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Cornish Language Essentials: History, Speakers, and Learning

Updated: Jun 14

Welcome to our latest post at Sennen Jewellery, where we explore Cornwall's heritage through its unique language. The Cornish language, or Kernowek, is a fascinating aspect of regional culture, embodying centuries of history, tradition, and identity.

In this article, we explore everything you need to know about this ancient language, from its historical journey to its modern-day revival. Whether you're a linguist, a cultural enthusiast, or a curious visitor, join us as we uncover the secrets of Kernowek.

Key Points Summary

  • Explore the historical development and cultural impact of the Cornish language from its Celtic roots to modern-day challenges.

  • Explore the historical development and cultural impact of the Cornish language from its Celtic roots to modern-day challenges.

  • Learn about the key figures and events that shaped the language, including Saint Piran and the pivotal rebellions.

  • Discover the current state of Cornish speakers and the educational initiatives supporting the language's revival.

  • Understand the significance of Cornish place names and their meanings.

  • Dive into resources for learning Cornish, from online tools to community events, highlighting its role in Cornwall's cultural identity.

What is the Cornish Language? 

The Cornish language, or Kernowek, is a Celtic language closely related to Welsh and Breton. It is one of the Brittonic group of Celtic languages, which also includes the now-extinct Cumbric. Originating in Cornwall, the language has experienced phases of decline and revival, reflecting the tumultuous history of the region itself.

The History of Cornish: A Celtic Language

Cornish language
  • The name 'Cornwall' derives from the Celtic Cornovii tribe, and 'Cornish' from the people and language that flourished after the Roman conquest. This region became a bastion of Celtic traditions and language following the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries.

  • The arrival of Celtic Christian missionaries, like the revered Saint Piran in the 5th and 6th centuries, profoundly shaped Cornish culture, embedding the language deeply within the community.

  • Conflicts with the West Saxons culminated in the establishment of the River Tamar as the boundary between Cornwall and Devon in 936 by King Athelstan, reinforcing a unique Cornish identity.

Middle Cornish: The Language's Golden Age 

During the Middle Ages, Cornwall was perceived almost as a separate nation, with its own language, customs, and governance through the Cornish Stannary Parliament, which managed mining laws and practices.

During this period, particularly between the 12th and 15th centuries, Middle Cornish flourished. This era, often considered the golden age of the language, produced significant Cornish literature, including religious plays and poetry.

The distinct features of Middle Cornish literature, such as its phonetics and vocabulary, set it apart from earlier and later forms, showcasing a language rich in expression and adaptability.

Cornish language
St Michael's Mount from Marazion, Martha Edwards

The Decline of the Cornish Language

  • Centralized Control: The shift toward centralization under Henry VII in the late 15th century, including increased taxes and the suppression of Stannary privileges, fueled local discontent, leading to the Cornish rebellion of 1497. This rebellion highlighted the strong regional identity but also marked the beginning of increased English influence.

  • Religious Reforms: The 1549 Act of Uniformity mandated English as the sole language for church services, significantly impacting the Cornish language. The subsequent Prayer Book Rebellion saw the brutal suppression of Cornish protesters, accelerating the language's decline.

Cornish Rebellion of 1497 (Rebellyans Kernow)

Originating in Lizard, Cornwall, the rebellion amassed around 15,000 men who marched across the South West. Despite their defeat, the brief restoration of Stannary privileges post-rebellion indicated a temporary acknowledgement of Cornish grievances.

Prayer Book Rebellion, 1549

A direct response to religious reforms, this devastating event saw over 4,000 South West English protesters, including many Cornish speakers, killed near Honiton. This rebellion further entrenched English in Cornish religious and daily life, marking a significant step towards the language's decline.

The 17th Century and Beyond

By the 17th century, the number of Cornish speakers had dwindled to a few thousand, primarily in western Cornwall, largely due to the encroachment of English into all aspects of life in Cornwall.

Cornish language

The Revival of the Cornish Language

The early 20th century witnessed a Cornish revival, spurred by the Celtic revival, Cornish independence movements, and dedicated linguists and cultural activists. This Cornish language revival aimed to reintroduce Cornish through education and media, reigniting interest in the language and its heritage.

