The South West is made up of the city and ceremonial county of Bristol, the counties of Somerset, Dorset, Devon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, and the Duchy of Cornwall. On this page, you can find out more about:
Everyone in Cornwall now speaks English, but the original Celtic language of the area is Cornish (Kernewek). The last native speaker of Cornish was John Davey, who died in 1893. For a while, Cornish was described as a ‘dead’ language, but it has been going through a revival in the last few decades.
Cornish is one of the Brythonic group of Celtic languages (see UK Language Tree). The Cornish language began to develop after the South West Britons of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall became linguistically separated from the West Britons of Wales after the Battle of Deorham in 577AD. During the following centuries, the Celtic tribes of the South West were pushed back into Cornwall by the Anglo-Saxons, who invaded England from Europe. In fact, the ‘wall’ in the name ‘Cornwall’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon term meaning ‘foreigners’.
The Cornish language continued to flourish throughout the Middle Ages, reaching a peak of about 39,000 speakers in the 13th century. However, the number of Cornish speakers is thought to have declined after that. The revival of Cornish began in 1904, when Henry Jenner published his book Handbook of the Cornish Language. Even though the language was described as ‘dead’ towards the end of the 20th century, its revival has resulted in 2,000 people now being fluent in it (as per a survey in 2008).
Many Cornish language textbooks and works of literature have been published over the decades. Recent developments include Cornish music, independent films and children's books, a small number of children in Cornwall have been brought up to be bilingual native speakers, and the language is taught in many schools.
West Country dialect
The accents of the area are typified by a particular ‘burr’. The vowel sound /a:/ appears in an unusually high number of words in a West Country accent. Furthermore, delivery is slower than with more ‘clipped’ English accents.
Perhaps because of the region’s long seafaring tradition – the prehistoric peoples and Celts traded round the world, the craggy coastline was synonymous with smuggling during the 17th and 18th centuries, Bristol and Plymouth have long-standing naval traditions – the West Country dialect has become associated with a popular version of ‘pirate’ speech in film and the media (Pirates of the Caribbean, Dodgeball, etc). The notorious pirate Edward Teach (Blackbeard) was a native of Bristol, and the English hero Sir Francis Drake was born in Tavistock in Devon.
The West Country dialect does of course have many unique words and phrases in its vocabulary. Perhaps one of the most interesting terms is 'grockle', meaning 'tourist' or 'foreigner'. It is a slightly negative term, but perhaps that is not so surprising given the region’s history.
Other terms include 'Proper job!', meaning that something has been done well, 'somewhen', meaning sometime, 'anywhen', meaning 'anytime', 'Where's it to?', to mean 'Where is it?', and the stereotypical 'Alright, my lover?', to mean 'How are you, mate?'.
Other features of West Country dialects include:
- Using 'thee', 'ye' and 'thou' instead of 'you', with the word 'thee' often reduced to 'ee' in speech
- Using 'bist' or 'ist' instead of 'are' e.g. 'Ist thou tired?'
- Using 'ee' or 'he' instead of “it” for objects e.g. 'Put’ee over there!'
- Using the infinitive 'be' instead of 'am', 'is' or 'are' e.g. 'I be going home!'
As might be predicted from the information above, there are strong cultural identities in the South West. Cornwall even has its own traditional costume, which bears very little resemblance to any other region’s. Women wear pleated, thick, dark-coloured skirts with a white apron and a uniquely shaped hat. There are also unique Cornish tartans.
St Piran is the patron saint of tin-miners and (generally regarded as) the patron saint of Cornwall. His feast day is 5 March, when there are festivities across Cornwall. There are many stories about St Piran, but a lack of historical evidence. One story is that he was thrown with a millstone around his neck into the stormy sea off Ireland by a heathen tribe. As he landed in the sea, it became calm and the storm disappeared. The millstone then floated and carried St Piran to Cornwall. He landed at Perran Beach and built himself a small chapel in Penhale sands, where his first disciples were said to be a badger, a fox and a bear.
