Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education


This post, focussing on the Cornish language, departs from the usual topics covered in this blog, and it has been prompted by the recent political decision to afford the language official protection under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. So, in celebration of this decision, here are some facts about the history and features of Cornish.


Cornish is one of the ‘Insular’ varieties of Celtic, similar to Welsh and Breton, and more distantly related to Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Insular Celtic was spoken in the British Isles up to and including the Roman period. However, when Great Britain was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century, the speakers of Celtic began to be displaced westwards, and the language broke up. Some Celts moved to Ireland, and from there they occupied Scotland and the Isle of Man; others were isolated in the more desolate reaches of the British Isles, where their language(s) evolved separately. The variety used in Cornwall eventually developed into what is now known as Cornish (or Kernwek).

The history of Cornish is broadly divided into three periods: Old Cornish is only attested in fragments, such as glosses found in 10th century Latin manuscripts: much like language learners today, medieval scholars glossed unfamiliar Latin words with their own mother language equivalent, and these notations provide insights into their language. Middle Cornish is attested in a modest corpus of primary material, of ecclesiastic or religious nature mostly, which spans from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Cornish died out in 1777, when Dolly Pentreath, the last known native user of the language, died. There are sporadic reports of encounters with Cornish in later years, but their validity is not always easy to determine, nor is it clear whether the discourse described was part of a fully developed language. The language variety spoken in these later years, sometimes referred to as Late Cornish, is not well documented.

After its extinction, the language has been revived, in the form of Unified Modern Cornish, mostly through the efforts of Henry Jenner (1848-1934) and Robert Morton Nance (1873–1959). Unified Cornish was based on Middle Cornish for reasons of purity. However, its lexical repertoire has been extended by drawing on other Celtic languages and forming new words by analogy. There have been subsequent refinements to Unified Cornish, including Common Cornish and Revived Late Cornish, all of which seem to differ primarily in terms of preferred spelling. Today the language is described in the UNESCO Atlas of the World Languages as ‘critically endangered’, having been upgraded from ‘extinct’ in 2010. According to the most recent census data, there were 557 users of Cornish in the UK in 2011, although the number of people with limited proficiency in the language is probably larger. 

Interesting facts

  • (Unified) Cornish uses all the letters in the Latin alphabet, except i. In its place, Cornish uses y.
  • The digraph gh is used to express the /γ/ sound (something like a very soft fricative ‘g’, formed with the back of one’s tongue).
  • One of the most striking characteristics of Cornish (and other Celtic languages) is ‘mutation’. This means that the initial sound of a word may change when the word is used in a phrase. For example, nam (mother) becomes an vam (the mother), and tyr (country) becomes ow thyr (my country).
  • The plural morpheme is expressed in suffixes (e.g., bron, bronyon [hill, hills] or internal flection (e.g., dans, dyns [tooth, teeth]).
  • Similar to English, there is no inflectional system: prepositions and apposition are used to denote syntactic relations.
  • Unlike English, Cornish verbs are fully conjugated, and have three singular forms, three plural ones as well as an impersonal form. For instance, the verb prena (to buy) is conjugated as follows: prenaf (I buy), prenyth (you buy – sing.), pren (he buys), prenyn (we buy), prenough (you buy – pl.), prenons (they buy), prenyr (a purchase is made).

Further reading

  • Campbell, G.L. (1991) Compednium of the World’s Languages Vol. I. London: Routledge.
  • Thomas, A.R. (1992). ‘The Cornish Language’ (pp. 346-371). In MacAulay, D. (ed.) The Celtic Languages. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Κοντοσοπουλου, Ν.Γ. (1998). Γλώσσες και Διάλεκτοι της Ευρώπης Τόμος Α. Αθήνα: Εκδ. Γρηγόρη.


Image credit: Mark Fosh @ Flickr | CC BY







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