The History Of The Cornish Language

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 (Kernewek/Kernowek/Kernuak/Curnoack)


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 aHandbook 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 academics.

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 in 2000.

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.

Current status

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 they prefer.

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.