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Dolly Pentreath (Dorothy Pentreath) (died December 1777) is often considered to have been the last monoglot speaker of the Cornish language (that is, the last person who spoke only Cornish and not English) -- a legend which arose as a result of an account written by Daines Barrington of an interview he had conducted with Dolly. She has passed into legend for cursing at people in a long stream of fierce Cornish whenever she became angry. Her death essentially marked the death of Cornish as a community language. According to legend, her last words were "Me ne vidn cewsel Sawznek!" ("I don't want to speak English!") but it is more likely that this was her customary response to being addressed in English.

Biography

Pentreath lived in the parish of Paulmarker, next to Mouseholemarker, where she was also buried; a monument in her honour was established in the churchyard wall of the church of St. Paul Aurelian at Paul, in 1860 by Louis Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon, and the Vicar of Paul. There are many tales about her. She was said often to curse people, including calling them "kronnekyn hager du", an "ugly black toad", and was even said to have been a witch. Numerous other stories have been attached to her, their accuracy unknown. She was at one time thought to have been identical with a Dorothy Jeffrey or Jeffery whose burial is recorded in the Paul parish register but this has been doubted (however the Oxford DNB (2004) does accept the identification).

Later Cornish speakers

A year following the death of Dolly Pentreath, Barrington received a letter, written in Cornish and accompanied by an English translation, from a fisherman in Mouseholemarker named William Bodinar (or Bodener) stating that he knew of five people who could speak Cornish in that village alone. Barrington also speaks of a John Nancarrow from Marazionmarker who was a native speaker and survived into the 1790s.

As with many other "last native speakers", there is controversy over Dolly Pentreath’s status. William Bodinar (died 1794) learned Cornish as a child and, in 1776, could remember it well enough to write a letter in it. Several immenant scholars of the Cornish language including Jenner, Morton Nance and more recently Payton claim that John Davey of Boswednack, (d. 1891) should be considered the last "traditional" speaker; he was said to have kept the language alive by speaking to his cat. However there is some confusion as to the extent of his abilities, notably that some may be only attributed to him. He was able to write poetry in the Cornish language and a memorial plaque erected in 1980 by the Old Cornwall Society claims that he was 'the last to possess any considerable traditional knowledge of the Cornish Language'.Subsequently the Cornish language continued to have some usage, by a few isolated learners, and words of Cornish origin persisted in the local dialect of English. Alison Treganning, d. 1906, has also been described as a speaker of both English and Cornish. Currently some children and young adults speak various forms of revived Cornish as native speakers. For example the musician Gwenno Saunders of the Pipettes has been a native speaker of Cornish and Welsh since her childhood.

John Mann was one of a group of Zennor children who spoke Cornish among themselves in the 1840s. In 1914, this native Cornish speaker from Boswednackmarker was living in Chapel Street, St Just in Penwithmarker at the age of 80, ten years after Henry Jenner's Handbook of the Cornish Language sparked the revival.

Pêr-Jakez Helias, the Breton writer, has dedicated a poem to Dolly Pentreath.

See also

  • Chesten Marchant -- sometimes considered the last monoglot Cornish speaker
  • Ned Maddrell -- often considered the last native speaker of Manx, which is also in the Celtic language group.
  • Alison Treganning—speaker of both Cornish and English


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