Cornish is one of the oldest languages in Britain, originating from the Celtic language which arrived around 600BC. This language gradually evolved into Brittonic (or Brythonic), which developed into Welsh, Cornish and Breton. It was once spoken throughout Cornwall, and has a long and fascinating history.
The History of The Cornish Language
The words "Cornwall" and "Cornish" come from the Celtic Cornovii tribe, which lived in what is now Cornwall before being conquered by the Romans. The Celts were driven further westward by the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. It was the arrival of Celtic Christian missionaries from Ireland and Wales in the fifth and sixth century that has shaped the Cornish culture today, the most famous one being Saint Piran.
The West Saxons and Cornish often clashed violently. This carried on until King Athelstan of England officially established the River Tamar as the division between the two areas in 936. This effectively made Cornwall one of the last refuges of the Britons and aided in the growth of a distinctive Cornish identity.
During the Middle Ages the Cornish were seen as a separate race or nation, with their own language and customs. The area even had a separate government institution, The Cornish Stannary Parliament (officially The Convocation of the Tinners of Cornwall).
The Decline of The Cornish Language
But during the reign of Henry V11 the mood in England was to centralise government. In 1497 King Henry increased the taxes on the Cornish to wage war on Scotland, a cause that the Cornish did not support. He also suspended the privileges of Stannary Law and issued new tin mining regulations.
The Cornish rebellion, 1497
The Cornish rebellion of 1497 (Cornish: Rebellyans Kernow), also known as the First Cornish rebellion, was a popular uprising in the Kingdom of England, which began in Cornwall and culminated with a battle between 15,000 Cornish men and the King's forces. The men were not trained soldiers, and had marched from the Lizard, Cornwall gathering support through the South West on their way. They were easily defeated by the King’s forces, however, the King restored the Stannary privileges and stopped the tax demands as he perhaps realised he had underestimated the strength of feeling in Cornwall.
The Prayer Book Rebellion, 1549
In 1549 the The Act of Uniformity outlawed all languages except English from Church services, and this was closely followed by the Prayer Book Rebellion. In Fenny Bridges, close to Honiton, more than 4,000 protesters from the South West of England were slaughtered by King Edward VI's soldiers. One of the main causes of the decline of the Cornish language as the language of the Cornish people is thought to be the encroachment of English into their religious practises.
During the 17th Century, the use of the Cornish language declined until there were only a few thousand speakers in the far West of Cornwall.
The Revival of The Cornish Language
In the 20th century, there was a revival of interest in the Cornish language. This was due to a number of factors, including the rise of the Celtic revival, the Cornish independence movement, and the work of linguists and activists.
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 people. 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 It was 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. Sennen Jewellery works closely with local language experts to translate meaningful phrases to be engraved in Cornish for custom commissions.
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 is an important part of Cornish culture. It is the language of the Cornish people, and it is closely linked to Cornish history and traditions. There are a number of resources available online for learning Cornish; here are three of our top picks: