Kernowek or Kernewek


From Origin to Revival

Charles Penglase 1999

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Like all the other Celtic nations, the Cornish people have their own language. It is called an Kernowek (or kernewek), in the spelling of the modern Cornish in the Homilies of Tregear, or 'Cornish' in the English tongue. This language of Cornwall, or rather, of Kernow as Cornwall is called in Cornish, has a long history in Britain, from before the arrival of the Romans to the present day. It is an interesting history which has much in common with the histories of other Celtic languages, and it is even more important now that the language is being revived and spoken again in Cornwall.

Cornish is one of the six Celtic languages. In Celtic times it was the language of the Celtic tribes who lived in southern Britain. The language belongs to one of the two branches of the Celtic tongue in the British Isles and Brittany in northwestern France. The two branches are Goidelic, which is composed of Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx, and Brythonic, composed of Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Cornish has many similarities to Welsh but it is especially close to Breton. It is likely that the British language from which Cornish and Breton are derived was a dialect different from the one which Welsh came from. One linguistic indication of this is the 85% correlation between Breton and Cornish Celtic vocabulary while there is only a 65% correlation between Cornish and Welsh.1 However, all the Brythonic languages belong to the same branch of Celtic as the Gaulish dialects.2

The history of the Cornish area as a separate Celtic area begins in about 577AD. After the battle at Dyrham in 577 between the Celts and the invading Germanic tribes from Saxony and Anglia, the invaders overran most of what is today England and many Celts retreated to Devon and Cornwall in the south, Wales in the west, and in the north, Cumbria and northern Britain. Of course, large numbers of the numerically superior Celts must have stayed on their lands and in the Celtic settlements eventually to intermingle with the Saxons and Angles.3

This means that the modern English are necessarily a mixture of Celts and Anglo-Saxons as well as the later admixtures of Viking and Norman. Speakers of Cornish in Cornwall and the Welsh in Wales were henceforward cut off territorially from each other and any influence which they might have had on each other previously was discontinued from the time of this Celtic defeat.4

Much of the resultant Celtic refugee influx into Devon and Cornwall was relieved by emigration to what is today called Brittany in northwestern France. They joined the Gaulish Celtic tribes in this area and several of the areas of Brittany received names of the homelands of the British tribes.5 These people, now known as the Bretons, continued their close relationship with Cornwall, a relationship which persisted even after the annexation of Brittany by France in 1532.

There are four main Breton dialects which to varying degrees have much similarity to Cornish. The vast majority of Cornish words which are still extant are found in the Breton language. Although most of these have of course been somewhat altered by the processes of change in the two languages so that they differ in many respects, their common origin is immediately recognizable.

The Cornish land reached its modern size and shape, and the boundary of the British language in this area of Britain was set in the tenth century. In 936 Athelstan, the ruler of the powerful Saxon kingdom of Wessex drove the Cornish out of Exeter in Devon back to the Tamar River and the last king of the Cornish was killed. From this time the English administered Cornwall with Saxon earls appointed by the king of Wessex. Extensive contact with the English language began from this period.6 This event took place, of course, during the linguistic period which is called Old Cornish.

There are three linguistic periods of Cornish just as there are three periods in other European languages. They are called Old, Middle (or Medieval), and Modern. The Old period stretches up to about 1200. Middle, or Medieval, is placed approximately between 1200 and 1500, and Modern stretches from 1500 to the end of the traditional language in about 1800. It should be stressed that the term 'Modern' is a linguistic term and as such it means 'post Medieval'. It does not mean modern in the sense of 'contemporary twentieth century' or 'of the last few years', but it refers rather to the post-Medieval period stretching from the end of the Middle Ages to the present day; thus, any language found in this period is described as Modern.

Very little Cornish literature of the Old period remains. There are some glosses in the margins of Latin texts but the chief source for this period is the Cottonian Vocabulary or Vocabularium Cornicum. This consists of seven pages of nouns and some adjectives with Latin translations.

