In the 20th century a conscious effort was made to revive Cornish as a language for everyday use in speech and writing (see below for further details about the dialects of modern Cornish).
The study by Kenneth MacKinnon in 2000 suggested that there were then about 300 people who spoke Cornish fluently, i.e., were able to talk at ordinary speed on everyday matters. The Cornish Language Strategy project is in 2007 commissioning research to provide quantitative and qualitative evidence for the number of Cornish speakers. Due to the success of the revival project it is estimated that 2000 people are fluent as of spring 2008. A few people under the age of 30 have been brought up to be bilingual in Cornish and English.
Cornish exists in place names, and a knowledge of the language helps the understanding of old place names. Many Cornish names are adopted for children, pets, houses and boats. There is now an increasing amount of Cornish literature, in which poetry is the most important genre, particularly in oral form or as song or as traditional Cornish chants historically performed in marketplaces during religious holidays, public festivals and gatherings, and executions.
Cornwall County Council has, as policy, a commitment to support the language, and recently passed a motion supporting its being specified within the European charter for regional or minority languages.
There are regular periodicals solely in the language such as the monthly An Gannas, An Gowsva, and An Garrick. BBC Radio Cornwall and Pirate FM have regular news broadcasts in Cornish, and sometimes have other programmes and features for learners and enthusiasts. Local newspapers such as the The Western Morning News regularly have articles in Cornish, and newspapers such as The Packet, The West Briton and The Cornishman also support the movement.
The language has financial sponsorship from many sources, including the Millennium Commission. A number of language organisations exist in Cornwall including (in alphabetical order) Agan Tavas (Our Language), the Cornish sub-group of the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, Gorseth Kernow, Kesva an Taves Kernewek (the Cornish Language Board), Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (the Cornish Language Fellowship), and Teere ha Tavas (Land and Language). One organisation, Dalleth, promoted the language to pre-school children. There are many popular ceremonies, some ancient, some modern, which use the language or are entirely in the language. The language has been officially recognised as one of the historical regional and minority languages in Europe. (see European recognition below)
On 5 November 2002, in answer to a Parliamentary Question, Local Government and Regions Minister Nick Raynsford said:
After careful consideration and with the help of the results of an independent academic study on the language commissioned by the government, we have decided to recognise Cornish as falling under Part II of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The government will be registering this decision with the Council of Europe.
The purpose of the Charter is to protect and promote the historical regional or minority languages of Europe. It recognises that some of these languages are in danger of extinction and that protection and encouragement of them contributes to Europe's cultural diversity and historical traditions.
This is a positive step in acknowledging the symbolic importance the language has for Cornish identity and heritage.
Cornish will join Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Scots and Ulster Scots as protected and promoted languages under the Charter, which commits the government to recognise and respect those languages.
Officials will be starting discussions with Cornwall County Council and Cornish language organisations to ensure the views of Cornish speakers and people wanting to learn Cornish are taken into account in implementing the Charter.
The earliest written record of the Cornish language, dating from 525 AD, is a gloss in a Latin manuscript of De Consolatione Philosophiae by Boethius, which used the words ud rocashaas. The phrase means "it (the mind) hated the gloomy places".
In the reign of Henry VIII we have an account given by Andrew Borde in his Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge, written in 1542. He says, "In Cornwall is two speches, the one is naughty Englysshe, and the other is Cornysshe speche. And there be many men and women the which cannot speake one worde of Englysshe, but all Cornyshe."
At the time of the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549, which was a reaction to Parliament passing the first Act of Uniformity, people in many areas of Cornwall did not speak or understand English. (The intention of the Act was to replace worship in Latin with worship in English, which was known, by the lawmakers, not to be universally spoken throughout England. Instead of simply banning Latin, however, the Act was framed so as to enforce English.) In 1549, this imposition of a new language was sometimes a matter of life and death: over 4,000 people who protested against the imposition of an English Prayer book were massacred by the King's army. Their leaders were executed and the people suffered numerous reprisals.
The rebels' document claimed they wanted a return to the old religious services and ended 'We the Cornishmen (whereof certain of us understand no English) utterly refuse this new English'. (Altered spelling.) Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, replied to the Cornishmen, inquiring as to why they should be offended by services in English when they had them in Latin, which they also did not understand. Through many factors, including loss of life and the spread of English, the Prayer Book Rebellion proved a turning-point for the Cornish language. Indeed, some recent research has suggested that estimates of the Cornish speaking population prior to the rebellion may have been low, making the decline even more drastic.
