“STILL true the ancient saw will stand,” goes a Cornish-language adage recorded in the 17th century, “a tongueless man, though, lost his land.” The saying turned out to be somewhat prophetic. Cornish is a language descended from the Brittonic widely spoken in Britain before Anglo-Saxon invaders and their early English came to dominate. Cornish was pushed further and further down the Cornish peninsula over the last millennium, until the last known native speaker died in 1777. The language remained a fringe academic interest until two centuries later, when increasing numbers of people began studying the texts left behind, and bringing the language back into everyday life.

One of these revivalists was Timothy Saunders, a literary historian and Cornish-language poet, who taught the language to his daughter Gwenno, a musician. Now 36 years old, she is one of a handful of people that can claim to be a native Cornish speaker, although she was raised in Wales and released her first solo album mostly in Welsh, Cornish’s Brittonic cousin. On her second and latest album “Le Kov”, to be released on March 2nd and sung entirely in Cornish, she continues her minority-language odyssey, questioning whether rediscovering the tongue means rediscovering the land. “Is there room for different stories?” she asks on “Hy a skoellyas lyf a dhagrow”, the album’s opening track. “The story of the ones who didn’t win”.

Until last year, she had kept Cornish largely a private language between herself and her father. Then she told a journalist from The Economist that she wasn’t passing it on to her son, Niko. Reading the words back to herself, she was struck with horror. “How could I even have an opinion on Cornish if I wasn't even prepared to share it?” she says. Now, it’s the only language she speaks to Niko, who, at two years old, is likely one of Cornish’s youngest native speakers. “If no-one’s using Cornish then it just becomes an object in a museum,” Ms Saunders says. “You've just got to throw caution to the wind and know that it might be a bit messy and it might not be right, but you've just got to use it. That's what makes it alive.”

The long history of cultural and physical violence from the English—which, Ms Saunders points out, is little-known and firmly off the current school curriculum—means that, aside from a traditional folk scene, the Cornish musical canon is relatively sparse. She decided to begin further back, and work with the Brittonic stories of mythic sunken cities such as Lyonesse, recorded in Arthurian legend as having once bordered Cornwall. She created a city called Le Kov, an imaginary alternative world in which the Cornish language and culture had been allowed to thrive uninterrupted. 

Yet “Le Kov” is far from nostalgic or purist in its approach, resisting both the Disnification of Cornwall’s mythical past and the well-meaning naffness of Celtic Eurovision-style pop. She draws from non-Cornish influences like Broadcast, an English electronic band, and J.G. Ballard, a sci-fi novelist. She sings about traffic jams and computers as well as “cruel rocks [and] wild waves”. The ancient language is wrapped in a ultra-contemporary fabric of billowing synths, sparkling guitar and big, sultry, psychedelic grooves. This cultural flexibility feels especially pertinent as Britain feels out its sense of self during the Brexit debate, which in some quarters veers into jingoistic isolationism—ironic, to any Cornish historian, who knows the Anglo-Saxon invaders labelled Britain's native Celtic inhabitants “foreigners” on their arrival. 

Her song “Herdhya” is about the feeling of isolation the Brexit vote gave her; she says Le Kov is a city for everyone. “What makes me laugh is this idea that the UK is a nation,” says Ms Saunders. “It isn’t; it’s a state. They’re very different things, and it’s not conflicting either, because you can have a lot of nations sharing a common state and that's fine. I think the problem is that because England has been defined by its colonisation of everywhere else, it’s now on its own going: ‘But what am I if I don’t I dominate half the world?’” 

Although rooted in fantasy, the album pays homage to the Cornish musicians who have gone before her, from the late Brenda Wooten, a folk singer, to Richard D. James, an electronic-music pioneer who gave Cornish-language titles to the songs on his 2001 album “Druqks”. Ms Saunders first discovered a copy of “Druqks” while living in London, at the time rejecting the Celtic music of her youth for what she calls “plastic American pop culture”, and was struck by the radical possibilities of the language within the context of avant-garde music. For “Le Kov”, she took one of Mr James’s titles for a track on her own album, imagining that he had found it on an old folk record in a charity shop in Le Kov, the fantasy city in which Cornish musicians have clear points of reference, rather than a fractured and scattered lineage. 

In this way Le Kov functions as a stepping stone, a knowingly artificial base from which to construct real, although forgotten, cultural memory. “You lose so much history when you lose a language,” Ms Saunders says. “What replaces it is this sort of fantasising of myth and paganism that doesn’t always have a connection to the past, but knows that it is there. I’m interested in that spirit of the land.”

The spectre of the landless, tongueless man of the Cornish saying makes an appearance in the track “Den heb Taves”, but the record remains largely hopeful. On “Eus Keus”, whose title is a traditional Cornish saying which, with typical insouciant dryness, asks whether or not there is cheese, she joyfully reels off a list of Cornish place names. It’s a tribute to the real-life group of volunteers who are currently working on replacing all the English-language signs in Cornwall with bilingual ones.

Ms Saunders is invigorated by the new sprouts of energy and resistance after centuries of silence—the Cornish-speaking pub meet-ups; the Cornish-language zines and Wikipedia pages; the young people learning the language by themselves after the government funding for the Cornish language was cut in 2016. “There’s a creativity and a pioneering quality to what people are doing,” she says. “It’s why I’m doing the record. Music is so integral to any language’s survival. Pop is the folk song of the modern age, and has been for a while. It’s such a brilliant medium for acceptance and openness.”