In 1066 William the Conqueror arrived in Britain and the Normans now became the overlords of the Cornish. They brought French with them, but oddly enough this language had little impact on Cornish besides the borrowing of words of vocabulary, chiefly polite terms, which forms a contrast with the comprehensive and lasting effects which it had on English.

Cornish continued to be spoken all over Cornwall in the following Medieval period and after it up to the latter half of the sixteenth century, a hundred years into the Modern period. In these four centuries Cornish exhibits the features of a strong, living language, the expression of a distinct people and culture.

In the Medieval period Cornish gentlemen took Cornish phrases for their coats of arms. Examples of some of these survive.7

The Earl of Godolphin's motto:
Frank ha leal etto ge - 'Behold you free and true.'

Carminow of Carminow's motto:
Cala rag whethlow - 'A straw for tales.'

Harris of Heyne's motto:8
Car Dew dres pub tra - 'Love God beyond everything.'

The literature of the Medieval period consists almost entirely of religious verse in dramas and a poem. There are three miracle plays, the Ordinalia trilogy consisting of 'The Beginning of the World', 'The Passion of Christ' and 'The Resurrection of Our Lord'. There is also a poem which is called the Passion or Mt Calvary poem and this consists of 259 stanzas each of eight lines. A couple of fragments completes the list.

The end of the Medieval period saw many changes. One of these was the increase of trade all over Europe and the effect on Cornwall was to bring the country increasingly under the sway of the economic power of England even though the country was still considered to be different from England. In this period it was usually known to the English as West Wales. The Modern period also saw the arrival of the Reformation and rule by the Tudors and together these events were to have a profound effect on the language.

The events of the Tudor period were, in fact, the cause of the eventual demise of the Cornish language. Although English had been exerting pressure on Cornish from the time of the loss of Cornish independence in the tenth century, the documents show that Cornish was holding its own quite well. If it had not been for the Tudor administration objecting to the Celtic peoples using their own languages, Cornish may even have survived until the present day as the traditional vernacular of Cornwall.

It has been pointed out by a number of scholars after their review of the historical documents and the events concerned, that Cornish did not die out by itself throughout Cornwall as a result of gradual decline, but was deliberately extinguished throughout most of the duchy in accordance with the policy of the English government of the period involved.9 As one writer, John Whitaker, heatedly avers as long ago as 1804:10

'English too was not desired by the Cornish ... but as the
case shews itself plainly to be, was forced upon Cornwall
by the tyranny of England, at a time when the English
language was yet unknown in Cornwall.'

While the historical sources indicate that the demise of Cornish throughout most of Cornwall was brought about by the deliberate policy of introducing English into Cornwall, Whitaker's appraisal presents only half the picture. It is important to put the situation in its historical context.

The period involved was not only the time of the Reformation, it was more specifically the time of the Counter-Reformation when England was in peril, in particular from Catholic Spain and France. It can be seen that the policy which led to the demise of Cornish throughout the majority of the duchy resulted from the exigencies of the period: the necessity of preserving England against threatened invasion over a period of several decades culminating in the Armada of 1588 which was very nearly successful.

The possibility of the enemy's using the Celtic countries against England takes little imagination to perceive, and this was clearly the reason for the negative policies directed at both Wales and Cornwall during this period. The tendency of the Cornish, in particular, to hold to Catholicism and to resist the manoeuvres of the government, inevitably led in the circumstances to a desire of those in political power to extinguish the cause: the Cornish difference from England, in which the language naturally played a large role. It is noticeable that after the danger was over and Cornish was still spoken in the western part of the duchy, there was no move to complete the swift annihilation of the language which had been begun.

The survival of Cornish throughout all of Cornwall until the enforced loss of the language can be seen in various historical texts. These make it clear that Cornish was still spoken throughout all or most of Cornwall including the eastern region until it suddenly ceased to be spoken in the greater part of the duchy toward the end of the sixteenth century. They also make clear that the nature of the cause of this sudden demise was the political and religious climate which directed the policy of England towards Cornwall and Wales throughout most of the sixteenth century.