By this time the language was already arguably in decline from its earlier heyday, and the situation worsened over the course of the next century. Richard Carew in his 1602 work - The survey of Cornwall, notices the almost total extirpation of the Cornish language in his days. He says; The principal love and knowledge of this language liveth in Dr. Kennall, the civilian, and with him lieth buried;
It is often claimed that the last native speaker of Cornish was the Mousehole resident Dolly Pentreath, who died in 1777. Notwithstanding her supposed last words, "Me ne vidn cewsel Sawznek!" ("I don't want to speak English!"), she spoke at least some English as well as Cornish. The last known monoglot Cornish speaker is believed to have been Chesten Marchant, who died in 1676 at Gwithian. It does, however, appear to be true that Dolly Pentreath spoke Cornish fluently and may have been one of the last to do so before the revival of the language in the 20th century. There is also, however, evidence that Cornish continued, albeit in limited usage by a handful of speakers, throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century. In 1875 six speakers all in their sixties were discovered ; some claim that John Davey from St Just who died in 1891 at Boswednack, Zennor should be considered the last traditional speaker. Others, however, dispute this, saying that Alison Treganning, who died in 1906 was the last traditional speaker. and by this time the revival was well underway. Fishermen were counting fish using a rhyme derived from Cornish into the 1940s . It has been suggested by Cornish linguist Richard Gendall that some dialects of English spoken in Cornwall (especially the dialect of West Penwith, where traditional Cornish was last spoken) display strong lexical and prosodic influences from the Cornish language that almost certainly go back several centuries.
"Primitive Cornish" existed between about 600 and 800 AD but nothing survives from this time. The "Old Cornish" period was between 800 and 1200 AD, for which there is a Cornish-Latin dictionary (the Vocabulum Cornicum) and various 10th century glosses in Latin manuscripts such as the Bodmin manumissions giving the Cornish names of freed slaves.
The "Middle Cornish" period between 1200 and 1578 has many sources of information, mostly religious texts. There are about 20,000 lines of text in total. Various plays were written by the canons of Glasney College intended to educate the Cornish people about the bible and the Celtic saints.
The "Late Cornish" period from 1578 to about 1800 has fewer sources of information on the language. In this period there was considerable input from the English language. In 1776 William Bodinar, who had learnt Cornish from fishermen, wrote a letter in Cornish which was probably the last prose in the language. However, the last verse was the Cranken Rhyme written down in the late 19th century.
Further information on traditional Cornish can be obtained from the place names of Cornwall. The place names have been analysed into elements for which meanings have been inferred.
Early Modern Cornish was the subject of a study published by Lhuyd in 1702, and differs from the medieval language in having a considerably simpler structure and grammar. Such differences included the wide use of certain modal affixes that, although out of use by Lhuyd's time, had a considerable effect on the word-order of medieval Cornish. The medieval language also possessed two additional tenses for expressing past events and an extended set of possessive suffixes. Edward Lhuyd theorises that the language of this time was heavily inflected, possessing not just the genitive, ablative and locative cases so common in Early Modern Cornish, but also dative and accusative cases, and even a vocative case, although historical references to this are rare.
John Whitaker the Manchester born rector of Ruan Lanihorne, studied the decline of the Cornish language. In his 1804 work the Ancient Cathedral of Cornwall he concluded that - "The English Liturgy, was not desired by the Cornish, but forced upon them by the tyranny of England, at a time when the English language was yet unknown in Cornwall. This act of tyranny was at once gross barbarity to the Cornish people, and a death blow to the Cornish language"
Robert Williams published the first comprehensive Cornish dictionary in 1865, the Lexicon Cornu-Britannicum. As a result of the discovery of additional ancient Cornish manuscripts, 2000 new words were added to the vocabulary by Whitely Stokes in A Cornish Glossary. William Borlase published Proverbs and Rhymes in Cornish in 1866 while A Glossary of Cornish Place Names was produced by John Bannister in the same year. Dr Fredrick Jago published his English-Cornish Dictionary in 1887.
The resulting system was called Unified Cornish or UC (Kernewek Uny[e]s, KU) and was based mainly on Middle Cornish (the language of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries — a high point for Cornish literature), with a standardised spelling and an extended vocabulary based largely on Breton and Welsh. A dictionary of Unified Cornish was published by Nance in the 1930s. For many years, this was the modern Cornish language, and many people still use it today.
Shortcomings in Unified Cornish had to do in part with the stiff and archaizing literary style Nance had employed, and in part with a realisation that Nance's phonology lacked some distinctions which must have existed in traditional Cornish. In the 1970s, Tim Saunders raised a number of issues of communicative efficiency, but his initiative had no influence and later developments are entirely independent.
In response to the orthographic mayhem, the Cornish Language Partnership has initiated a period of review. In 2007 an independent Cornish Language Commission consisting of sociolinguists and linguists from outside of Cornwall was formed to review the four existing forms (UC, RLC, KK, and UCR) and consider whether any of those could be suitable to be a Single Written Form for Cornish, or whether a new fifth form should be adopted. Two groups made proposals of compromise orthographies.
