Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Spelling Wars: The Problem With Reviving Languages by Rhian Davies

You may be one of those who cringes at the sight of a misplaced apostrophe or a misspelled word. You may even dislike the spelling differences between American and British English; the sight of an extra ‘u’ (or lack of) in words such as colour or honour may cause you to shudder. But these are somewhat minor in comparison to other languages, which are yet to agree on a standard spelling at all. This is especially true for minority or endangered languages whose speakers may disagree on spelling for various reasons.

The example I present to you today is Cornish, a Celtic language closely related to Welsh and Breton. Many claim that the Cornish language died in the late 18th century along with its last native speaker, while others say it never died at all. It is at least agreed that Cornish certainly died as a widespread community language and so it has been undergoing a revival since the early 1900s.

Cornish is rather unique in that its dialects today are based on time rather than geographical location, the latter being the case for the majority of languages. This is because revivalists have chosen to base their versions of the language on various sources from different eras, namely from the 18th century, as it was last spoken natively, and from mediaeval manuscripts. Both varieties have different grammar, lexicons and of course, orthographies.

Cornwall, the historical home of the Cornish language.
But why was there any need to revive the language from the Middle Ages when it was spoken right up until the 18th century? Many revivalists saw the Cornish spoken in the 18th century to be so influenced by English that it was too impure, so they looked back for a ‘golden age’ of the language on which to base a revival. Mediaeval Cornish undoubtedly had far fewer English loanwords and was seen by many as being superior, whereas others believed the revival should be based on how Cornish was last spoken, to continue where the language left off, as it were. Because of these disagreements there have been a number of different varieties of spoken and written Cornish that have come out of the revival, each with their own supporting groups. Some orthographies for example make use of the letters C, Q, Z while others use only K and S respectively. We need only look at the various spellings for the language's name itself to see how much variation there has been over the years: We have Kernowek, Kernewek, Curnoack, Kernuack, Kernûak amongst several others. In English, many often get confused over which is the correct or appropriate spelling: grey or gray? In Cornish, we have had loes, lōs, loos and looz to disagree and scratch our heads over.

In recent years, the Cornish-speaking community has come to an agreement over a standard written form of the language, aptly named the Standard Written Form. Even within this official standard there are acceptable spelling differences: “A wodhes ta kewsel Kernewek?” and “A wodhes ta kowsel Kernowek?” are both acceptable ways to spell the Cornish for ‘can you speak Cornish?’. Even after the standardisation of the language, there is still some dispute amongst speakers and Cornish linguists on how the language should be written.

Rhian Davies is a Language Policy & Planning student currently working on a website detailing the Brythonic languages.