In an English text of about 1610, it can be seen that Cornish was spoken throughout most of Cornwall until the second half of the sixteenth century.11 In this, it was stated that the Cornish had only recently begun to use English: 'of late the Cornishe men haue muche conformed themselves to the vse of the Englyshe tongue.'

John Norden, the author, is not referring to the western area because he goes on to state that Cornish was still chiefly used in the west, in Penwith and Kerrier. The other parts, the centre and east of Cornwall, are clearly being referred to, and the assumption appears to be that until shortly before the time of writing the Cornish were speaking their language throughout all of Cornwall.

The policy that led to this sudden relinquishment of Cornish is clear in the texts. In the parliamentary bill, the Annexation of Wales (1536), it was indicated that the intention was to 'extirpe', or eradicate, the customs of Wales which were not in conformity with those of England, one of these being the Welsh language, which was also referred to in the document.

Certain documents of 1538 and 1540 reveal that the same intention was held towards Cornish.12 In these documents, it can be seen that the policy of teaching English in the churches, the centre of the society of the day, was being implemented in Cornwall even before the imposition of the English Prayer Book in 1549, and the persistence of Cornish throughout Cornwall in the early sixteenth century is also apparent.

In 1538, the Cornish language was still used in churches despite the apparent policy that English must be spoken in church, a policy which is also indicated here. The source reveals that John Veysey, bishop of Exeter, ordered that various central parts of the gospel should be taught in Cornish where English was not spoken.

This does not mean that English was spoken in many places in Cornwall, although it was known by many people as Andrew Borde points out in his book of 1547,13 but rather that Bishop Veysey was tempering the prevailing policy as far as he was able. Living testimony to the lack of acceptance of English and the persistence of Cornish in this period is also the homilies of Tregear.

Two years later in 1540, 'Dr John Moreman, a native of Southole and vicar of Menheniot, was the first who taught his parishioners the Lord's prayer, Creed and the Ten Commandmants in the English tongue'.14

This does not mean that English was the first language in Menheniot at this time, but quite the reverse. It means that the parishioners' vernacular was Cornish and that the instruction in English was in line with the policy revealed in the Act of Annexation four years before, the replacement of the Celtic languages with English.

Items such as the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments were merely the simplest and most natural place to start teaching the language. Menheniot is quite near the border with England, a fact which demonstrates that the Cornish language was spoken as the first language over the vast majority of Cornwall and not just in the west.

In view of Bishop Veysey's order two years before Dr Moreman's activities, it is clear that the language that was being replaced in the church was Cornish, not Latin, because these items are central parts of the gospel. Far more important, however, is the fact that in the sixteenth century in English parish churches, and especially in churches in rural villages the size of Menheniot, the service was in English.15

As can be seen even from the text of Tregear translated into the Cornish vernacular, when Latin was used for any particular reason, it was always translated into Cornish so that if English was the vernacular of the people of Menheniot at this time there would have been no need for the vicar to start teaching the English version.

Accordingly then, this quotation also makes it clear in another way that Cornish was still being spoken over all, of virtually all, of Cornwall: if there had been areas, particularly large areas, in which English had been spoken in Cornwall at this time, Dr Moreman would clearly not have been the first to teach these parts of the gospel in English.

The policy evident in these sources was made law in 1549 with the passing of the Act of Uniformity in which it was decreed that English was to be used in all church services under the Crown, including those in Cornwall and Wales.16 This naturally led to the Cornish rebellion a few weeks later, revealing the depth of the resentment that was felt by the Cornish at the application of the policy of which the intention was to force them to give up their customs and learn English.17

However, as a result, the policy of English in the churches was implemented thoroughly, with the English Prayer Book playing a crucial role in the spread of English in Cornwall. In contrast, the Welsh fought a much more subtle and successful rearguard action by eventually translating the liturgy and the entire Bible into Welsh by 1588 so that Welsh people were not forced to learn English to participate in their religion.