Cornish Speakers Today: Who Are They? 

Today, the number of Cornish people and others who are fluent in Cornish is small but growing thanks to revitalization efforts. Educational programs, both formal and informal, are actively teaching Kernowek, but Cornish is primarily a language spoken at educational and cultural events, rather than in day-to-day life. The Cornish language has also found a place in technology, with apps and websites dedicated to teaching and promoting the language.

Cornish language

How to Speak Cornish 

Embarking on the journey to learn and speak Cornish can be both enriching and exciting, offering a deeper connection with Cornwall's rich heritage. Whether you are a beginner or looking to improve your proficiency, a variety of resources are available to support your learning.

Getting Started

  • Online Resources: Beginners can find a wealth of materials online, including Cornish words and phrases, pronunciation guides, and interactive lessons. Websites dedicated to Cornish language learning offer structured courses that cover everything from basic vocabulary to more complex grammatical structures.

  • The Cornish Language Board: Known as 'Kesva an Taves Kernewek', it is a crucial resource for learners. They provide certifications, textbooks, and a standardized curriculum that guides you through different levels of proficiency. Engaging with their materials ensures you are learning a standardized form of Cornish that aligns with broader educational objectives.

Deepening Your Knowledge

  • Software and Mobile Apps: For those who prefer learning on-the-go, various software programs and mobile applications offer interactive ways to learn Cornish. These tools often include games, flashcards, and quizzes to test your knowledge and help reinforce your learning.

  • Formal Classes: Many educational institutions and community centers in Cornwall offer formal classes in Cornish. These classes range from beginner to advanced levels and are taught by experienced speakers. Such settings provide the added benefit of immediate feedback and personalized guidance from instructors.

Practical Engagement

  • Community Events: Participating in Cornish language weekends, workshops, and conversation groups are invaluable for practical experience. These events allow you to practice Cornish in a supportive environment, improving your conversational skills and helping you to use the language in real-life contexts.

  • Cultural Immersion: Engage with Cornish media, including radio broadcasts, television programs, and books. Attending festivals and other cultural events where Cornish is spoken can also enhance your learning experience by immersing you in the language and culture.

Recommended Online Resources 

Here are our top picks for online resources to help you start your journey in learning modern Cornish:

  1. Go Cornish - Offers a range of learning materials from beginners to advanced levels, including Cornish vocabulary lists, video lessons and downloadable resources.

  2. Learning Cornish - Cornwall Council. A guide produced by Cornwall council.

  3. Kowethas an yeth Kernewek. The Cornish Language Fellowship sells a great range of Cornish language books, as well as holding events such as the Cornish Language weekend.

  4. Kresen Kernow, has a Cornish Studies Library which offers an extensive collection of Cornish language and literature for all ages. As the county archive, they hold documents written by and about Cornwall in any language. It’s a reference library, but visitors can read comfortably on-site. The archive houses over 1.5 million original documents, accessible by appointment. Parts of the website are written in Cornish for language learners. They also host Cornish language sessions, with monthly beginner sessions by Speak Cornish. Find more details here: Events – Kresen Kernow.

Learning the Cornish language not only allows you to explore a unique cultural facet of Cornwall but also connects you with a community of speakers and enthusiasts. As you progress, you’ll find that speaking Cornish opens up new ways to experience and participate in the local culture and traditions.

Cornish language

Cornish Place Names

Cornish place names offer a fascinating glimpse into the language and culture of the region. These names are not only geographical markers but also narrate the history and characteristics of the places they denote. As the language spoken by the Cornish people, Kernowek has heavily influenced the naming conventions across Cornwall, embedding the landscape with linguistic heritage.

Common Cornish Place Names and Their Meanings

Here’s a list of common Cornish names for places, which offer a window into the language of Cornwall:

  • Porth: Meaning 'port' or 'gateway,' this is a common element in coastal town names, indicating a place of maritime significance.

  • Perran: Often associated with Saint Piran, the patron saint of tin miners, found in names like Perranporth.

  • Pen: Meaning 'head' or 'top,' used to denote a hill or headland, such as in Penzance.

