Cornish language

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Spoken in

Cornwall Cornwall
speaker 250–300 fluent, 3,000 fair
Language codes
ISO 639 -1


ISO 639 -2


ISO 639-3


The Cornish language (also Cornish ; New Cornish : Kernewek , Kernowek or Kernuak ) is a Celtic language closely related to Welsh and Breton , which was spoken in Cornwall until the late 18th century and revived in the 20th century. The name of the language Kernowek or Kernewek (britann. Kornobika ) is derived, like the country name, from the late antique inhabitants of Cornwall, the Cornovii.

History and revival

Shift of the Cornish-English language border 1300–1750 according to K. George (1993)

The last known native speaker of Cornish, Dolly Pentreath from Mousehole (Corn. Porthenys), died in 1777. For a long time she was considered “the last speaker” because she appeared in a travelogue of the English antiquarian Daines Barrington. He had looked for "the last" speakers of Cornish, had been referred to them, and when asked whether she still knew her mother tongue, she showered him with Cornish swearwords. However, Dolly Pentreath is the last known native speaker of traditional Cornish; she herself stated that she only learned English at the age of 12.

In 1891 John Davey died, whose relatives claimed he was the last person to be fluent in Cornish. That must not have been true; We owe Davey, however, the transmission of some corrupted fragments of Late Cornish. However, individual elements of the language had been used in some professions for a much longer period of time, for example the custom of counting caught fish in Cornish.

Today's "Neo-Cornish" is a reconstruction of the extinct language with the help of traditions and written evidence, from which a large part of the Neo-Cornish lexicon (70%) was reconstructed. Since the surviving Middle Cornish corpus is much more extensive than that of the Late Cornish, most of the words come from it. The traditional vocabulary also includes not only the British hereditary words, but also around ten percent loanwords from Vulgar Latin and English. A significant part (25%) of the Neo-Cornish vocabulary was borrowed from the related languages Cymrian and Breton or constructed accordingly. Five percent come from English; there are also Cornish borrowings from international terms v. a. Latin and Greek origin.

The language is nowhere near as richly documented as the biblical Hebrew , which, unlike Cornish, never went completely out of circulation. Purists among Celtologists and linguists are critical of today's Cornish as they consider it to be inauthentic, and the same can be said about today's Israeli Ivrith . A language movement is currently trying to revive it, but in the 1980s it split up into several competing groups using different orthographies (see below). A study commissioned by the British government (see below) found around 250 people who were fluent in the language, and around 3,000 more (<0.7% of the Cornwall population), some of them only acquired minimal basic knowledge. Since the number of speakers was never recorded before the study mentioned, older literature mostly contains imaginary assumptions that clearly reflect the wishful thinking of the nationalists. The number of families in which children with a Cornish mother tongue grow up was 13 in 2000.

A massive problem with the language movement is its fragmentation: A study commissioned by the British government (MacKinnon Report 2000) found around 250 fluent speakers divided into three warring groups, each using its own variant of Neo Cornish. The following variants (and orthographies) are currently in use:

  • Kernewek Kemmyn , which is based on Middle Cornish and orthographically based on Breton.
  • Kernewek Unys , the original variant of Neo-Cornish, which is also based on Middle-Cornish.
  • Kernowek Unys Amendys , an improved form of Unys.
  • Kernuack Nowedga ("New Cornish"), which is based on the Late Cornish.

Since May 2008 the Cornish Language Partnership has been using a newly developed standard orthography (FSS) for official documents and in school lessons, see below.

Apart from bilingual place and street signs, there are currently hardly any official efforts to spread this language. However, Cornish has now been recognized as a minority language by the British government and will increasingly be taught in schools from 2008.

Cornish can be taught in schools on a voluntary basis, provided that a suitable teacher can be found. In addition, official exams can be written in this language.

Cornish as a spoken language (Wikitongues project)

In the media, Kornisch is only represented by a five-minute weekly radio program. However, there is the web radio “Radio of the Cornish Language Community”, which broadcasts a half-hour magazine with interviews and music and a news program per week.

Small speaking communities exist among descendants of Cornish emigrants in London , Australia and the USA .

