Saturday, 22 August 2009

Cumbrians lobby for Celtic Nationhood via the internet

It's known as the Celtic fringe; the six regions on the fringe of Europe which have maintained enough of their ancient Celtic languages and culture to be recognizable today. They are split into two groups; the Gaelic (Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Mann) and the Brythonic (Wales, Brittany and Cornwall), some also include the Celtic diaspora that remain in areas of Canada, Australia and Argentina. There is a Celtic League (est. in 1961) and a Celtic Congress (since 1917) which exist to promote and preserve Celtic culture through publications, festivals, sports and government lobbying. The main criteria the two groups have set for membership is the existence of a Celtic language still in use today which separates these regions from ancient Celtic and Gaulish regions in France, England, Switzerland and Spain which long ago lost any trace of Celtic language other than some music, place names and ancient monuments. There is also another group that could be included, the famed Irish Travellers who speak their own language, Shelta, a combination of Irish Gaelic, English, Latin and enough of their own words to make it next to impossible for outsiders to understand. However the Shelta are notoriously secretive and aloof and have preferred to remain apart.

Recently there has been an attempt to add another group to the Fringe. Cumbria, a rural region on the borders of Western Scotland and England was formerly a independent Kingdom also known as Strathclyde in the early middle ages which spoke a Brythonic language separate from Gaelic or English. Surrounded and under pressure from their more numerous neighbors as well as the raiding vikings Cumbria was absorbed by the Scots by the end of the eleventh century and would later be annexed by England. It can be assumed that the Cumbrian language survived for sometime afterwards especially in rural areas but most historians agree that the Cumbrian tongue had disappeared by the 1300's leaving few written traces behind.

Cumbria however retained much of it's separateness through the seventeenth century as a remote and lawless area known for it's Border Reivers and Highwaymen. Even today it's still an isolated sparsely populated rural area with only one proper city, Carlisle, and a highly homogeneous population with little immigration. By the 1900's and the revival of Celtic culture and a romantic Pan-Celtic movement a few scholars were poking around Cumbria looking for remaining evidence of the pre-English, pre-viking era. They found Celtic place and family names, grave stones and artifacts, and a few traces of Brythonic words still in use, especially in the counting numbers used by sheppards and women doing their knitting and washing which were similar to Welsh or Cornish but different enough to point to a another source. Visitors from other parts of England have long noted (and mocked) the existence of numerous "Welsh" words which along with a thick accent made the locals virtually unintelligible. There is a funny scene in the 2006 movie "Hot Fuzz" in which the London police require an interpreter when questioning the crusty old farmers who speak in subtitles.

More recently a new generation of enthusiasts led by researcher Anthony Ap Anthony O Rheged have insisted that after searching through a number of historical documents and records enough evidence exists of a separate language and culture as well as a past political independence to qualify Cumbria as a separate Celtic Nation, which they refer to as Cwmbria and they have set to work reconstructing and promoting a workable Cumbrian Language. In the past such efforts would have carried out by a few poets and scholars writing densely reasoned articles and obscure poems for little-read journals, holding quaint festivals, and teaching language courses. Today's Cumbric Revival Network has used all of these tools with a magazine and a publishing house which has one title to it's credit ("The Dragon's voice") with more planned but has also added a distinctly modern tool, social networking websites. Beside making use of the usual Myspace, Facebook and Twitter sites, this summer Rheged started up the Cumbric Revival Network, a Myspace or Facebook style social networking site for the purpose of promoting his vision of a Cumbric nationhood connected to the recognized nations of the Celtic Fringe, especially the Brythonic ones. The site ( ) functions as other social networking sites does, with profile pages, friend requests, blogs, photo albums and so forth. As a new movement the group is thus far quite small and a long way off from receiving the kind of recognition that is given to the Cornish or Manx but they are off to an enthusiastic and inovative start.

Even without the use of unorthodox tactics the whole concept of a separate Cumbrian language is controversial. Many linguists insist that there is simply not enough evidence to reconstruct a long dead language. Welsh historians in particular insist that Cumbrian was never a real language at all, but rather a dialect of Welsh. Cumbrians retort that that Cumbian had a separate existence from Welsh for several centuries, long enough to have evolved separately as Cornish did, especially when one factors in the influences from Saxon, Gaelic and Norse neighbours that would have been added over the years. As for the claim that one can not revive a dead language Cumbrians point to the example of a some of their Celtic kin. Cornish was a dead language which was resurrected by a small but dedicated group of enthusiasts in the late Victorian era and is now fully recognized by the governments of Britain and Europe and taught in Cornish schools.

However the Cornish deny that the language was truely dead at all. The Cornish language had been in steady decline for centuries with the last aged speaker, one Dolly Penreath dying in 1777, with her last words; "Me ne vidn kewsel Sowsnek!", or "I will not speak English!". However during the nineteenth century's Celtic revival researchers found a half dozen more elderly Cornish speakers the last of whom died in 1906 by which time the work of scholars was well underway. A similar case can be made for Manx which had been reduced to a single native speaker who died in 1974, again by that time much research and even recordings had been done. Since then language activists saw to it that proper dictionaries were created along with newspapers and journals and eventually language courses in schools.

The task faced by Rheged and his allies is much more uphill, there are few surviving documents with less than one hundred separate words and these are quite old and have the idiosyncratic spellings of the medieval era. Therefore there is no real way of figuring out pronouncements and accents since there have clearly not been any actual speakers around since before the industrial era notwithstanding some vague stories of isolated Cumbraic speakers in the misty hills into the Victorian era which are dismissed by most historians as unlikely. Rheged is working on a dictionary and maps with old place names, exactly the kind of scholarly base that will be needed for serious acceptance.

It's worth noting that the Cornish and Manx revivals were spearheaded by a tiny number of scholars and took many years of work before fruition, and the appetite for Celtic cultural identity is always strong. Even the English are no longer hostile to such cultural and language movements seeing them as adding to their own sense of a greater British culture that predates Saxon and Norman England, the English have always been aware of their status as latecomers to the Isles and since Victorian times have sought to add Celtic culture to their own. Besides it's good for tourism. The always practical English appreciate that sort sort of thing.

At any rate the Cumbrian revival is off to an interesting start, if successful other attempts to revive long lost languages in the internet age will no doubt follow. In Scotland itself the is Norn, the Orcadian Norse language of The Northern Islands which died out in the nineteen hundreds, or there is the little known Manx English. The possibilities of reviving some of the lost aboriginal languages of the North America also come to mind, there is in fact the case of Bungee, the Gaelic/English language of the Scotch/Metis in Manitoba which has only a few surviving speakers left.

In the meantime no word on when the hackers promoting crappy bands and "check out my hot sexxy pics" will appear as they have on Myspace and Twitter, but when they do the site will have truly arrived.
Sites @;

No comments:

Post a Comment