People often ask me if I can speak Cornish. The sad truth is that, no, I can’t – unless you include being able to say ‘Kernow Bys Vyken’ (Cornwall Forever).
It seems a shame when, in Wales, most people are fluent in Welsh. In some schools, entire lessons are conducted in the Welsh language only. So, why in Cornwall do we seemingly think so little of our Celtic heritage?
I am thoroughly supportive of bringing back the Cornish language but the fact that I’ve never actually tried to learn it makes me seem like a bit of a hypocrite. I do, however, champion the Cornish dialect and the use of slang words and phrases; I love including them in every day conversation when I can.
Now, this isn’t to say that I run around chatting like a pirate all day; I studied English, taught English and made an effort to speak ‘properly’, particularly when I lived in London. But I have long been aware of the fact that my own accent slyly reappears after I’ve consumed a few cyders.
So, apart from the elongated aaaaa sounds (please note, this is very much not an ah sound so it is definitely baaaath and not bahth – if that makes any sense whatsoever!) and the dropping of the ‘H’ as in ‘ansome and ‘ospital’, what else distinguishes the Cornish dialect from other West Country language use?
Here’s a list of Cornish slang words and phrases that I still use in everyday conversation, often to the bemusement of others:
This word is definitely unheard of in the rest of the country. In basic terms, it describes the typical Cornish weather – a little bit of mist and a little bit of rain, or drizzle. Combine the words mist and drizzle and what do you get? So if it’s grey and foggy out with a light rain blowing off the sea, I would say, “It’s a bit mizzley out”.
I use this word a lot to describe myself. This word is thought to derive from the Cornish word ‘tesek’ meaning ‘hot-tempered’ or ‘irritable’ – much like me when I haven’t had enough sleep or I’m feeling a bit moody! I suppose it’s similar to using the word ‘tetchy’, but I would always say something like, “Leave me be – I’m tired ‘n’ teazy’.
3.Dearofim / Dearofer
Translated as ‘dear of him’ and ‘dear of her’, these phrases are just another way of saying, ‘aww bless him/her’ if someone is being cute, or if something terrible has happened. I am guilty of mumbling when I am talking sometimes, and I think this is very much a Cornish trait: we often join words together – and leave certain letters silent to make it even more confusing – resulting in a sort of drunken sailor style of speech.
We’ve all heard of the phrase ‘bloody hell’ when someone’s feeling a bit angry or annoyed. Well, in Cornwall we say ‘bleddy ‘ell’, which I think has much more of a colourful and dramatic affect. You could also simply use it for emphasis, for example, “You’re bleddy ‘ansum, you are!”
Ok, ok, so this word is used in all parts of the West Country. I’m sure my Somerset friends would accuse me of stealing one of their phrases. So why do I insist that this one is Cornish? Well, if it’s not enough that St. Austell Brewery named one of their ales after it, just check out this song:
Proper Job, Kernow is the land! Need I say more?!
I have noticed that I always seem to start conversations like this and am now worried that it might come across as a bit rude sometimes. Perhaps it would be more polite to say, “Hello, how are you?” but essentially, that’s what saying “Alright?” means, just in a shorter, more laid-back way. Now, if you’re a proper Cornishman or Cornish Maid, you’ll probably use the phrase, “Alright me lover?” instead. This doesn’t mean you’re actually speaking to your lover, it could be the old man across the street, the women serving you in the shop, or even a cat (if you speak to cats, not saying I do…)
I think this is one of the most famous Cornish words, but I don’t think many people outside of Kernow know the true meaning of it. The word stems from ‘directly’ but sort of means the opposite. When my Gran used to say, “I’ll put the kettle on dreckly”, she didn’t mean right away; she meant when she was good and ready, no rush. So, basically, “I’ll do it dreckly” translates as, “I’ll do it in my own good time”. Absolutely integral to the chilled-out Cornish way of life.
Otherwise known as ‘up country’, this phrase speaks of anywhere past the Tamar bridge or over the Devonshire border. Actual phrases I used when I was a child include: “I’m goin’ up country to London on a school trip”, “She’s moved up North to Exeter” and “Look at those Northerners” (pointing to Brummies on the beach). It was only when I went to uni that I learnt that Birmingham is in the midlands. Well, who can blame us? Cornwall is a little tail at the bottom of the country, of course everywhere else is up North!
9.Where you to?
Another way of saying, “Where are you?” I’m ashamed yet proud to say that, although I have an English degree, I still regularly use this phrase. Other variations include: “Where’s ee to?” (Where is he?), “Where’s she to?”(Where is she?), “Where’s ‘um to? (Where are they?)”
I’ll be honest, this is the one word on the list that I don’t really use, but I felt that it had to be included, especially as the summer holidays have just begun. The Cornish are friendly, lovely people, and we are obviously very grateful for our tourism industry and the money it brings into our relatively poor county. However, this doesn’t stop us getting a bit teazy when our county is swarming with holiday-makers. An emmet is another word for a tourist, perhaps someone who wears trainers on the beach instead of flip flops, asks for a scone (rhymed with cone) instead of a scone (rhymed with shone), or drives down our little lanes in a massive people carrier style vehicle, with no spacial awareness whatsoever…
As I say, we are friendly people down ‘ere’, but emmets can sometimes feel like aliens to us, particularly to people who have lived in Cornwall all their lives.