We really need to talk about …. Bogus British Histories

The Guardian published two recent editorials supporting languages (“Disappearing tongues: the endangered language crisis” 22 Feb 24, and “Endangered Greek dialect is ‘living bridge’ to ancient world, researchers say” 4 April 24).

Unfortunately, many Guardian readers don’t agree, and think that ‘might is right’ when it comes to somebody else’s language being extinguished. One commenter stated of the Cornish language “it died of natural causes”, whilst relating to this article another said, “Once the social and demographic changes make the language no longer viable amongst its notional native speakers, it will die.” No doubt these comments are based on ignorance, but truth is that the sharp decline of Cornish was principally due to suppression and violence, a matter on which English historians remain unacceptably silent, and in doing so give cover to prejudice.

When Thomas Cromwell forced his English prayer book on the majority Cornish speaking population who used only Latin and Cornish in church, it provoked a short and brutal war, euphemistically called a ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ but more properly called the Anglo-Cornish War of 1549. The result: English troops under the command of Sir Anthony Kingston massacred 900 Cornish prisoners of war by slitting their throats (their graves are under a car park next to the M5 at Exeter) and Kingston then went on to persecute the civil population of Cornwall. None of which English historians are willing to write about. So much for respect for other cultures, and so much for “natural causes”. 

Since then, we have achieved notional protection for Cornish under two international treaties (2002 and 2014). But Cornish is still not part of the state curriculum and primary legislation is urgently needed to give Cornish at least parity with French. Historically the state sought to subjugate indigenous communities through extreme violence and eradicate their languages, and this includes Cornish. The government of the UK must finally stop making excuses and pass Cornish language legislation to ensure its availability to every school child in Cornwall that wants to learn it. And crucially, English historians, if they wish to be considered credible, need to acknowledge the savagery of those events.

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