Welsh singer Gwenno’s new album is in Cornish. It’s one of many ‘lost’ languages being reborn

Published in BBC Culture on April 12, 2018

“A eus le rag hwedhlow dyffrans?” So goes the first track on Le Kov, the second album by Welsh singer Gwenno Saunders. But it isn’t Welsh: it’s Cornish, a minority language spoken by fewer than a thousand people. The line translates as “is there room for different stories?” – and this is the question at the heart of her record, which celebrates variance in language, culture and identity.

The song goes on to hymn the importance of hearing from “the ones who didn’t win”. And on the surface of things, the Cornish language clearly lost the fight: the last monoglot speaker died in 1777. Yet Saunders’ album, a dreamy, lush piece of psych-pop, is one of many signs of new life.

Britain is rich in minority languages, and there’s a growing awareness of them, possibly reflecting our desire – as culture grows ever-more globalised – to re-connect with what is local, or simply to celebrate the multicultural melting pot of British identity.

Welsh is the best known and most-spoken minority language, but there are also three distinct versions of Gaelic, spoken in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. All have seen long-term declining numbers of speakers – but all have also enjoyed revivals in recent decades, thanks to a slow-burn interest in preserving and promoting indigenous tongues.

Cornish shares a Brythonic root with other Celtic languages, Welsh and Breton, once the language of Brittany. The county of Cornwall, the most south-westerly region of England, resisted anglicisation right up until the Reformation. The move to English as the language of the church was vehemently opposed by the Cornish, but their ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ was crushed viciously, with around 4,000 Cornish killed. It was a hammer blow to the language: during the 17th Century, its use declined until there were only a few thousand speakers in the far west.

A revival of interest in the early 20th Century helped preserve the language, although it remained pretty niche. It still is – but over the last 20 years, there’s been another surge of support. In 2002, Cornish was recognised by the UK government under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and the council began funding bilingual signage. It was taken off Unesco’s ‘extinct’ languages list in 2010, and Cornish is now taught in some nurseries and primary schools.

“I feel that an attitude has changed,” says Saunders, suggesting that local businesses using Cornish and the council’s bilingual signage “makes a huge difference: people can see it, it’s visual. And there’s a wider community using Cornish as part of everyday life, in things like greetings. I find it really encouraging, and it’s tied in with why I had the courage to make a Cornish record.”

Not that she was born or raised in Cornwall: she’s from Cardiff, where she still lives, but was raised speaking both Welsh and Cornish – her father, Tim Saunders, is a Cornish poet.

Her interest in recording an album in this little-spoken language was ignited by having her own child: “I speak Cornish with my son: if you’re comfortable expressing yourself in a language, you want to share it.” And having children inevitably takes you back to your own childhood – Saunders found herself reconnecting with Cornish songs and stories. Quite naturally, it fed into her music.

But there is a more political purpose here too: Saunders wants to raise awareness of all languages spoken here, and to explore the diversity of cultures that make up the UK.

It’s in the blood – her mother was a Welsh-language activist, a member of pressure group Cymdeithas yr Iaith, who went to prison in the 1990s for defacing the Welsh Office. Their call for Welsh to be granted official status has since has been – and while numbers of first-language speakers are declining rural heartlands, Welsh is on the rise in the more metropolitan south east. Certainly, Saunders sees the difference in Cardiff; now, she can do her local shopping yn Gymraeg. Welsh-language provision in schools, and the requirement to make all publics services bilingual, has helped.

But for Saunders, the ‘soft’ power of music and culture can be just as effective as political campaigning. “That’s the beauty of music, isn’t it? It is the language that we all understand. If I got on a soapbox and tried to tell you how important Cornish is for me, it would probably be harder to communicate that, whereas pop music is just a much a more palatable way for me to convey that depth of emotion.”

The album may only be literally understandable by listeners in a handful of towns (although it should be noted that the highest concentration of Cornish speakers is actually in London), but Saunders has found it’s going down a treat. For many listeners, Le Kov being in Cornish is an intriguing quirk, part of the record’s charm. It’s novel, not old-fashioned.

And for minority languages to thrive, they need to be more than an academic concern, or seen as purely historical. Nostalgia for a specific culture can be deadening. “People can be dismissive of place within people’s cultural identity because they think it can be sentimental,” points out Saunders. “I’m not interested in sentimentality at all – I’m interested in the exploration of your cultural heritage being really forward-thinking.”

There are many cultural developments in Cornwall currently that channel place and history but in a “really pioneering or progressive spirit” she insists. Whether that’s teenagers who’ve learnt Cornish making YouTube videos or the music festival Boardmasters getting headline acts such as Frank Turner to sing in Cornish or the large-scale outdoor puppetry performance The Man Engine integrating Cornish songs, there’s plenty of new work drawing on an ancient tongue.

Granted, Le Kov is the first high-profile Cornish pop record in a long time, if not ever… But home in Wales, she’s part of a thriving Welsh-language music scene; cast an eye over the shortlists for the well-respected Welsh Music Prize and the language is represented each year, by the likes of Bendith, 9Bach, Swnami, The Gentle Good and indeed Gwenno, who won it in for her Welsh-language debut, Y Dydd Olaf.

Welsh TV has also had a little boost thanks to the vogue for foreign drama boxsets making us all more comfortable with subtitles. Bilingual shows like the crime drama Hinterland – featuring both Welsh and English – are not only pleasing Welsh-speakers, but winning fans among non-speakers who rather enjoy encountering subtitled Welsh. Welsh-language theatre company, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, is also seeing its work reach a broader audience by pioneering the use of a live translation app, Sibrwd.

Saunders would like to see more languages get this sort of treatment – including those of immigrant communities. “It’s really difficult because we live in a mono-lingual culture,” she says. “There are hundreds of community languages in London for example, but you don’t get access to them in the mainstream media. It creates isolation when you’re not exposed to other cultures. I’m interested in a truer reflection of the cultural and linguistic [life] of Great Britain, because it’s really varied and fascinatingly interesting.” There’s a large Polish community where she lives in Cardiff for instance: why doesn’t she see their stories, hear their language and music, on TV and radio?

At a time when Britain is having something of an existential identity crisis, Cornish is also a reminder that the notion of ‘Britishness’ is less stable than we might think: with its similarity to Breton, it is the “missing link” between Britain and Brittany, she suggests, a reminder of how we’ve always been subject to migration and movement of people.

Post-Brexit, we are going to have to “redefine what it means to live on this island” – and Saunders hopes that looking to our country’s true, diverse past can help foster a more open, positive attitude towards our country’s diverse present. Acknowledging that our British identity has always been pretty fluid might help “stop that feeling of isolation, of superiority, or ‘purity’,” she points out. “Because that’s never actually existed.”

Le Kov is out now on Heavenly Recordings; for tour dates see gwenno.info

Where next?