It is difficult to evaluate Cornish by reference to our usual perspective since it would appear to lack both the social and the institutional contexts which are generally claimed to be the necessary pre requisites for language production and reproduction. While there is no denying the enthusiasm and optimism of those who do speak the language it has to be recognised that it is a language that has been revived in the sense that several generation passed between the more orthodox context of language production and reproduction and its production by a new generation of speakers. Lacking the usual social context for its use a sociological analysis is difficult.
Cornish is a Celtic language, associated with Welsh and Breton as one of the Brythonic languages within the orthodox, but problematic, linguistic typologies. The spatial territory associated with the language is the south west peninsular of the Great Britain encompassing the contemporary counties of Devon and Cornwall. Prior to the Roman invasion the pre-Celts had been displaced by the Celts who entered the area during the first milenium BC. Until the advent of the Anglo Saxons in the sixth century, Great Britain was a Celtic territory conquered and occupied by the Romans. At this time it would appear that Latin and the Celtic languages existed side by side. The Anglo Saxons moved into the vacuum associated by the withdrawal of the Romans from Great Britain in the 5th century. By conquest and by assimilation the Celtic languages were eliminated from much of what eventually became England. It would appear that in the face of the Anglo Saxon invasion many of the Cornish people chose to migrate to Brittany where the Celtic Church had been active during and immediately after the Roman period. Eventually the area was officially expropriated into England despite the fact that the Duchy of Cornwall pertained to the Prince of Wales, whom was, in any case, a member of the English Royalty.
The tendency for Latin to cease to be the exclusive language of literature and writing which had gained ground in England from the 14th century reached the point in the 16th century where English became the sole language of literature in Cornwall. The associated development of standard English was linked with the labelling of Cornish as a low language unworthy of any official status. As a consequence, and in contrast to Wales, none of the religious literature associated with the emergence of widely diffused print media was ever produced in Cornish. Contact with Brittany was also lost and the local gentry were quickly assimilated into the English ruling class, turning their backs upon their Cornish heritage. In-migration was also experienced and with it the tendency to resort to English as the norm. Clearly, given the limitation of a formal means of learning English the process of rejecting Cornish in favour of the state language did not occur overnight. A dominant force in this respect was religion which was practised virtually exclusively in English and, with the Church being a major feature of social welfare, meant that a knowledge of English was essential. By the 18th century few spoke Cornish and by the end of the century the language had ceased to be spoken.
The language was revived, if that is the appropriate word, in the 19th century, partly as a feature of the antiquarianism of that century, much of the necessary work being undertaken by historical linguists who were expanding in number at the time. This trend gained further impetus at the beginning of the 20th century when Jenner's handbook based upon middle Cornish was published. This was followed by attempts to reconstruct the language by comparative linguistics and internal analysis. Much of this work involved borrowing lexical items from Welsh and Breton. Between 1929 and 1939 at least three texts aimed at facilitating the learning of Cornish were published.
Given that so few speak the language (estimates are about 1,000 people) and that its use pertains to social networks rather than social groups any discussion of the economy and demography of the area would appear to be marginal to any explanatory force. Nonetheless as part of the British periphery the economy of the area has, since the advent of capitalism, been devoted primarily to the primary sector focusing upon the tin mines, fishing, agriculture and, more recently, the service sector. The more recent shift, characteristic of such peripheral areas is towards tourism and some light industry. Unemployment is high and wages relatively low. Demographically the area is characterised by a high incidence of retired people.
Where this does become of relevance for a sociological analysis relevant for language is in the economic restructuring of the periphery during the 1950s and 1960s. In common with other areas the south west of England was subject to a process of decentralisation whereby core enterprises were encouraged to relocate in order to exploit the advantages of cheap, unorganised peripheral labour. Inevitably this spatial dimension to economic exploitation, which also spawned considerable in-migration to exploit the specific economic niches that were created in its wake, generated a reaction against the core and, as in other areas, a form of nationalism emerged. This reactivism was linked with the symbolic function of the Cornish language, considered as the basis for the creation of a specific identity.
Cornish has no legal status and, as with other minority languages in the U.K., the government resists arguments to give minority language groups official status, arguing that language use will not gain by legislation and the conferring of official status, but rather will derive from the facilitating and enabling process. Activists, on the other hand, press for the state's acceptance and ratification of the European charter. The County Council of Cornwall does offer some financial support and is claimed to be sympathetic to the language movement which is held to be apolitical. Yet Cornish has no legal status.
Much of the limited growth in the number of speakers was a consequence of the evening classes that were sponsored by Cornwall County Council. These were very popular during the 1970s but there have been numerous complaints about the teaching methods which appear to have focused upon the written standard as opposed to teaching oral fluency. This has been linked to the issue of purity with a variety of Celtic 'scholars' expressing subjective views within an objective context. Perhaps with so few speakers any language planning issues were bound to focus upon corpus rather than status issues.
Where teachers are available the local authorities have given some support for the teaching of Cornish in the primary schools but this is partly hindered by the internal dispute over linguistic issues. Training courses for teachers and study packs have also been provided by the local authorities. There seem to be about a dozen schools where Cornish is taught as a 'fun' activity and perhaps ten candidates will present themselves for examination at the secondary level each year. This is supported by the 'Dalleth' movement which aims to promote Cornish in education.
Cornish has no legal status.
The amount of official use of Cornish is limited and while some local authorities have agreed to the erection of Cornish language road signs such action can be increasingly regarded as little more than a feature of 'cultural' tourism.
The broadcasting media's use of Cornish is limited to five minutes a week on BBC's Radio Cornwall. The print media is limited to a monthly general interest paper with a circulation of between two and three hundred - 'An Gannas', and a literary publication - 'An Dherwen' which appears three or four times a year with a circulation of about fifty.
A few books are published each year including school texts, children's books, short stories and religious texts. There is also some 'traditional' music and modern songs. Such 'folk' activities focus upon the annual Lowneder Pyran festival which is devoted to Celtic music and dance. Traditional dancing has considerable popularity.
The only conceivable context for Cornish in the economic order is by reference to 'cultural' tourism where it could be argued that place names and reference to it in tourist literature affords a symbolic value that is of advantage to the tourist industry.
Evidently the numbers are extremely small but there are some families which use the language as their main medium of communication.
There is a quite general sympathy for the language and it is difficult to find anyone who is 'against it'. Yet it is perhaps inevitable, given the numbers and the 'revival', that most of the public will tend to treat Cornish as a quaint activity linked to the locality's past. Nonetheless those who are actively involved in learning and promoting the language have quite a different orientation, seeing it as a feature of 'difference' from the norm of the state. The tendency to see the Cornish language as a vehicle for nationalism (with the intention of developing an autonomous state) has declined since the 1960s.
The exemple of the cornish language is an interesting case because of the conscious promotion of a language by reference to its 'revival'. The failure to envisage language in terms of language groups as social groups then becomes highly problematic and unproductive. Clearly the few activists who are seeking to promote Cornish can be seen as a language group which is supported by the social construction of reality deriving from the symbolic past. In this respect Cornish can represent something that does not conform with the normative construction of 'England', 'English', 'Britain' and 'British'. On the other hand, seeing these individuals as a social group in structural terms is more difficult since the customary agencies and institutional settings for the production, reproduction and institutionalisation of language do not exist. Rather, the individuals consist of a series of overlapping networks which facilitate the use of Cornish in certain very limited contexts and which are structured by a sense of commonality deriving from mutual goals and objectives.