Cornwall has many other cultural events associated with the language, including the international Celtic film festival, hosted in St Ives in 1997, with the programme in Cornish, English and French. There have been many films, some televised, made entirely, or significantly, in the language. Some shops, such as Gwynn ha Du, in the town of Liskeard, sell books written in Cornish. Many companies use Cornish names. The overnight physician's service in Cornwall is now called Kernow Urgent Care. Cornish is taught in some schools; it was previously taught at degree level in the University of Wales, though the only existing courses in the language at University level are as part of a course in Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter, or as part of the distance-learning Welsh degree from the University of Wales, Lampeter. In March 2008, Benjamin Bruch started teaching the language as part of the Celtic Studies curriculum at the University of Vienna, Austria.
The Cornish language has been recognised as a minority language by the UK government under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This follows years of pressure by interest groups such as Mebyon Kernow and Kesva an Taves Kernewek.
A first complete edition of the New Testament in Cornish, Nicholas Williams' translation of the Testament Noweth agan Arluth ha Savyour Jesu Cryst, was published at Easter 2002 by Spyrys a Gernow (ISBN 0-9535975-4-7); it uses Unified Cornish Revised orthography. The translation was made from the Greek text, and incorporated John Tregear's existing translations with slight revisions.
In August 2004, Kesva an Taves Kernewek published another Cornish translation of the New Testament (ISBN 1-902917-33-2), translated by six Bards of Gorseth Kernow under the leadership of Keith Syed; it uses Kernewek Kemmyn orthography. It was launched in a ceremony in Truro Cathedral attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Celtic Congress and Celtic League are groups that advocate cooperation amongst the Celtic Nations in order to protect and promote Celtic languages and cultures, thus working in the interests of the Cornish language.
The English composer Peter Warlock, an enthusiast for the Celtic languages, wrote a Christmas carol in Cornish. Cornish electronic musician Richard D James has often used Cornish names for track titles, most notably on his DrukQs album.
|plosive||p b||t d||k g|
|fricative||f v||θ ð||s z||ʃ ʒ||x||h|
| Soft |
| Aspirate |
| Hard |
| Mixed |
|Third|| e, eve (masc.),|
It is also possible that a variety of Cornish was spoken in Devon as late as the 14th century: Then President of the Devonshire Association, Sir Henry Duke, said in 1922 that "various writers have made (assertions) of the continuance of British occupancy and of the British tongue in South and West Devon to a time well within the reigns of the Plantagenets. Risdon, for example, says that the Celtic tongue was spoken throughout the South Hams in Edward the First's time".
Some people from Devon have begun to learn a language based on Joseph Biddulph's booklet 'A handbook of Westcountry Brythonic' which attempts to recreate the hypothetical southwestern Brythonic tongue which would have been spoken in the southwestern peninsula in around 700AD. However these self-published booklets have been heavily criticised by other scholars.
|Cornish (UCR)||Cornish (KK)||Cornish (SWF)||Welsh||Breton||Irish||Scottish Gaelic||Manx||English|
|chayr, cadar||kador||kador, cador||cadair||kador||cathaoir||cathair||caair||chair|
|yn mes||yn-mes||yn-mes||allanfa||er-maez||amuigh / amach||a-muigh / a-mach||mooie / magh||outside|
|codha||koedha||kodha, codha||codwm, disgyn, syrthio, cwympo,||kouezhañ||titim||tuiteam||tuittym||(to) fall|
|gwues||gweus||gweus||gwefus||gweuz||béal/beol (plural beola/beolta)||bile||meill||lip|
|ryver, aber||aber||aber||aber||aber||inbhear||inbhir||inver||mouth (river), inlet, fjord|
|peren||perenn||peren||gellygen, peren||perenn||piorra||peur / piar||peear||pear|
|megy||megi||megi, megy||ysmygu||mogediñ||gal / tabac a chaitheamh||smocainn||smookal||(to) smoke|
|steren||sterenn||steren||seren||steredenn||réalt||reult / rialt||reealt||star|
|whybana||hwibana||hwibana, whibana||chwibanu||c'hwibanat||feadaíl||feadghal||feddanagh||(to) whistle|
|Myttin da||"good morning"|
|Dydh da||"good day"|
|Fatla genes?||"how are you?"|
|Yn poynt da, meur ras||"Well, thank you"|
|Py eur yw hi?||"What time is it?"|
|Ple'ma Rysrudh, mar pleg?||"Where is Redruth please?"|
|Yma Rysrudh ogas dhe Gambron, heb mar!||"Redruth is near Camborne, of course!"|