Cornish language

Cornish (Kernewek, Kernowek, Curnoack)
Spoken in: United Kingdom
Region: Cornwall
Total speakers: 3,500
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Indo-European


Official status
Official language of: -
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1kw
ISO 639-2cor
See also: LanguageList of languages

The Cornish language (in Cornish: Kernowek, Kernewek, Curnoack) is one of the Brythonic group of Celtic languages that includes Welsh, Breton, the extinct Cumbric and perhaps the hypothetical Ivernic. The Celtic languages of Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx are part of the separate Goidelic group. Cornish shares about 80% basic vocabulary with Breton, 75% with Welsh, 35% with Irish, and 35% with Scottish Gaelic. By comparison, Welsh shares about 70% with Breton.



At the time of the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549, which was a reaction to Parliament passing the first Act of Uniformity, people in many areas of Cornwall did not speak or understand English. In 1549, this imposition of a new language was sometimes a matter of life and death: many Cornish people protesting against the imposition of an English Prayer book were massacred by the King's army. Their leaders were executed and the people suffered numerous reprisals.

Early Modern Cornish was the subject of a study by the Welsh linguist Edward Lhuyd in 1700, and differs from the mediaeval language in having a simpler structure and grammar. By this time the language was already arguably in decline from its earlier heyday, and the situation worsened over the course of the next century. It is often claimed that the last native speaker of Cornish was the Mousehole resident Dolly Pentreath, who died in 1777. However, she spoke at least some English as well and the last monoglot Cornish speaker is believed to have been Chesten Marchant, who died in 1676 at Gwithian. It does, however, appear to be true that Dolly Pentreath spoke Cornish fluently and may have been the last to do so before the revival of the language in the 20th century. There is evidence that Cornish continued, albeit in limited usage by a handful of speakers, throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century. In 1875 six speakers all in their sixties were discovered. Fishermen, for example, were counting fish in the Cornish language into the 1940s. Some dialects of English spoken in Cornwall display strong influences from the Cornish language that almost certainly go back several centuries.


The first successful attempt to revive Cornish was largely the work of Henry Jenner and Robert Morton Nance in the early part of the twentieth century. This system was called Unified Cornish (Kernewek Unyes) and was based mainly on Middle Cornish (the language of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries — a high point for Cornish literature), with a standardised spelling and an extended vocabulary based largely on Breton and Welsh. For many years, this was the modern Cornish language, and many people still use it today.

Shortcomings in Unified Cornish had to do in part with the stiff and archaizing literary style Nance had employed, and in part with a realization that Nance's phonology lacked some distinctions which must have obtained in traditional Cornish. In the 1970s, Tim Saunders raised a number of issues of communicative efficiency, but his initiative had no influence and later developments are entirely independent. In the early 1980s, Richard Gendall, who had worked with Nance, published a new system based on the extensive prose works of Nicholas Boson and John Boson. This system, called Modern Cornish (Curnoack Nowedga) by its proponents, differs from Unified Cornish in using the English-based orthographies of the 17th and 18th centuries, though there are also differences of vocabulary and grammar. Gendall was not the first to perceive that the Unified Cornish standard did have some serious deficiencies, but his anglicized spelling was particularly unpopular, and his frequent revisions discouraged potential supporters.

In 1986 a replacement orthography (and phonology) for Revived Cornish was proposed by Ken George, called Common Cornish (Kernewek Kemmyn). It retained the Middle Cornish base but made the spelling more systematic by applying phonemic orthographic theory. The accuracy and aesthetics of this phonemic orthography have been criticised by much of the academic community. Nevertheless, Kernewek Kemmyn continues to have its adherents, notably The Cornish Language Board, as well as its detractors.

In 1995, some of the shortcomings of Unified Cornish were addressed by the Celtic scholar Nicholas Williams as Unified Cornish Revised or UCR (Kernowek Unys Amendys). This revision of Unified Cornish modifies the standard spelling in order to indicate the reconstructed phonology in light of current scholarship, while keeping to the traditional orthographic practices of the medieval scribes. It also makes full use of the Late Cornish prose materials unavailable to Nance, taking advantage of the same fluent, natural style that made Gendall's Modern Cornish appeal to many. Williams published his English-Cornish Dictionary in this orthography in 2000. Like the other orthographies, UCR also has its adherents and its detractors. It has not become the standard for all users of Unified Cornish, as many have hoped.

Each of these three systems has its proponents, but most people recognise the need for a single basis to the language. In practice the differences in written forms do not prevent Cornish-speakers from communicating with each other effectively. Revived Cornish is a viable language for communication; it has been successfully revived.

Current status

In the 20th century a conscious effort was made to revive Cornish as a language for everyday use in speech and writing (see below for further details about the dialects of modern Cornish).

It is estimated that there are now approximately 3,500 fluent speakers of Cornish (about half a percent of the entire population of Cornwall). Many more speak some Cornish or have some knowledge of the language and a number of people under the age of 30 have been brought up speaking it. Cornish exists in place names, and a knowledge of the language helps our understanding of old place names. Many Cornish names are adopted for children, pets, houses and boats. There is now a thriving literature, in which poetry is the most important genre, particularly in oral form or as song.

