Cornish is a Celtic language closely related to Breton and Welsh spoken
mainly in Cornwall (Kernow) and also by a few people in Australia and
the USA. There are currently about 300 fluent speakers and many more
people have some knowledge of the language.
Cornish started to diverge from Welsh towards the end of the 7th
century AD and the earliest known examples of written Cornish date
from the end of the 9th century AD. These were in the form of glosses
scribbled in the margins of a Latin text - Smaragdus' Commentary on Donatus.
They were originally thought to be in Old Breton, but Prof. J. Loth showed
in 1907 that they were in fact Old Cornish. Old Breton and Old Cornish were
very similar and are easily confused.
Old Cornish was used from about 800-1250 AD and traces of it also survive
in some place names in eastern Cornwall. The Cornish used between 1250 and
1550 is known as Middle or Medieval Cornish and quite a lot of literature
from this period still survives, including religious plays, poems and sermons.
Literature in Late or Modern Cornish, the type of Cornish used between
1550 and the end of the 19th century, includes folk tales, poems, songs,
and translations from the Bible. At the end of the 19th century Cornish
disappeared from everyday use and the last native speaker was probably John
Davey of Zennor who died in 1891.
Henry Jenner (1848-1934) was the first person to try to revive the
language. His interest was sparked by the discovery of a number of lines
from a medieval Cornish play in a 14th century manuscript in the British
Museum. Jenner spent many years travelling all over Cornwall interviewing
Cornish speakers, learning Cornish from them and studying any Cornish
texts he could find. Then in 1904 he published a Handbook of the
Cornish language, an introductory textbook for people interested
in learning the language. Jenner also learned to speak Breton and was
surprised by the many similarities between the two languages.
Jenner's work was continued by Robert Morton Nance (1873-1959), who
reconstructed a version of Cornish he called Unified Cornish (Kernewek
Unys) based on Medieval miracle plays and borrowing words from the middle
and late periods and even from Welsh and Breton. Nance also devised
his own spelling system. In 1929 Nance published his work in a book
called Cornish for All.
In 1967 the Cornish Language Board (Kevas an taves Kernewek) was set
up to promote the language. The version of the language they promoted
was Unified Cornish and their efforts attracted considerable interest.
During the 1980s as an increasing number of people became interested
in Cornish, they started to notice the inaccuracies and shortcomings
of 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 that they couldn't
take the language seriously any more and the Cornish Language Board
had to find an alternative. They decided to adopt a new version of Cornish
devised by Dr Ken George.
George's system was originally known as Phonemic Cornish and is now
called Common Cornish (Kernewek Kemmyn). He based it on Medieval cornish
manuscripts and used a computer to analyse the pronunciation. His spelling
system was so different to those used for other versions of the language
that it meet with fierce opposition among supporters of Cornish and
In the early 1980s, a version of Cornish based on Late/Modern Cornish
and known as Modern Cornish (Curnoack Nowedga) was reconstructed by a group
of Cornish enthusiasts led by Richard Gendall. In 1986 they set up the
Cornish Language Council (Cussel an Tavas Kernuack) to promote Modern
Cornish and to encourage the study of Cornish from all periods.
In 1995, the Celtic scholar Nicholas Williams devised a new version of
Unified Cornish known as Unified Cornish Revised or UCR (Kernowek
Unys Amendys) which addressed some of the shortcomings of Unified Cornish.
UCR 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 a English-Cornish Dictionary in this orthography
The most popular versions of Cornish are currently Common Cornish and UCR,
though other versions also have supporters. The differences between the
various versions of Cornish are not huge and do not prevent speakers from
communicating with one another.
Some families are now bringing up their children with Cornish as their first
language. Cornish names are popular for children, pets, houses and boats.
People are writing and performing songs and poetry in Cornish, and the language
is taught in some schools and at the University of Exeter.
There are a number of magazines solely in Cornish: An Gannas,
An Gowser and An Garrick. BBC Radio Cornwall
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, often have articles in Cornish, and such
newspapers as The Packet, The West Briton and The
Cornishman also support the language. The first ever feature film
entirely in Cornish, Hwerow Hweg (Bitter Sweet) was released in
2002, and a number of other films in Cornish have been made since then.