  • Tre: A widespread prefix meaning 'settlement,' found in places like Trebetherick and Tregony, indicating areas of early habitation.

  • Pol: Meaning 'pool' or 'pond,' used in names such as Polperro, suggesting a place with water features.

  • Lan: Meaning 'sacred enclosure,' which can often be seen in names indicating early Christian sites, such as Lanteglos.

  • Bod: Possibly derived from 'dwelling,' and can be seen in names like Bodmin, suggesting a settled area.

  • Car: Meaning 'fort,' found in names like Carbis Bay, indicating historical defensive sites.

Cornish language

The Future of The Cornish Language

The future of the Cornish language is uncertain. The language is still in decline, and it is not spoken by a large number of Cornish people or others. However, there is a growing movement to revive the language, and there are a number of initiatives underway to promote its use.

After the UK government's 2002 recognition of Cornish under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the council started financing bilingual signs. Cornish was officially taken off Unesco’s ‘extinct’ languages list in 2010.

Cornish is now taught in some Cornish primary schools and there is a revival in interest of people requesting Cornish translation for jewellery engraving.

Cornish language

In 2022 Welsh singer Gwenno, who’s father is a Cornish poet, was nominated for a Mercury Prize for her third album ,Tresor, an album sung almost entirely in Cornish.

British rapper Little Simz eventually took home the prize, but with only 12 acts nominated, including Harry Styles, it was a great achievement, and shows the progress that the Cornish language is making.

In a 2018 interview with Holly Williams of the BBC, Gwenno suggests that Cornish is also a reminder that the notion of ‘Britishness’ is less stable than we might think; it is a reminder of how we’ve always been subject to migration and movement of people.

Cornish language

FAQs: Cornish Language

Why is it important to keep the Cornish language alive? 

Preserving Cornish is crucial for maintaining Cornwall's cultural identity and heritage. It also enriches the local community by connecting people with their history and each other, boosting tourism and educational opportunities.

Where to Find Cornish Literature?

Exploring Cornish literature is a wonderful way to deepen your understanding of Cornwall’s language, history, and culture. Whether you’re a new learner or a seasoned speaker, several resources make Cornish literary works accessible:

  • Local Libraries and Archives: Many libraries in Cornwall have sections dedicated to local authors and histories, including works in Cornish.

  • University Collections: Universities with strong Celtic studies programs, such as the University of Exeter, often house extensive collections of Cornish literature in their libraries. These collections include rare manuscripts and publications detailing the linguistic and cultural aspects of Cornwall.

  • Online Resources: Websites like the Cornish Language Partnership and Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek provide access to a variety of texts ranging from medieval poetry to modern Cornish. These platforms also offer e-books and learning materials.

  • Bookshops and Cultural Centres: Independent bookshops in Cornwall and cultural centres often stock a range of Cornish books or can order specific titles upon request. Events like book fairs and cultural festivals are also great places to find literature in Cornish.

  • Academic Publications: Journals and academic publications frequently feature articles and research focused on Cornish literature. These are excellent for those interested in the academic study of Cornish language and literary styles.

How many people speak Cornish fluently today? 

While exact Cornish speaker numbers are hard to come by, estimates suggest a few hundred fluent speakers, with several thousand more possessing some knowledge of the language.

Can learning Cornish offer any professional advantages? 

Knowledge of Cornish can enhance careers in education, heritage, and tourism sectors in Cornwall, offering unique opportunities within these industries.

What are some common challenges Cornish learners face? 

The limited number of fluent speakers makes practice difficult, and the phonetic system can be challenging for newcomers.

How is Sennen Jewellery involved in the promotion of the Cornish language? 

At Sennen Jewellery, we take pride in our efforts to preserve and promote the Cornish language as an integral part of Cornwall’s cultural heritage. A special feature we offer is the ability to use the Cornish language in engravings, exclusively for custom commissions. This allows our customers to personalize their jewellery with unique messages translated into Kernowek.

We collaborate with top linguistic experts to ensure that these translations are not only accurate but also resonate with the emotional and cultural significance intended by our clients. This bespoke service celebrates Kernowek, making each piece of jewellery a personal and cultural statement.

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