Cornwall - The Cornish Language

The Cornish Language went from being the universal language of the population of Cornwall in 1300 to extinction by 1900. It has had a certain revival since then. Today after much spending of government money, about 300 people appear to speak the language with some knowledge. However these few are split into 3 camps, each promoting their own version of the language, with differing pronunciation and spelling. Until the internal politics of these few are sorted, it would appear that there is a substantial brake on both the further acceptance of the language, and on more inflows of government funds.

There was a tribe called the Dumnonii, who inhabited most of south west Britain including Cornwall. Cornish started to evolve as a separate language around 2000 BC. A fuller explanation of the origins of the Cornish Language is given here. The Celtic languages are split into two groups: Brythonic - Cornish, Welsh and Breton form this group with common roots; and Goidelic- Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic form this second group. I can vouch for this myself as my mother is a native Welsh speaker who has tried to converse in Welsh with more success in Brittany than in Ireland! Today Cornish shares about 80% of its basic vocabulary with Breton, 75% with Welsh, 35% with Irish, and 35% with Scottish Gaelic.

Cornish continued to develop as a separate language until the 17th century, then started to decline as English became the language that was necessary to succeed. Cornish became looked on a the language of the poorer people. The church acted as a further stimulus for English as the Prayer Book was only published in English. In fact there was a major uprising in Cornwall in 1547 against the imposition of the English Prayer Book.

Eventually the last native Cornish speaker died. It could have been John Davey of Zennor who died in 1891 (who, when he was a boy, learnt to speak some words of Cornish from his grandfather). But according to others occurred much earlier in 1777 with the death of Dorothy Pentreath near Mousehole

In recent years Henry Jenner has spearheaded a move to revive Cornish Language, and grammars, dictionaries and magazines in the language have been published. The Cornish language (referred to as Kernewek by its speakers) stands out among other lesser-used languages of Europe because it is a language that has been revived after having died out.

There are many books available now in Cornish, and there is a movement by some to have Cornish road signs. Many main roads into the county have the name Kernow as well as Cornwall.

According to the MacKinnon Report (2000)1 there are about 300 effective speakers of Cornish with up to 3,000 people
able to have simple conversations in the language. These few Cornish speakers live spread throughout Cornwall and are not concentrated on one particular area. The language does not have official status, so does not get that much government help

There are various pronunciations and spelling depending on which teacher students have learned the language from. You can get qualifications in Cornish Language.

The future of the language is difficult to predict.

Cornish Language Web sites

Cornish Language Fellowship Run by the Cornish Language Fellowship, "The Kowethas" which runs Cornish language classes throughout Cornwall and beyond and provides a supportive network for those engaged in learning the language. The Kowethas maintains links with a wide range of other cultural organisations including language organisations and educational bodies in other Celtic countries.
Wikipedia A fairly full write up of the background to the language.
Cornish Language News The Cornish Branch of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Language's own website. You can view nearly everything in either English, or three versions of Cornish.
Our Language The Society for the Promotion of the Cornish language. Has around 300 members
Cornish Bible Project The Project is run under the auspices of the Cornish Language Board, and the Bishop of Truro's Ecumenical Advisory Group for Services in Cornish.
Cornish - English Dictionary The author is a Bard of the Gorsedd of Cornwall
Websters Online Cornish Dictionary You can get some online translations on Websters
BBC Online Teaching BBC Cornwall’s easy course of simple Cornish phrases. There are twelve easy to follow lessons which take you through everyday situations. Have a go at all twelve and you'll be able to chat to other Cornish speakers
The Story of the Cornish Language A short history by Peter Berresford Ellis


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