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Legend of Dolly Pentreath outlived her native tongue

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: August 04, 2011

Lord St Levan discusses a portrait of Dolly Pentreath, loaned from the St Michael's Mount collection, with fine art expert Philip Mould in 2007.

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HER name adorns a headstone in Paul, beneath it a message is etched proclaiming her to be the last speaker of the "Ancient Cornish" language.

But was Dolly Pentreath, who died in 1777, really the last person to speak native Cornish? The answer, quite simply, is no.

In reality, accounts of people well versed in the tongue extend onwards for a century or more after her death.

In fact, it has lately been suggested the last native speaker of the language, a John Mann of Zennor, died as recently as 1914; a full ten years after the revival.

Where, then, did this popular misconception that Dolly Pentreath was the last Cornish speaker actually extend from?

Although she had achieved some local notoriety for her ability to speak Cornish fluently, it wasn't until the antiquary Daines Barrington searched Cornwall for speakers of the language in 1768 that the myth began to form.

Barrington, who had based himself in Penzance, began an extensive search of west Cornwall to try to uncover more about the ancient language.

However, his efforts were largely fruitless, until he was pointed in the direction of an elderly woman who sold fish from Mousehole.

Upon meeting Pentreath, Barrington remarked that "she spoke in an angry tone... for two or three minutes… in a language which sounded very much like Welsh".

He added "the hut in which she lived was in a narrow lane… opposite two cottages where two women stood."

The women confirmed they could not speak the language but understood it, only a handful of people able to do so.

After soliciting the help of a friend, who also met Pentreath, Barrington surmised in an article in the journal Archaeologia in 1775 his account of "the last spoken Cornish tongue".

From there the legend began to cement itself, with Pentreath's status as the last native speaker confirmed in a variety of sources.

In 1860, some 83 years after her death, Louis Lucien Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon and a keen linguist, commissioned a granite memorial in her memory at Paul church.

On it was etched the message: "Here lieth interred Dorothy Pentreath who died in 1777, said to be the last person who conversed in the ancient Cornish; the peculiar language of the county from the earliest records till it expired in the eighteenth century in this parish of Saint Paul." Although it has since been confirmed the engraving is inaccurate (and that the stone was initially placed over the wrong grave) it is almost certain that Pentreath was one of the last people bought up as a monoglot speaker.

In fact, in an interview conducted in 1773, Pentreath herself recalled she couldn't speak any English till the age of 20.

Ultimately, whether she was the last speaker of Cornish or not, Dolly Pentreath's status as one of the last surviving links to Cornwall's ancient past is still important to this day as a vehicle of the revival of the language – the focus of next week's article.

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