The flag of St Piran is also the Cornish flag – a white cross on a black background. It is supposed to symbolise the discovery of tin by the saint as the white metal flowed from the black rock.
Politics and history
Before Celts from Europe arrived in the South West, the region had a thriving prehistoric culture. Prehistoric remains (standing stones, burial mounds and huts) are in general more numerous in Cornwall than in any other English county except Wiltshire, which itself is in the South West region of England and contains the world-famous Stonehenge. The ancient peoples were famous around the world because they traded tin and copper with the likes of the Greeks and Phoenicians.
The Celts came from Europe and arrived in the South West in around 500BC. Their culture spread across the region and iron-mining was introduced. The Romans conquered southern Britain in 43AD and they ruled the South West until the 5th century AD. Despite establishing cities like Bath and Exeter in the South West, they never had a tight grip on the region and the region retained much of its existing culture.
Once the Romans withdrew from Britain, the South West had to contend with the invading Saxons of Europe. Although the various Celtic tribes were pushed deeper into the South West by the (Anglo-)Saxons, it is thought that the kingdoms of the South West retained their independence and had their own kings for several hundred years. It is thought that the castle of Tintagel in Cornwall is one of the possible homes of the legendary King Arthur, and that he made his name resisting the Anglo-Saxons of this era.
With the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the South West then had a succession of Norman rulers, a number of whom included “Earl of Cornwall” amongst their titles. The Duchy estate of Cornwall was created in 1337 by Edward III for his son and heir, Prince Edward, who was the first 'Duke of Cornwall'.
The primary purpose of the Duchy of Cornwall estate is to provide the Princes of Wales (the first male heir of the British throne) with an income from its assets. The charter rules that each future Duke of Cornwall will be the eldest surviving son of the British monarch and will be the heir to the throne. The current Duke of Cornwall, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, is actively involved in running the Duchy and his philosophy is to improve the estate and pass it on to future Dukes in a stronger and better condition.
The South West is warmer than the rest of the UK because it catches the Gulf Stream via the North Atlantic Drift. For that reason, the South West is a big holiday destination for Britons. It is an area of the country synonymous with sun, sandy beaches and craggy cliffs along its coastlines. Surfing is popular in the area. Agriculture also does very well, sometimes yielding two crops a year. In contrast to the rich farmland, however, there are also the dramatic rocky uplands of Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor, which also serve as home to an abundance of wildlife.
Cuisine and industry
The South West is renowned for its traditional foods and beverages, many of which are derived from its traditional industries. There are Cornish pasties, cream teas (scones, jam and clotted cream), ice creams, the world-famous Cheddar and, of course, cider. The main industries of the region include agriculture, dairy farming, fruit growing (hence the cider), quarrying and mining, fishing and tourism. It was the manual nature of many of the jobs that led to the rise of the Cornish pasty, a sealed pastry that contains a whole meal and can easily be carried from place to place – down mines, out into fields or out onto boats.
- Lessons plans and audio for learning Cornish
- Wikipedia in Cornish
- Listen to English being spoken in a West Country accent
- Some intercultural teaching activities
Put your students into pairs. Ask them to imagine that the following people are all in a competition to win the title of ‘Most important person in the South West’: St Peran, King Arthur, Prince Charles (the current Prince of Wales and Duke of Cornwall), Edward Teach, a modern dairy farmer from Devon, and a grockle. Ask the pairs of students to agree together who should get first prize, second prize, and so on down to sixth prize. Once pairs have finished their order of prize-winners, put two pairs together to make a group of four. Ask the groups of four to compare their orders and agree a new order together. Then form groups of eight, until the whole class agrees an order.
Organise your students into six groups. Give each of them a character from task A above. Tell them they will need to make a three-minute presentation about why their character should win first prize. Give the students 10 minutes to prepare their presentation. Then each group presents and the other groups give a score out of 10. The group with the highest final score wins first prize, the next highest group win second prize and so on.
You can then repeat the tasks above with important characters from your own culture or country.
- Information about visiting the South West