Dolly Pentreath was my kind of lady.

According to legend, Mrs. Pentreath was the last native speaker of Cornish. She died an old and by all accounts formidable woman in 1777, at 102 years old (or so — no one is precisely certain when she was born.) She lived in the village of Mousehole in Cornwall, a peninsula jutting out from the southwest of England.

Cornish is part of the Brythonic group of the Celtic languages; the Brythonic group includes the Welsh and Breton languages, which were spoken throughout the British Isles prior to Great Britain's invasion by the various Germanic tribes whose dialects gave rise to English. Cornish is in fact quite similar to Welsh and Breton (which is spoken in France but was brought there from Britain in historical times, perhaps around the third century CE.) Cornish, Welsh, and Breton all evolved from the extinct British language, their divergence being due to the fragmentation brought about by the arrival of English.

At any rate, Dolly Pentreath, according to the stories told about her, was quite an imposing figure. She had voice loud enough to be heard the next village over, which she used to curse in her native tongue at anyone who bothered her. Some say she was a witch, and that her shouts were literal curses. She was the hard-drinking, pipe-smoking wife of a fisherman, and the Keigwin Arms, the inn where she liked to toss back a few pints, still stands. She would watch through the window for the return of the fishermen, and carry the catch to the larger village of Penzance, where she drove a hard bargain. She wasn't just a wily businesswoman, though; she was also a courageous defender of Mousehole. It's said that one day, a press-gang came ashore looking for conscripts for the British Royal Navy. Dolly Pentreath took her axe and singlehandedly chased them back to their boats, cursing them all the while, so terrifying them that they never came back.

They also say she once harbored a fugitive, a sailor who had deserted a navy ship docked in the Mousehole harbor. He ran into her house and told her that the officers planned to hang him, so she hid him in her chimney. She then built a fire so no one would search there, and filled her washtub with water, setting it over the fire to heat. When the searchers burst into her kitchen, they found her seated on a stool with her legs bare and hanging over the tub while she waited for the water to warm up. They asked her if a man was hiding in her house. Mrs. Pentreath was scandalized at their suggestion. "A man indeed! And me washing my feet!"

They searched her house, but found no sign of their quarry, and when they didn't leave quickly enough Mrs. Pentreath first threw her shoes at them, and then took up her axe. Just then the man hiding in her chimney coughed, so Mrs. Pentreath drowned him out with a stream of curses. She chased the officers out of her house and shouted their mission in her booming voice to the rest of the village; seeing the furor on every face, they retreated to their ship. Mrs. Pentreath let the deserter out of her chimney, and after dark fell, he stole onto a ship bound for Guernsey.

Dolly Pentreath was declared the last speaker of Cornish by Daines Barrington, an English judge and antiquarian. He was traveling through Cornwall looking for remaining speakers of Cornish, when he happened to find her in 1768. He introduced himself in the village, saying he had made a wager that no one was left who could speak the language. He was introduced to Mrs. Pentreath, by then an old woman, bent over with age and somewhat deaf. She spoke angrily for several minutes "in a language which sounded very much like Welsh"; two old women in the houses across the street stood in their doorways to watch the encounter, and laughed at what Mrs. Pentreath said. He asked if she had insulted him, and they told him she had, and had done so for the temerity of presuming she couldn't speak Cornish. He asked whether they could speak it, but being a few years younger than Mrs. Pentreath, neither woman could speak it well, though both still understood it. When Barrington visited her again six years later, her intellect was still sharp and she could still walk the six miles to Penzance and back, even in bad weather.

Dolly Pentreath was likely the last entirely fluent speaker of Cornish, though a fisherman named William Bodenoer, also from Mousehole, wrote to Barrington around the time of Mrs. Pentreath's death. His brief letter was in Cornish, and he survived until 1794, though it's not certain how fluent a speaker he was, and his two sons didn't speak it. A few others may have spoken the language even later; a man named John Davey who died in 1891 at very least knew bits of Cornish, learned from his father, which he preserved in his memory by reciting them to his cat. It's not certain, however, whether he or his father possessed any fluency in the language. Bits of the language survived after that; as late as the 1940s, some rural farmers still maintained the practice of counting animals in Cornish.


Cornish today

There has been something of a revival of Cornish lately; there are perhaps a few hundred fairly fluent speakers, who acquired it through study, and a few children raised as native speakers of the revived language. Lost bits of vocabulary and words for things that weren't invented when traditional Cornish died out are borrowed from Breton and Welsh. Four slightly different forms of revised Cornish exist, with significantly different writing styles. Cornish now has legal recognition: the British government, in 2002, decided to recognize the language as falling under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages; a few signs are printed in the language and some radio broadcasts are conducted in it. Nevertheless, the revised Cornish language is likely rather different from the version spoken by Dolly Pentreath — as the competing standards for it suggest — and it seems unlikely that the new variety will ever have widespread success.

Nevertheless, a great deal of pride exists in the Cornish language. Dolly Pentreath's last words were "Me ne vidn cewsel Sawznek!" (I don't want to speak English!) It seems some of her fellow Cornish agree with that sentiment.



Here lieth interred Dorothy Pentreath, who died in 1777

Said to have been the last person who conversed in the ancient Cornish, the regular language of this county from the earliest records till it expired in the eighteenth century in this Parish of Saint Paul.

This stone is erected by the Prince Louise Bonaparte in Union with the RevD John Garret Vicar of St. Paul.

June 1860

Honour thy Father and thy Mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the lord thy god giveth thee.
Exod. XX 12

Gwra perthi de taz na mam de dythiow bethenz hyr war an tyr neb arleth de dew ryes dees.
Exod. XX 12

The memorial on Dolly Pentreath's grave                                



References

Image and text of the memorial on Dolly Pentreath's grave. (http://www.geocities.com/teammanley/Cornwall/DollyGrave.htm)
"Dolly Pentreath, the last monoglot Cornish Language speaker." (http://www.cornwall-calling.co.uk/cornish-language/dolly-pentreath.htm)
"Cornish has been granted a comeback." 17 November 2002. The Telegraph. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2002/11/17/ncorn17.xml)
Harris, J. Henry, 1906. "Dolly Pentreath: The Fish-Wife of Mousehole." From Cornish Saints & Sinners. (http://www.britannia.com/history/legend/cornish/cornss03.html>
Chambers, Robert, 1869. "Expiration of the Cornish Language." From Chambers' Book of Days. (http://www.thebookofdays.com/months/july/3.htm)
Pullum, Geoffrey K., 2005. "And now to revive Cornish?" From Language Log. (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001783.html)

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