THE BLOG
14/11/2013 12:30 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:56 GMT

How a Jake Thackray Song Helped Me to Understand the Importance Of Preserving the Cornish Language

When someone from England says to me "why are you studying Cornish? It's a 'dead' language", I can reply that if they consider themselves to be a Briton then in fact I'm learning and helping to preserve the language of their ancestors too.

As a Cornish ex-pat living in London, I recently decided to learn my native language and signed up for the City Lit's excellent Cornish Language course. A complete beginner, I didn't even know how to count to five in Kernewek (Cornish) until our tutor Gari Retalek taught us:

onan (1)

dew (2)

tri (3)

peswar (4)

pymp (5)

As we recited these numbers, I was immediately reminded of the northern troubadour Jake Thackray's song about a Swaledale shepherdess 'Molly Metcalfe' with its sheep-counting refrain:

yan (1)

tan (2)

tether (3)

mether (4)

pip (5)

But surely, I thought, there can't be any connection between the celtic Cornish language & this Yorkshire sheep-counting dialect so far away in the north of England?

Until that is, this week when I was reading about the roots of the Cornish language as being one of the Brythonic languages along with Welsh. Brythonic can also be written as 'Brittonic' or, to put it simply, it's the language of the Britons. Furthermore, there was a Brythonic language called Cumbric that was spoken in the north of England until at least the 12th century.

Intrigued by this, I read further about the sheep-counting number systems of England and found striking similarities between them and the numbers of the Cornish language. Particularly the number 'five' - 'pymp' in Cornish, 'pip' in Yorkshire and known variously as 'pimp', 'pump', 'mimp' and 'mumph' in different regions across England.

And suddenly the Celtic coin dropped... before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the fifth/ sixth century brought their Germanic language to our shores, everyone from Cornwall in the far south-west to Southern Scotland and Cumbria in the far north would have spoken Brittonic as their native language. With local variations of course, but essentially the same 'British' language across the land.

So now when someone from England says to me "why are you studying Cornish? It's a 'dead' language", I can reply that if they consider themselves to be a Briton then in fact I'm learning and helping to preserve the language of their ancestors too.