Important stages of the resuscitation

  • 1904: Henry Jenner publishes a Handbook of the Cornish Language , which is seen as the initial spark of the revival. Jenner is primarily oriented towards the Late Cornish.
  • 1928: A Gorsedh Kernow is launched based on the model of the Welsh Gorsedd Y Beirdd and the Breton Goursez Breizh .
  • 1929: Robert Morton Nance publishes Cornish For All , in which he introduces a unified orthography, the Kernewek Unys based on Middle Cornish . This spelling remained in common use until 1986.
  • 1938: Nance publishes a Cornish-English dictionary .
  • 1984: The first Cornish novel, An Gurun Wosek a Geltya (The Bloody Crown of Keltia) by M. Bennetto is published.
  • 1986: First split in language movement: Richard Gendall begins teaching reconstructed Late Cornish ( Curnoack Nowedga ).
  • 1986: Ken George's proposal for a spelling reform based on his reconstructed phonology developed in The Pronunciation and Spelling of Revived Cornish is accepted. Kernewek Kemmyn becomes the new standard.
  • 1992: The standard dictionary for Kernewek Kemmyn, Gerlyver Kernewek Kemmyn: An Gerlyver Meur , appears.
  • 1995: Nicholas Williams criticizes all three previously used variants and suggests an orthography developed by him, the Kernowek Unys Amendys .
  • 2000: English-Cornish Dictionary: Gerlyver Sawsnek-Kernowek , standard dictionary for KUA.
  • 2002: The British government recognizes Cornish as an eligible minority language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages . A translation of the Bible ( An Testament Nowydh , The New Testament) appears in KUA.
  • 2004: The New Testament appears in KK.
  • 2007: A commission of internationally renowned sociolinguists (including Joshua Fishman) is supposed to decide on the future standard orthography and thus help to resolve the spelling debate. There are 6 different systems to choose from: Kernewek Kemmyn (KK), Kernewek Unys (UC), Kernewek Unys Amendys (UCR), Kernuack Nowedga (RLC) as well as two compromise variants : Kernowak Standard (KS, from a group led by N. Williams and Michael Everson elaborated) and Kernowek Dasunys (KD, suggested by Benjamin Bruch and Albert Bock).
  • 2008: After years of consultation, the Cornish Language Partnership agrees on a third compromise variant as the future standard orthography (FSS - Furv Skrifys Savonek, "Official Spelling"). The basic features of this had previously been devised by a committee of language activists from various groups and worked out by Benjamin Bruch and Albert Bock. The new orthography is primarily based on the revived Middle Cornish, but allows a number of equal dialectal variants in order to include speakers of the Late Cornish.

Cornish language levels

Around 600 the language areas of Cornish and Welsh were spatially separated by the Anglo-Saxon advance to the west. The first stage of development in the history of Cornish as a separate language, which is set to around 900, is known as Early Cornish .

Cornish, together with Breton, form the south-west British group of island Celtic languages. Most of all, it has the vowel / ø / in common with Breton, which developed from the British long / a: /. It differs from Breton primarily through the development of the final / t /> / s / and / d /> / z /. Example: bret. tad (Eng. "father") vs. grain. tas / ta: z /.

The period from 900 to 1200 is known as Old Cornish . It is mainly documented by glosses and the Vocabularium Cornicum , a Latin-Old Cornish dictionary.

The Middle Cornish period is set from 1200 to approx. 1600. During this time, the Cornish language border began to rapidly retreat to the west, but it was the most literarily productive phase in which the highest number of speakers can be assumed. Ken George puts this at a maximum of around 35,000 people in the late Middle Ages - the country was previously too sparsely populated, after that more and more families changed their language, and English began to displace Cornish. The most important primary sources for Middle Cornish are dramas, almost exclusively mystery plays , which come from the environment of a specific school - the College of Glasney (the Cornish titles marked with an asterisk in the following paragraph are in the FSS standard orthography):

  • The charter fragment (approx. 1400), 41-line fragment of a pointed and witty dialogue
  • The Ordinalia , which consists of three parts: Origo mundi ("The origin of the world"; New Cornish * Dalethvos an Bys ), Passio Domini nostri ("The suffering of our Lord"; new Corn. * Pashyon Krist , "The Passion of Christ"), Resurrexio Domini nostri ("The Resurrection of our Lord"; new grain. * Dasserhyans agan Arlodh ), early 15th century.
  • Pascon agan Arluth , * Pashyon agan Arlodh ("The Passion of Our Lord"), early 15th century.
  • Beunans Meriasek , * Bewnans Meryasek ("The Life of St. Meriadoc"), 1504.
  • * Bewnans Ke ("The Life of St. Ke"), which contains motifs from the Arthurian tradition, early 15th century.
  • * Pregothow Treger ("The Sermons of Tregear"), 1555–1558.
  • * Gwreans an Bys ("The Creation of the World"), 1611.

