more to support it. But it has the disadvantage of sharing that country with the biggest and most useful language in the world. Many people will pragmatically decide that Cornish is not worth their time and money. As Henry Jenner observed in the 19th century, “The reason why a Cornishman should learn Cornish, the outward and audible sign of his separate nationality, is sentimental, and not in the least practical.” Its resurrection will rest on the strength and breadth of that sentiment. If it cannot spread, Cornish may be trapped in eternal reawakening, not truly asleep, but never making it out from under the covers into the world.

Johns, a grandmother to three of the children at her creche, says her optimism comes and goes. But she reports at least one reason to believe in the future of Cornish. When her daughter, Alice, was complaining about the loss of government funding, Johns’ granddaughter, aged five, chimed in: “We’ll just do it anyway.”

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