In Cornwall, the Bible and the material of the liturgy were apparently not translated into Modern Cornish. This was no doubt directly the result of the armed insurrection and subsequent discouragement of such activities.

Whatever may have been the case, within two or three generations, by approximately the end of the century, Cornish had disappeared from most of the duchy and was spoken only in the west beyond Truro as John Norden makes clear.18 Similarly, in 1602 Carew states that Cornish had been driven into the extremities of Cornwall and that 'Most of the inhabitants can speak no word of Cornish; but very few are ignorant of the English'.19

It seems, however, that the Cornish people in these years were still resentful of the treatment handed out to them, because, as Carew mentions, many who knew Cornish would not speak to strangers who addressed them in English, but would respond with the words, meea navidna cowzasawsneck.20

Carew, an Englishman who did not know Cornish, thought that it meant 'I can speak no Saxonage' (that is, English), but the sentence says more than that, that the speakers wanted to have nothing to do with the English language and, by inference, those who spoke it. It is emphatic and means, 'I am definitely not going to speak English!' John Norden mentions hearing similar sentiments.

Cornish continued to be spoken by the general populace in the west of Cornwall. Thirty years after Norden wrote, in the time of the civil war in 1644, Richard Symonds, an Englishman from Essex who had joined the royalist army, wrote that west beyond Truro the Cornish language was spoken.21 The form of the language which survived in this part of Cornwall was the dialect which is revealed in the sources of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

As early as 1600 people could see that the language was on the way to becoming extinct, and it is no surprise to find Nicholas Boson in about 1690 warning that if nothing were done for the language it would completely decay and soon cease to exist. He mentions that it was still spoken around parts of the west of Cornwall.

Cornish was preserved from Land's End to St Michael's Mount, from beyond the Lizard to Helston and towards Falmouth, and from Land's End towards St Ives and Redruth. He points out, however, that there was more English spoken than Cornish, and that some hardly understood any Cornish at all while virtually everyone who spoke Cornish also spoke English.22

In the commentary of Edward Lhuyd, a Welsh scholar from Oxford University who visited Cornwall in 1700 to study the language, Boson's assessment of the Cornish speaking areas is confirmed, although in the ten years after Boson wrote it is clear that the language area had shrunk further.23

In this period, at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth, an effort was made by a number of Cornishmen concerned about the demise of their language to try to record some of the language while it still existed. They contributed such things as poems, letters, sentences in Cornish, short prose documents, translations of parts of the Bible, the Creed, lists of vocabulary, mottos and so forth.

The quality of the Cornish is in general quite good although it is clear that a number of the authors were uncertain how to spell what they spoke. In a few cases the decay of what was now essentially only a colloquial language is patently evident.

To these sources can be added the other sources for the Modern period: the saint play, Beunans Meriasek of (1504), Borde's jottings in The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge published in 1547; Tregear's Homilies (post 1555); William Jordan's miracle play, The Creation of the World (1611); and the excellent short story Chei a Horr, (c. 1660). Edward Lhuyd's Archaeologia Britannica (1707), which presented various aspects of grammar and much vocabulary, may also be added to this list.

The language refused however to die. It is clear that in the 1730s and 1740s many people in the areas where it lingered in this last period knew how to speak it and to speak it fluently as an everyday language. William Bodinar, who died in 1789 reports that as a boy he learned Cornish when going to sea on the fishing boats. He mentions that scarcely a word of English was heard when the boats were at sea for as long as a week at a time.