After the Reformation, the Glasney College was closed and the tradition of the Mystery Plays fell into disrepair. In the 17th century, the language area only comprised the westernmost part of Cornwall, and many sources from this period show typical signs of decline in lexicon, phonology and morphology for half-speakers (people who have not fully learned the language). This phase of the extinction of the language is known as the Late Cornish Period. In addition to the low level of competence of many speakers, Late Cornish is characterized by the change in morphology towards analytical formations (conjugated prepositions are replaced by prepositions plus personal pronouns) and characteristic changes in the phonological system. Most noticeable are the pre-occluded nasal consonants:

medium grain. <pen> [ pɛn: ] → late grain. <pedn> [ pɛdn ] ( Eng . "head"), <mam> [ mam: ] → <mabm> [ mabm ] ( Eng . "mother")

The orthographic tradition of Middle Cornish was no longer passed on, which is why the late Cornish scribes made do with an auxiliary English spelling. The Welsh linguist Edward Lhuyd , who toured Cornwall in the early 18th century, designed a phonetic transcription for Late Cornish, some of which was taken up by some enthusiasts. This group of authors left late Cornish texts from various genres - but mostly prose. This means that the language level and vocabulary of the Late Cornish texts differ more from those of the Middle Cornish sources than would be the case purely through phenomena of language change, since most of the Late Cornish authors were not native speakers and had only an imperfect command of Cornish. This is important for the various Neo-Cornish reconstruction models, as they are based on different language levels and only the Kernowek Unys Amendys attempts to include all documented phases in the history of Cornish equally.

The last native speakers who had a perfect command of the language probably died before 1800, the last half-speakers in the course of the 19th century. The last known adult monoglote spokeswoman, Cheston Marchant, died in 1676.

The different variants of the revived Cornish spoken today are summarized under the terms Neukornisch or Neokornisch (see above). All variants of Neo-Cornish, with the exception of Nowedga , are morphologically based primarily on Middle- Cornish . To replace missing vocabulary - because it has not been handed down - or to name new concepts, different methods are used, depending on the variant: Purists orientate themselves on Welsh and Breton, while pragmatists tend to borrow words from English (which the speakers of traditional Cornish also did to have).

The division into different groups is less problematic, however, as it may at first appear that mutual understanding is very possible in the spoken language, which is not least due to the fact that all speakers today speak Cornish with a strong English accent: [i :, iw, ju:] instead of / y: / and [e :, ej] instead of / ø: / are also common in the variants that are based on the Middle Cornish and actually use rounded vowels. So there are some arguments in favor of not speaking of different revived languages ​​but of dialects or sociolects of the same language. In the meantime, tendencies towards harmonization can also be observed, with the Middle Cornish form being described as “literary” and the corresponding Late Cornish form as “colloquial”, and both being taught side by side. This tendency is followed by the first German-language textbook of the revived Cornish, Cornish - word for word by Daniel Ryan-Prohaska , which was published in 2006. In this book a Middle Cornish based orthography (UCR) is taught alongside a Late Cornish influenced Neo Cornish pronunciation.


Kernowek Unys Amendys (UCR)

The following illustration reproduces the system depicted in NJA Williams' English-Cornish dictionary (2000) and relates to Kernowek Unys Amendys (UCR). Regarding the actual phonetic realization of all variants in everyday life, it should be noted that the pronunciation of most neo-Cornish speakers has strong English interferences.


UCR does not know any Geminates, but Fortis variants [M, N, R, L] with the implementation [bm, dn, rh, lh] on the allophone level.

