Ertach Kernow - Kernewek, the Celtic language of Cornwall

A vintage Cornish language postcard

Kernewek the Cornish language is the focus of 'Speak Cornish Week' a weeklong festival running between Monday 24th June and Sunday 30th June with numerous activities taking place including Cornish language taster sessions, Yeth an Werin (Cornish conversation) and other events, including online.

Kernewek, Cornwall’s unique language is no doubt the most important of all Cornish intangible cultural treasures. It is what makes the Cornish people a nation supported by our own history, traditions, music, dance and wider heritage. Although many people especially beyond Cornwall’s borders may scoff at the term nation being applied to the Cornish people the acclaimed National Geographic Society provides the following definition. ‘The word “nation” can also refer to a group of people who share a history, traditions, culture and, often, language—even if the group does not have a political territory of its own. People within this type of nation share a common identity and think of themselves as belonging to the same group.’ The Cornish people of course know there’s a Kernow/England border, set by King Æthelstan in 936, along the eastern bank of the River Tamar. Cornish folk’s consciousness of ‘nationhood’ declined from the 16th century Tudor period through to the early 20th century when the resurgence began, led by the revival of Kernewek. Great things happened during the 20th century with a growth of interest in Cornish heritage and the creation of organisations preserving and promoting Cornwall’s culture. The earliest groups included Celtic Congress Cornwall, Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, Gorsedh Kernow and later many others each focused on their own particular aspect of Cornish heritage.

Page one of Vocabularium Cornicum, a 12th-century Latin-Cornish glossary

As always click the images for larger view

Large range of books online at Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek shop

The 21st century provided further impetus to Cornish nationhood with Kernewek being recognised by the United Kingdom government in 2002 under Part II of the Council of Europe's Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. International momentum was applied on 8th December 2010 when UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) reversed an earlier 2009 classification of Kernewek as being extinct and the Cornish language was reclassified as an endangered. In February 2022 the online interactive World Atlas of Languages was launched by UNESCO marking the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, running through to 2032. Although Kernewek is still classified as endangered there is no doubt that great strides have been made to increase numbers of people able to speak it fluently. Besides fluent speakers there are those with some degree of conversation and students learning the language. Many schools now teach Kernewek at junior level providing a sound base for the future although much more needs to be done to carry this forward to young adults. The Go Cornish project run by Goldentree Productions has been instrumental in this and also runs a very useful website.

Today’s Celtic languages originated from proto-Celtic, often referred to as common Celtic, during the Bronze Age, a branch of the Indo-European language group. This was not a recorded language but has been reconstructed through the science of historical linguistics and thought to have begun to diverge by the Iron Age. Academics believe that prior to the Roman invasion of Britain the population of the island would have spoken early forms of the Brythonic Celtic language and included what is often known as Pictish across what we now know as Scotland. Pictish was subjugated by the Irish Goidelic Celtic language becoming Scottish Gaelic following invasion from Ireland by the Scotti. No doubt like today there would have been various dialects and difference in speech, but largely understandable throughout Britain. Following the end of Roman rule in the early 5th century invasion by Germanic and Danish forces of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians pushed the culture of the Celtic people to the far west of Britain. This led ultimately to the Celtic languages being spoken only in Wales, Cornwall and until the 13th century Cumbria. Once the Welsh and Cornish populations were divided their languages evolved separately with a period between 800 and 1200 becoming known as ‘Old Cornish’, also being spoken in Devon prior to inclusion within the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. ‘Old Cornish’ was then shared with Brittany as emigrees from Britain fled to what was then known as Amorica beginning the Breton language of Brittany.

William Scawen’s 1688 ‘Antiquities Cornubritannic’, which features Cornish translations
Statue of Edward Lhuyd at University of Wales, Aberystwyth

Between about 1200 to 1600 the language period known as Middle Cornish flourished during which literature, including the miracle plays the Ordinalia were produced. These were later used in the Cornish language revival process. From around 1600 to the late 18th century the Cornish language was in decline evolving into what is known as ‘Late Cornish’. During this period a number of scholars realising the demise of the Cornish language was imminent carried out much recording and translating of documents. This included the work of Edward Lhuyd whose work on comparative linguistics is now highly regarded. It was he who first used the term Celtic as part of the identification of what we now call the ‘Celtic languages’ splitting them into the two branches of Brythonic (P) and Goidelic (Q) Celtic languages. Archaeologia Britannica written by Lhuyd and published in 1707 included much information about the Cornish language collected during his visit between 1700 and 1701. Furthermore his unpublished field notebook are important sources of Cornish vocabulary, some not found elsewhere.