However, by the latter part of the century Cornish speakers were seen as novelties. Dolly Pentreath of Mousehole near Penzance who died in 1777 was hailed a little earlier by Daines Barrington as the last surviving Cornish speaker although this was obviously incorrect as Daines Barrington was to point out in a later article.24 In addition William Bodinar, who died in 1789, seems to have known Cornish well and he also mentions in his letter to Daines Barrington of 1776 that several other people in Mousehole knew Cornish, too.

In 1790 an important source for Cornish was published. William Pryce produced his Archaeologia Cornu-Britannica using materials of several of the Cornishmen who recorded the language in the early eighteenth century.25 He presents examples of conversational Cornish, some poetry and prose and various assorted Cornish sentences as well as a large vocabulary. The only shadow cast on the book was the omission of the author to acknowledge his sources.

The language may even have lingered on into the late nineteenth century, known by a few and increasingly scrappily, although the evidence for this is not conclusive. For example, a certain Mr Therris, a retired policeman, reported in 1935 that when he was a youth in about 1875 he used to go to sea fishing with some Newlyn fishermen who were in the habit of speaking Cornish while on the boat and held conversations which lasted up to ten minutes at a time.26

Again, a certain John Davy junior, who died in 1891 may have known some Cornish. He left an almost indecipherable piece of Cornish verse as support for his claims. Perhaps the very last Cornish ever spoken traditionally was the sentence shouted by the foreman supervising the launching of boats at St Ives in the 1920s. He shouted Hunchi boree which means 'Heave away now!'27

However, the language lived on in its literature and at the turn of the century a group of Cornish enthusiasts formed a society to promote a movement to revive the language. In 1904 Henry Jenner's brief introduction to Cornish, A Handbook of the Cornish Language, was published and it formed the basis of the movement for some time.28 More work was done from 1909 when Henry Jenner and Robert Morton Nance devoted themselves to researching the language.

The revival movement underwent a change of direction in the twenties and thirties when Nance set about focusing on Middle or Medieval Cornish as the basis of the revived language. This version of the language received its name of Unified Cornish from its 'unified' spelling system. Other persons such as ASD Smith, an Englishman from Sussex, worked with Nance on the language during the thirties and after the Second World War. This Cornish became the basis of the revival movement and many people were attracted to learning the language.

Due to some perceived difficulties with this version of the language, some revisions were carried out in the 1980s based on the views of certain enthusiasts in the language. Changes were made chiefly to the sound system and in the spelling of Unified Cornish, so that a new spelling system was put in place.

This version of the language was at first called Phonemic Cornish, not a particularly attractive name, so it is now usually called Common Cornish. Many people prominent in the revival movement of the day took up this version while others continued to hold to Unified Cornish. Just to keep up with the times, some supporters of Unified have taken to calling their version Standard Cornish. In 1997, various proposals were put forward with the purpose of enhancing the Unified version.

On another front, in the 1980s one group of people decided to abandon Nance's Cornish due to its difficulties, and set about reviving Cornish of the modern period, specifically Cornish as it was last spoken. This is the language preserved in the documents of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It is specifically the dialect of Penwith and Kerrier, in the west of Cornwall. This version is variously known as Modern Cornish, Late Cornish, or even ungrammatically, as Kernuack, 'Cornish'.

At present then, the language revival movement offers a choice of directions. However, much has been achieved in the revival of the language, which is once again a living part of the Cornish culture. It is above all a significant achievement that now Cornish people, and whoever may be interested in the Cornish people and their language, can, if they wish, obtain with relative ease some knowledge of the language which was spoken throughout Cornwall until not so long ago, a language which is part of the Cornish people's age-old Celtic heritage.


1 Cf. Patrick Galliou and Michael Jones, The Bretons, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991, p.129.

2 Jan Filip, Celtic Civilization and Its Heritage, 2nd ed., Collet's Wellingborough, and Academia, Prague, 1977, p. 81.

3 Nora Chadwick, ed., Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1964, p.1

4 Henri Hubert, The Greatness and Decline of the Celts, Benjamin Blom, NY, 1972, (first published 1934, London), p.166.

5 Cf. Patrick Galliou and Michael Jones, op. cit., p.134; Nora Chadwick, The Celts, Penguin Books, London, 1971, pp.81-82; Hubert, op. cit., p.167.

