Dasserghyans: Gwenno’s ‘Le Kov’ and the Cornish Revival
Carlos De Loera | Friday, April 6, 2018
A few weeks ago I was listening to All Songs Considered’s New Music Friday podcast and about midway through it, host Robin Hilton introduced an unidentified song by the artist Gwenno. It opened with a spacey synth which was met with a prolonged drum fill and then accompanied by a choir of strings; it was both psychedelic and jazzy. It sounded like it came straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. What really drove my intrigue, however, was when the singing began. I was anticipating the song to be in English because why wouldn’t it be, but this was not the case. It almost sounded like English while at the same time sounding like Sindarin Elvish. I was both enchanted and confused.
After the song played a correspondent explained that Gwenno’s new record “Le Kov” was performed exclusively in Cornish and that her previous album “Y Dydd Olaf” was sung in Welsh. It was further noted that Gwenno is from Wales and that her father, Tim Saunders, is a Welsh poet/literary historian of Cornish descent who has been a proponent for the revitalization of the once extinct Cornish language since the 1970s. At the end of the segment, Hilton noted that there are only a couple hundred people that can actually speak Cornish. It was after this closing statement that I realized I had two things to do. Firstly, as someone who has always been fascinated by languages and language acquisition, I figured what better time than the Lenten season to find out the story behind the resurrection of a former extinct language. Secondly, I had to listen to the rest of “Le Kov” because the song that played on the podcast was a jam.
In order to find out more about this seemingly mysterious language I went on a Google deep-dive and found out a few things about Cornish. First, Cornish is a language native to the southwestern part of England called Cornwall. The language was the main language of Cornwall up until the 1200s when it peaked with close to 40,000 speakers, but soon thereafter the Anglo-Saxon’s languages became more prominent, which put Cornish in decline. In the 16th and 17th centuries the language really dropped out of use because of the lack of Cornish academic works and a new influx of immigration. By the 1700s people were no longer passing it down from generation to generation.
It was not until the 18th and 19th century, when Cornish was already considered extinct, that there was a push by academics to find the last native speaker of Cornish. This was also around the same time as the revival of the Celtic Revival, in which writers and artists drew inspiration from Welsh-language literature, Irish-language works and Celtic art. Inspired by this movement, cultural activists arose for the Cornish language. The two largest contributors tend to be recognized as Henry Jenner and Robert Morton Nance. Jenner published “A Handbook of the Cornish Language” in 1904, the first book that re-exposed non-academics to the Cornish language. In 1929, Nance published the Unified Cornish system, which was based mostly on early Cornish works from the 15th and 16th century and introduced new words based in Welsh and Breton roots. This system provided for a method to reintroduce and teach people the language. This method proved to be a slow burn. It was not until 2002 that the UK government recognized Cornish as a minority language and in 2010 The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared that Cornish was no longer an extinct language.
After finding out this abbreviated history of Cornish, I set out to see how the language is currently being preserved and what kind of role an album like Gwenno’s could have in the proliferation of the language.
To do this, I contacted the Cornish organization Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (Cornish in the Community). I sent an email to the contact listed at the organization’s site and received a response the next day, partly in Cornish, that told me my request of information was being processed by a committee. After five days of waiting, I got an email from Mark Trevethan, the Hembrenkyas an Yeth Kernewek (a lead member of the Cornwall Council). Add on to that a cornwall.gov.uk email address, and I knew these people were the real deal. In the email I was informed by Trevethan that there are currently “about 1,000 Cornish speakers, and … a few hundred fluent speakers.” These numbers are only estimates because there is no official monitoring system of Cornish speakers. Trevethan assured me that “numbers are growing [based on the] numbers of exam entries and from level of use of the language in the community.” He added that one big problem is there is no place where people can conduct their everyday lives in Cornish, because the speakers are scattered all over. “So the survival of the language,” said Trevethan, “relies on the will of the community volunteers and speakers.” He also informed me of a 10-year plan in place to ensure the protection and development of the language. “The key priority is young people and teaching in school,” continued Trevethan, “15 schools have Cornish language classes but it is difficult for schools to find the time [to teach the language because] with pressure to deliver the national curriculum.” Cornish is surely growing, but it has its bumps along the way in fortifying its base.
So, where does Gwenno fall in this process of Cornish revival? Well, “Le Kov” has currently peaked at 13th on the UK Independent Album charts, which means that her music and the Cornish language are reaching a pretty wide audience; people from all over are being exposed to this new language. The album also provides for a way in which Cornish has a pop culture presence, showing that the language is alive and relevant, not just a language of generations past. Just as people listen to Juanes and Mana in their Spanish classes to help in learning the language, people could listen to Gwenno’s “Le Kov” to aid in learning Cornish. Michael Hann of The Guardian, states nicely that “[“Le Kov”] is an exploration of Cornish identity, from feelings of post-Brexit-vote isolation, to calls to arms, to the status of minority languages.” On top of this glimpse into the Cornish identity, “Le Kov” works effectively as a tool for spreading the Cornish language because it’s just good music. People, like me, will come in because of the high quality of tunes and stay for the rich and intriguing story behind them.
Kernowek eus bew
- Artist: Gwenno
- Album: Le Kov
- Label: Heavenly
- Favorite Tracks: Tir Ha Mor, Jynn-amontya, Koweth Ker
- If you like: Tame Impala, Foxygen, Beach House
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5