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Cornish language

The Cornish language, known in its own language as Kernewek, is one of the Brythonic group of Celtic languages which includes Welsh, Breton and, originally, Cumbrian. The Celtic languages of Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx are known are part of the separate Goidelic group.

In terms of similarity of Cornish to the other existing Celtic languages, it shares about 80% basic vocabulary with Breton, 75% with Welsh, 35% with Irish and 35% with Scots Gaelic. Welsh shares about 70% with Breton.

During 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. The Cornish language is no longer a matter of life and death, but in 1549 it was. 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.

Late 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. Since she spoke at least some English, Pentreath was certainly not the last monoglot Cornish speaker; that is believed to be Chesten Marchant[?], who died in 1676 at Gwithian[?]. It does, however, appear to be true that Dolly Pentreath spoke Cornish fluently and was probably the last to do so prior to the 20th century revival of the language. 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. 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, which almost certainly go back several centuries.

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 Cornish speakers and many more speak some Cornish or have some knowledge of the language. Cornish exists in place names, and a knowledge of the language helps to read the landscape. Many Cornish names are adopted for children, pets, houses and boats.

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: 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 organisations such as Kevas an taves Kernewek[?], the Cornish Language Board, are finding it difficult to keep up with demand. Others include the Cornish sub-group of the European bureau for lesser-used languages, Teere ha Tavas, or land and language, Gorseth Kernow, Cussel an Tavas Kernuack, Cowethas an Yeth, Agan Tavas and Dalleth, the last of which is the organisation promoting 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 An Lyverjy Kernewak, the Cornish book shop in the town of Helston, England[?] sell only books written in Cornish. Many companies use Cornish names. The GP overnight service in Cornwall is now called Kernowdoc. Cornish is taught in some schools and there are many who study Cornish at degree level in Aberystwyth and Harvard, USA.

Rumours of the extinction of the Cornish language are thus proven to be premature. The Cornish language has now been recognised officially 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 Kevas an taves Kernewek[?].

The Cornish language finally has an edition of the New Testament in Kernowek. Testament Noweth agan Arluth ha Savyour Jesu Cryst, copyright 2002, ISBN 0-9535975-4-7.

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 letter 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).
  • 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 can mean "cat" or "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.


Despite the fact that the modern Cornish language is spoken by a relatively small number of people, and largely confined to a a small geographical area, there are at least three separate dialects. This situation arises from the fact that it is a revived language (even if it never entirely died out, it was certainly dormant throughout the nineteenth century), and not everyone agrees on how it should be revived.

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) and was based on Middle Cornish (the language of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries - a high point for Cornish literature), with some standardisation of spelling and extension of vocabulary (largely based on Welsh). For many years, this was the modern Cornish language.

However, not everyone was happy with the way the language worked, in particular the choice to base it on such an early stage of the historical language. In the early 1980s, Richard Gendall[?] published a new system based on the latest remaining records of the language as spoken in the 18th century. This system, called Modern Cornish (Kernuak) differed from Unified Cornish mostly in spelling, but there were also differences of vocabulary and grammar.

Some people agreed with Gendall that the Unified Cornish language did have some serious deficiencies, but felt that his proposed alternative went too far. In 1987 a spelling reform of Unified Cornish was proposed by Ken George[?], retaining the Middle Cornish basis but making the spelling more systematic and phonetic. This system was called Common Cornish (Kernewek Kemmyn).

Each of these three systems has its proponents, while many people recognise the need for a single basis to the language. More recently, there appears to be a move towards standardising Cornish in the form of Unified Cornish Revised (UCR). Unlike the earlier systems, this is being designed with some built-in flexibility to allow for dialect differences (East/West Cornwall, colloquial/literary or simply personal preference).

See also (external links):

Agan Tavas (http://www.clas.demon.co.uk/index.htm)

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