6 P. Beresford Ellis, The Cornish Language and its Literature, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1974, p. 30.

7 William Pryce, Archaeologia Cornu-Britannica, Sherborne, 1970, section on 'Proverbs, Rhimes, &c'.

8 Oliver J. Padel, The Cornish Writings of the Boson Family, Institute of Cornish Studies, Redruth, 1975, p.35 n.6.

9 John Whitaker, Ancient Cathedral of Cornwall, (quoted in) P. Berresford Ellis, The Story of the Cornish Language, 2nd ed., Tor Mark Press, Penryn, 1990, p.13; Fred W.P. Jago, The Ancient Language and the Dialect of Cornwall, AMS Press, NY, 1983, (originally published 1882, Netherton and Worth, Truro), pp.4ff.

10 John Whitaker, op. cit., quoted in Ellis, The Story of the Cornish Language, p.13.

11 John Norden, Speculum Magnae Britanniae pars Cornwall, circa 1610; Martyn F. Wakelin, Language and History in Cornwall, Leicester University Press, Leicester, 1975, pp.90-91; P. Berresford Ellis, The Cornish Language and Its Literature, p.73.

12 R. Polwhele, The History of Cornwall, 7 vols, London, 1816, quoted in Ellis, The Cornish Language ... , p.60; P. Berresford Ellis also takes these documents into account, The Cornish Language ... pp.44, 61; on the Act of Annexation, p.61. For various views on the decline of Celtic languages in general and on the Act of Annexation of Wales, see D.B. Gregor, Celtic, Oleander Press, Cambridge UK and New York, 1980, pp.273-345, especially, 337.

13 Andrew Borde, The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge, BL C.71.b.29; W.B. Lockwood, The Languages of the British Isles Past and Present, Andre Deutsch, London, 1975, p.53; Ellis, The Cornish Language ... , p.59.

14 Polwhele, The History of Cornwall, op. cit., quoted Ellis, The Cornish Language ..., p.60. This concurs with Jago, p.4, citing 'the History of Cornwall compiled by Hitchins, and edited by Samuel Drew, in 1824'. The Cornish language is the subject of the context. The view in the sources of the eighteenth century was that Cornish was spoken throughout Cornwall until the time of the implementation of the particular policy mentioned here. This view seems not to have appealed to the revisionists of the twentieth century.

15 Basil Cottle, The Triumph of English 1350-1400, Blandford Press, London, 1969, pp.16-17. The average person was confined to English.

16 For date, see Ellis, The Cornish Language ..., p.61.

17 Cf. Myrna Combellack Harris in 'A Critical Edition of Beunans Meriasek', unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Exeter, 1985, p.10.

18 John Norden, Speculum Magnae Britanniae pars Cornwall, circa 1610.

19 R. Carew, The Survey of Cornwall, 1602, BL 291.e.3; F.E. Halliday, ed., Richard Carew of Anthony: The Survey of Cornwall &c., Andrew Melrose, London, 1953, p.127.

20 Carew: Halliday, p.127.

21 Wakelin, pp.90-91; Ellis, The Cornish Language ..., p.74.

21 Wakelin, op. cit., p.91; Ellis, op. cit., p.78.

22 Padel, op. cit., pp.25, 35-36.

23 Edward Lhuyd, Archaeologia Britannica, 1707, reprint Irish University Press, Shannon, Ireland, 1971, p.253.

24 Ellis, The Cornish Language ... , p.120.

25 See note 7.

26 Richard Gendall, 1000 Years of Cornish, Teere ha Tavaz, Menheniot, 1993, p.10.

27 Ibid.

28 Henry Jenner, A Handbook of the Cornish Language, Nutt, London, 1904.

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