Bilabial Labiodental Dental / Alveolar Palatal Velar Labiovelar Glottal
Plosive p b t d k g
nasal   m   n   ŋ
Fricative f v θ ð / s z / ʃ ʒ   x   H
Approximant   ɹ   j ʍ w
Lateral approximate   l


The UCR distinguishes between two vowel lengths (in the Kemmyn three: short, half-long, long or / V, V ', V: /). Unstressed short vowels are mostly realized as [ə], which also has phoneme status, especially in a number of suffixes and in clitics.

i (:) y (:)   u (:)
e (:) œ (:) ə O(:)
  æ (:)  
aw, ɔw, iw, əj,
ɔj, i: ə

Kernewek Kemmyn

Kernewek Kemmyn is generally more archaic than UCR and distinguishes three instead of two vowel lengths, two different o-phonemes / o, ɔ / as well as geminated and simple consonants.

pb   td   kg (kʷ gʷ)  
      tʃ dʒ    
fv θ ð s (z) ʃ x (ʍ) H
m   n      
    rl j w  
i (:) y (:)  
ɪ (:)   o: ɤ
ε (:) œ (:)   ɔ (:)
  a (:)
iw ɪw εw aw ɔw
εj aj ɔj

Late Cornish

Iwan Wmffre (in: Late Cornish, Munich 1998) reconstructed the phonemic system of Late Cornish as follows:

pb   td   kg (kʷ gʷ)  
      tʃ dʒ    
fv θ ð sz ʃ ʒ (ħ) (ʍ) H
m   n      
    rl j w  
i (:)   u (:)
ε (:) ə ɔ (:)
  a (:)  
iw εw ɔw aw
əj (oj)

Wmffre is not sure whether [z] is an allophone of / s / or its own phoneme / z /. In addition, / ħ / (the reflex of Old Cornish / x /) may have coincided with / h / [h, Ø].


  • Daniel Prohaska: Cornish. Word for word (=  gibberish . Volume 206 ). 1st edition. Reise Know-How Verlag Rump, Bielefeld 2006, ISBN 3-89416-375-5 .
  • Malte W. Tschirschky: The invention of the Celtic nation Cornwall. Culture, identity and ethnic nationalism in the British periphery (= Britannica et Americana. Volume 3, Vol. 24). Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg 2006, ISBN 3-8253-5278-1 (also: Frankfurt am Main, University, dissertation, 2006).

Ordinary sentences

Cornish (FSS) IPA romanization (reconstruction by Ken George) German
Myttin there [ˌMɪttɪn ˈdaː] "Good Morning"
Dydh there [ˌDɪːð ˈdaː] "Good day"
Fatla genes? [ˌFatla ˈgɛˑnɛs] "How are you?"
Yn poynt there, meur ras [ɪn ˌpɔjnt ˈdaː ˌmœːr ˈraːs] "Okay, thank you"
Py eur yw hi? [pɪ ˌœːr ɪw ˈhiː] "What time is it?"
Ple'ma Rysrudh, mar pleg? [ˈPlɛː maː rɪzˈryːð mar ˈplɛːk] "Where is Redruth please?"
Yma Rysrudh ogas dhe Gambron, heb mar! [ɪˈmaː rɪzˈryːð ˈɔˑgas ðɛ ˈgambrɔn hɛb ˈmaːr] "Redruth is near Camborne, of course!"
Yehes there! [ˌJɛˑhɛz ˈdaː] "Cheers; For the benefit!"

Web links

Commons : Cornish language  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. K. George, Cornish, in: M. Ball (ed.), (1993) The Celtic Languages
  2. David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. , Frankfurt Main 1993, p. 360 shows an illustration of the memorial stone for Pentreath and the Cornish
  4. Radyo at Gernewegva Radio Cornish language community
  5. ^ The Ancient Cornish Drama, edited and translated by Mr. Edwin Norris. In two volumes. Oxford, 1859 ( google ; google )
  6. Transactions of the Philological Society 1860-1 , Berlin, pp. 1ff. the appendices ( google ). See Mount Calvary; or the History of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection, of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Written in Cornish (as it may be conjectured) some centuries past. Interpreted in the English Tongue, in the Year 1682, by John Keigwin. Edited by Davies Gilbert , London, 1826 ( google )
  7. Beunans Meriasek. The Life of Saint Meriasek, Bishop and Confessor. A Cornish drama. Edited, with a translation and notes, by Whitley Stokes. London, 1872 ( google )