Cornish Language Revival

For a language that has, at present estimates, only 300 people able to speak it with any degree of proficiency, it beggars belief that there have been 3 versions of the language developed - Unified Cornish (Jenner's original), Common Cornish (Dr George)and Unified Cornish Revised (UCR by Nicholas Williams). In practice these different forms do not prevent Cornish-speakers from communicating with each other. It is difficult to determine how many of the 300 speakers speak which version. Active politics, lobbying and vested interests make a reasoned analysis impossible.

The Cornish language revival is credited to Henri Jenner, a scholar who was a bard of the Welsh and Breton Gorsedd. He published a book “Handbook of the Cornish Language” in 1904 that formed the basis for the writing and teaching of Cornish. Jenner based teaching system on Unified Cornish (Kernewek Unyes) and used mainly Middle Cornish (the language of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries - which yielded a certain amount of literature for its base), with a standardised spelling and he extended extended the vocabulary by using Breton and Welsh.

Robert Morton Nance then advanced the revival of Cornish with his work on spelling and pronunciation. He based his work on the spoken language of the last people to have any knowledge of the language, whereas Jenner’s work was based upon Middle Cornish texts. Robert Morton Nance was born in 1873 in Cardiff of Cornish parents. Nance moved to Cornwall in 1906 and became an authority on the Cornish language. He was also a joint founder of the Old Cornwall Society. He was involved in the first Cornish Gorseth in 1928. Nance published “Cornish for All” in 1929. And in 1938 published his dictionary which is still in use today.

Cornish Language Board (Kevas an taves Kernewek) was set up in 1967 to promote the language, and they promoted Unified Cornish. After the publication in 1984 of Professor Glanville Price's book The Languages of Britain, which severely criticised Unified Cornish, Celtic scholars and linguists decided to adopt a new version of Cornish devised by Dr Ken George. This system, called Common Cornish (Curnoack Nowedga) was adopted in 1987. It differs from Unified Cornish in using the English-based orthographies of the 17th and 18th centuries, plus differences of vocabulary and grammar. It retained a Middle Cornish base but made the spelling more systematic by applying phonemic orthographic theory, and set out clear rules between pronunciation and spelling.

In 1995 Nicholas Williams proposed an alternative revision of Unified Cornish known as as Unified Cornish Revised or UCR (Kernowek Unys Amendys). Williams published his English-Cornish Dictionary in this orthography in 2000. UCR too has supporters and detractors. It addressed the shortcomings of Unified Cornish, and modifies the standard spelling in the light of current scholarship, but keeping to the traditional practices of the medieval scribes. It also makes full use of the Late Cornish material unavailable to Nance.

Cornish Language The Cornish Language information