Cornwall and the Linguistic Diaspora

You can sometimes find acquaintance and commonality in the most unusual places. I first found Alexis Chateau’s blog around two years ago. I can’t quite remember how, maybe it was the chronicles of her travels around the southern US states. Yet it ended up being her posts on Jamaican culture that I found the most interesting, especially linguistics and Jamaican patois.

On a post recently about referring to places in Jamaica, I posted a link to an article I wrote several years ago about quirks of the English language peculiar to the south west. What surprised me, was how much Alexis could identify with the slang terms I listed, “dreckly”, “them there” and referring to people living “up” or “down” somewhere. For example “I live up Falmouth way”. These are all peculiar to England’s West Country but we discovered they are peculiar to Jamaica too. Alexis was particularly shocked by “them there”. We would expect Jamaica to have strong British links. After all, it was once a colony and remains one of the Commonwealth countries. It’s a popular destination for holidaying Brits.

But why would a country and a county separated by thousands of miles have such a link beyond the obvious history? And why Cornwall? Well, there are several reasons.

Cornwall’s Maritime History

Copyright MG Mason 2017

The first would be the great age of sail. This was a time when Britain had strong transport links with the Caribbean islands and the North America colonies due to sugar plantations, and of course shamefully, the slave trade. But sugar into the country was not the limits of trade. Much of the goods such as tin leaving England for the New World would have sailed out of ports in the West Country. Plymouth is a military port, but Falmouth was an important commercial port for the Empire too. Indeed, in the early 1800s, it was the point of landing for news of the victory at Trafalgar and the death of Admiral Nelson. A stone in a car park overlooking the river commemorates the day and the landing point.

Then there are the pirates. Cornwall has more coastline than land border, perhaps the only county in England to do so. There are many coves and secluded beaches which we know were landing and departure points for pirates transporting goods – especially rum – across the ocean. But perhaps the most important aspect of Cornwall’s history for this linguistic infusion is something called The Cornish Diaspora.

Taking Pasties to the World

Cornwall and West Devon was once the centre of the world for tin mining. The county became incredibly rich in the colonial period and right through until way into the 19th century when its position in the world for production seemed without challenge. But as these things always do, decline set in. Gradually, the mines closed and the last mine shut its doors in 1986. It remains a proud point of the county’s place in the world to have mined so much tin and sent it to the four corners of the world. It started in the imperial era when the Commonwealth countries were colonies. By the time WWI came around, the mines in Cornwall and Devon were already in decline. But at this time, Cornish miners were finding other employment opportunities. Some worked to mine china clay in the same county while others travelled across the world looking for other opportunities.

By David Johnson [1] – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Mexico, it seems, is one of those countries that shares a common heritage with Cornwall. This article from The Conversation on Real Del Monte‘s link with Cornwall makes for fascinating reading. Most notably, the Cornish Pasty is considered a national dish of the region and it’s because when British industrialists bought up Mexico’s failing mines following independence from Spain, they transported engineers, technicians, mechanics from Cornwall. Many of the locals now have English and Cornish surnames.

But Mexico is not unique. These Cornish miners were all over Latin America, including South America and the Caribbean. There are even books published on Cornwall’s strong links with the Caribbean. The Caribbean is unique in that many of the islands were British colonies and, naturally, English is the first language of most of the occupants. Therefore, to take on quirks of the English language from these later migrants, including local idioms, should be taken as a given. It was interesting to hear about them first hand.

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