During modern times use of the Cornish language in pronunciation and spelling has evolved over the past hundred years since Henry Jenner began the push to have the language and Cornwall accepted by the Pan-Celtic Congress in 1904. ‘A Handbook of the Cornish Language’ was published by Jenner in 1904, the spelling based on the language from the late 18th century. Robert Morton Nance published his ‘Cornish for All’ in 1929 and this was based on what Nance considered a golden age for Cornish literature of the 14th and 15th centuries. He also produced a dictionary in 1938 and utilised both Welsh and Breton languages in his Unified Cornish. Further changes and standardisation of writing the Cornish language took place from 1986 following growing dissatisfaction with Unified Cornish. Dr Ken George reconstructed the sounds of Cornish around 1500 and adjusted spelling to make the language easier to learn. This form became known as Kernewek Kemmyn or Common Cornish.

Henry Jenner inspired to revive the Cornish language and identity
A Learners Cornish Dictionary
Bora Bora

In 2006 Professor Philip Payton wrote a lengthy article in Cornish Studies No’ 14 explaining ‘Users of Unified Cornish and Unified Cornish Revised base their spelling on the Tudor period and the mid-sixteenth century. The Common Cornish school prefers a somewhat earlier period for its ideal pronunciation, around 1500, but in the process discards the historical spelling of Cornish. Finally, Modern Cornish enthusiasts aim to speak and write the Cornish of the later seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries, three generations or so before its eventual demise as a community language in the fishing ports of Penwith. A century and more of language revivalism has thus failed to produce a standard Cornish. However, following continued debate the good and great of the Cornish language community convened forming the ‘Cornish Language Partnership’ and in 2008 agreed to what is known as ‘Standard Written Form’. This an orthography (writing system) standard designed to ‘provide public bodies and educational system with a universally acceptable, inclusive, and neutral orthography’. Dissolved in 2015 this is now overseen by Cornwall Council through the Cornish Language Office and Akademi Kernewek. for any continuing and future development of the Standard Written Form the Akademi Kernewek now has the remit with a third update published in 2021. This helped reduce spelling difference between the language forms. Standard Written Form  was accepted by Gorsedh Kernow in 2009.

The explosion of interest and activities in the Cornish language over the past decade has seen initiatives in promoting the use of Kernewek from Cornwall Council level right down to individuals at grass root level. Today and looking to the future there are a number of organisations, besides the many smaller groups and individuals teaching and sharing information about the Cornish language. Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek, the Cornish Language Fellowship began life in 1979 and today is the organisation behind ‘Speak Cornish Week’. Besides events including the Cornish language weekends, sale of books, regular Cornish magazine ‘An Gannas’ and newsletter ‘Klew’ they now run a new YouTube channel and are out and about organising Kernewek lessons and bookstalls at important Cornish events. This year following closure issues at Heartlands, the planned venue for the 2024 annual language weekend, Cornwall Council happily stepped in and offered facilities at Lys Kernow in Truro. ‘Kesva an Taves Kernewek’, The Cornish Language Board founded in 1967 by Gorsedh Kernow and Federation of Old Cornwall Societies providing a reliable source for all aspects of the revival of the language. Besides providing educational material, reference books and course books The Kesva organises teaching and conducts examinations in Kernewek. ‘Agan Tavas’ was originally set up in 1987 to encourage the growth of Cornish as a spoken language. Following the acceptance of Common Cornish Agan Tavas reconstituted itself to promote the more historic forms, through Unified Cornish although fully accepting of ‘Standard Written Form’ within the bounds of education and public life.

Speak Cornish Week

Cornish place names in Kernewek are an important part of our language heritage and we are reintroducing this project on a weekly basis. Posters and audio files for schools, colleges groups and individuals to use are being updated and republished on our website. Week One looks at Bodmin Moor and hopefully will encourage greater use of Bronn Wenneli rather than the deplorable Anglicised name. These have QR codes so can also be scanned and opened on mobile devices.

Useful website links relating to Cornish heritage groups mentioned in this article

CPN - Bodmin Moor Poster

Click the Cornish Place Names poster to link to the page with the pdf and audio links

Kernewek the Celtic language of Cornwall
Ertach Kernow - Kernewek the Celtic language of Cornwall
Ertach Kernow Heritage Column 19th June 2024 – Cornwall Folk Youth, Storytelling, CHT Gardens
Ertach Kernow shared in VOICE, Cornish Times, Cornish & Devon Post newspapers
Ertach Kernow shared in VOICE, Cornish Times, Cornish & Devon Post newspapers