After much discussion, a Standard Written Form (SWF) of Cornish was agreed
on in 2008. The SWF is intended for official use and for formal education.
In other contexts people are free to choose the form of written Cornish
In 2010 a bilingual Cornish/English creche or Skol dy’Sadorn Kernewek
(Cornish Saturday School) was set up. The group is held on Saturdays at
the Cornwall College in Cambourne and children between 2 and 5 years old
are attending. The children are immersed in Cornish in one room, and
their parents learn Cornish in another. The Cornish lessons for the
parents focus particularly on language they can use with their children.
Relationship to other languages
Cornish is closely related to Breton and less
closely related to Welsh, though these languages
are not mutually intelligibl, and is distantly related to Irish,
Manx and Scottish Gaelic.
Here is an illustration of some of the differences and similarities between
the Celtic languages using the phrases 'What is your name?' and 'My name is ... / I'm ...':
Irish - Cén t-ainm atá ort?, Is mise ...
Gloss: What-the name is on-you?, Am I [emphatic] ..."
Scottish Gaelic - Dè an t-ainm a th'ort, Is mise ...
Gloss: What the name is on-you?, Am I [emphatic] ..."
Manx - Cre'n ennym t'ort?,
Ta'n ennym orrym ... / ... mish
Gloss: What'the name is on-you?, Is the name on-me ... / ... I [emphatic]"
Breton - Petra eo da anv?, ... eo ma anv
Gloss: What is your name?, ... is my name"
Cornish - Pyth yw dha hanow?,
Ow hanow yw ...
Gloss: What is your name?, My name is ..."
Welsh - Beth ydy dy enw di? (inf) , ... dwi / ... ydw i
Gloss: What is your name you?, ... I'm / ... I am"
The only word in these examples that is similar in all the languages: ainm (Irish), ainm (Scottish Gaelic), ennym (Manx), anv (Breton), hanow (Cornish) and enw (Welsh).
The word for what - Cén (Irish), De (Scottish Gaelic), Cre (Manx), Petra (Breton), Pyth (Cornish) and Beth (Welsh) - illustrates one of the sound differences between the branches of the Celtic languages. In the Gaelic languages, apart from Scottish Gaelic, it starts with C, which is why they are called Q-Celtic languages (this sound is sometimes written with a Q in Manx), while in the Brythonic languges it starts with p or b, which is why they are known as P-Celtic. Both sounds developed from the Proto-Celtic [kʷ].
- There are more similarities within each branch of these languages than between the branches (Gaelic and Brythonic), and the Gaelic languages are closer to one another than are the Brythonic languages.
There are other versions of these phrases: see the What's your name? phrases page.
Celtic connections - words that are similar in the Celtic languages
Pronunciation (Common Cornish/Kernewek Kemmyn)
Pronunciation (UCR/Kernowek Unys Amendys)
Pronunciation (Modern Cornish/Curnoack Nowedga)
Pronunciation (Standard Written Form)
The first row of IPA transcriptions are used for varieties of Cornish based on
Medieval Cornish, such as Kernewek Kemmyn, and the transcriptions in the second
row are used for forms of Cornish based on Late Cornish, i.e. Curnoack Nowedga.
There is some variation in the letters used in some cases.
Sample text (Unified Cornish)
Yma pub den genys frank hag equal yn dynyta hag yn gwyryow. Ymons y enduys gans reson
ha keskans hag y tal dhedhans omdhon an eyl orth y gela yn sperys a vredereth.
Sample text (Standard Written Form)
Pub den oll yw genys rydh hag kehaval yn dynita ha gwiryow. Yth yns i kemynnys gans
reson ha kowses hag y tal dhedha gul dhe unn orth y gila yn spyrys a vrederedh.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Information about Cornish |
Cornish phrases |
Numbers in Cornish |
Tower of Babel in Cornish |
Cornish learning materials
Information about the Cornish language
A Handbook of the Cornish Language, by Henry Jenner
Online Cornish grammar guide
Lauran Toorians, Towards a Grammar of Middle Cornish
Online Cornish dictionaries
Lexicon cornu-britannicum : a dictionary of the ancient Celtic language of Cornwall, by William Roberts:
Other languages written with the Latin alphabet