Lying in bed this morning with the window open and listening to the voices of some of the people in my street, going off to work, it struck me as very depressing. Depressing in the sense that I heard not a single Cornish accent in the tiny cobbled street of the village I live in, in West Penwith. Where once the streets of the village would be ringing with Cornish accents, they now grow fewer and fewer. What has happened? Well obviously the influx of up-country people is in-part to blame. Of the eleven houses in the bottom half of my street, only four house Cornish folk. Two, (the biggest) don’t house anyone but for a few days a year. But it’s more than just that and it’s apparent all over Cornwall.
That most fantastic of Cornish writers, the late Nick Darke, once said, “A community that loses its past is in danger of losing its way.”
While masses is happening in the Duchy to preserve our language, old customs etc. the one thing on the way out, it seems, is our beautiful accent. For years, any ‘rural’ accent has denoted the speaker as ‘stupid’ and therefore a disadvantage. So people have started to lose their accents to avoid being tarred with that condescending brush. Today we are bombarded with southern accents; RP or home counties through television and radio. Things changed a little in the nineties, when more ‘regional’ accents were heard but these tended to be a mix of north country, Scots and the ever present home counties. You can’t even hear a local accent on local radio or television anymore. I know of schools in Cornwall whose pupils have been told to stop speaking with a Cornish accent by the teacher. Little wonder then, some of our young folk talk nothing like us.
Renowned Cornish film maker Mark Jenkin:
“I haven’t got a Cornish accent because when I went to school, it was thought the Cornish accent was not a very good thing to have. So you were kind of told, not directly but it was certainly coaxed out of you, the Cornish accent. People are beginning to be proud of their Cornish accents again now but when I was growing up it was a thing to be ashamed of and that’s because of these depictions we have. If you want to have a stupid character in a TV programme, give them a Cornish accent. So what does that do to kids who are growing up? They sit down and watch ‘good-old, respectable BBC’ and they show somebody who’s an idiot speaking the way they speak. So what do they do? They change the way they speak. And it’s a beautiful accent. We need somebody for Cornish people to look up to, who’s Cornish, who’s got a Cornish accent, to start redressing that balance, so in my films, characters will have Cornish accents and the cooler the character, then the stronger their fucking accent as far as I’m concerned!”
Luckily Mark’s not alone. Pockets of young people all over the Duchy are producing work that revels in being Cornish, having an accent and speaking Kernewek. Young people need to be proud of who they are and hold on to precious things like their accents.
So does accent matter? Bleddy right it does! Dialect is vitally important as well. Without it we become drones. Borg-like nobodies. I don’t want to sound like people who live hundreds of miles away, a people with whom I have no connection. I want to sound like my Father, like my grand-parents and their parents did. Like the old boys I work with. Like a Cornishman!
Accent underpins who we are as a people, along with our dialect, our language and our history.