Cornwall County Council has, as policy, a commitment to support the language, and recently passed a motion supporting it being specified within the European charter for regional or minority languages.

There are regular periodicals solely in the language such as the monthly An Gannas, An Gowser, and An Garrick. Radio Cornwall and Pirate FM have regular news broadcasts in Cornish, and sometimes have other programmes and features for learners and enthusiasts. Local newspapers such as the Western Morning News regularly have articles in Cornish, and newspapers such as The Packet, The West Briton and The Cornishman also support the movement.

The language has financial sponsorship from many sources, including the Millennium Commission. Increasingly, churches have notices in Cornish and English. The take-up of the language is now becoming so widespread that language organisations are finding it difficult to keep up with demand. These organisations include (in alphabetical order) Agan Tavas (Our Language), the Cornish sub-group of the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, Gorseth Kernow, Kesva an Taves Kernewek (the Cornish Language Board), Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (the Cornish Language Fellowship), and Teere ha Tavas (Land and Language). One organisation, Dalleth, promotes the language to pre-school children. There are many popular ceremonies, some ancient, some modern, which use the language or are entirely in the language.


Cornwall has many other cultural events associated with the language, including the prestigious international Celtic film festival, hosted in St Ives in 1997, with the programme in Cornish, English and French. There have been many films, some televised, made entirely, or significantly, in the language. Some shops, such as Gwynn ha Du, in the town of Liskeard, sell books written in Cornish. Many companies use Cornish names. The overnight physician's service in Cornwall is now called Kernowdoc. Cornish is taught in some schools; it was previously taught at degree level in the University of Wales, though the only existing courses in the language at University level are as part of a course in Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter, or as part of the distance-learning Welsh degree from the University of Wales, Lampeter.

The Cornish language has been recognised as a minority language by the UK government under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This follows years of pressure by interest groups such as Mebyon Kernow and Kesva an Taves Kernewek.

The first complete edition of the New Testament in Cornish, Nicholas Williams' translation of the Testament Noweth agan Arluth ha Savyour Jesu Cryst, was published at Easter 2002 (ISBN 0-9535975-4-7); it uses Unified Cornish Revised orthography.

In August 2004, Kesva an Taves Kernewek published its edition of the New Testament (ISBN 1-902917-33-2), translated by Keith Syed and Ray Edwards; it uses Kernewek Kemmyn orthography.

The Celtic Congress and Celtic League also recognise Cornwall as a full member along with Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, and Brittany. The Congress is a group that advocates cooperation amongst the Celtic Nations in order to protect and promote Celtic languages and cultures.

European recognition

On November 5, 2002 in answer to a Parliamentary Question, Local Government and Regions Minister Nick Raynsford said:

"After careful consideration and with the help of the results of an independent academic study on the language commissioned by the government, we have decided to recognise Cornish as falling under Part II of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The government will be registering this decision with the Council of Europe.
"The purpose of the Charter is to protect and promote the historical regional or minority languages of Europe. It recognises that some of these languages are in danger of extinction and that protection and encouragement of them contributes to Europe's cultural diversity and historical traditions.
"This is a positive step in acknowledging the symbolic importance the language has for Cornish identity and heritage.
"Cornish will join Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Scots and Ulster Scots as protected and promoted languages under the Charter, which commits the government to recognise and respect those languages."

Officials will be starting discussions with Cornwall County Council and Cornish language organisations to ensure the views of Cornish speakers and people wanting to learn Cornish are taken into account in implementing the Charter.


Cornish is a member of the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family of languages, and shares many of the characteristics of the other Celtic languages. These include:

  • Initial consonant mutation. The first sound of a Cornish word may change according to grammatical context. There are four types of mutation in Cornish (compared to three in Welsh and two in Irish). These are known as soft (b -> v, etc.), hard (b -> p), aspirate (b unchanged, t -> th) and mixed (b -> f).
Consonant Mutation in Cornish (Kernwek Kemmyn)
Unmutated Consonant Soft Mutation Aspirate Mutation Hard Mutation Mixed Mutation

1Before unrounded vowels, l, and r (provided it is followed by an unrounded vowel).
2Before rounded vowels, and r (provided it is followed by a rounded vowel).

  • inflected (or conjugated) prepositions. A preposition combines with a personal pronoun to give a separate word form. For example, gans (with, by) + my (me) -> genef; gans + ef (him) -> ganso.
  • No indefinite article. Cath means "a cat" (there is, however a definite article: an gath means "the cat").
  • For other grammatical characteristics of Cornish, see the section on grammar in the Welsh language article, until this section is finished.


There are, essentially, four 'dialects' of Cornish. They are not dialects in the normal sense (though regional variations exist to some degree), but rather differences in the manner of revival.


See also

External links



ast:Crnicu ca:Llengua celta cy:Cernyweg de:Kornische Sprache eo:Kornvala lingvo fr:Cornique kw:Yeth Kernewek li:Cornish nl:Cornish no:Kornisk sprk pl:Język kornijski sv:Korniska zh:康瓦爾語


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