A brief history of the Cornish language
Image above (courtesy of British Pathé): A man making a crab pot in Looe, 1949
Anyone who has visited Cornwall – or even read about it – will know that the county is fiercely independent. Although it is recognised as part of the West Country and often mentioned in the same breath as Devon and Dorset as a holiday destination, the truth is that it is an entirely unique location. From its thriving local economy to a small but passionate nationalist movement, there is so much that makes Cornwall just a bit different from everywhere else.
One of the county’s most famous features, of course, is its language. Although it is currently only spoken fluently by a small proportion of the population, many people across the Duchy are rightly proud of this part of their heritage; and, what’s more, the number of residents who want to learn it is growing fast.
We spoke to two experts on Cornish (or ‘Kernewek’, to give it its proper name) to get more of an understanding about the language’s history, how widely it is practised today, and how they see its usage developing in the years to come.
Cornish Language Fellowship (Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek)
Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (the Cornish Language Fellowship) is a charity whose aim is to promote and encourage wider use of the Cornish language.
Among other activities, the society publishes a monthly magazine (in Cornish, of course), helps to organise language classes, and even runs its own shop at the Heartlands activity centre near Camborne.
Below, the fellowship’s Secretary, Tim Hambly, shared with us some fascinating information about Kernewek, including the origins of the name of our very own holiday park in Looe!
“You may be wondering about the place names ‘Tencreek’ and ‘Looe’. They do not sound like English and they are not. Like the vast majority of place names in Cornwall they are in the Cornish language. Tencreek comes from the Cornish words ‘keyn crug’ (meaning ridge with a tumulus) and Looe originates from ‘logh’ (meaning deep water inlet) which is clearly related to the Scots Gaelic word ‘loch’.
Image above (courtesy of British Pathé): Still from video showing the ‘worst gale ever recorded’ in Looe, 1922
“Cornish is a Celtic language, related to Breton and Welsh and less closely related to the Gaelic languages in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. As the place names in Cornwall show, the Cornish language was once spoken throughout Cornwall but by the beginning of the nineteenth century it was ceasing to be a community language in the far west of Cornwall.
“For more than 100 years, the number of speakers has been steadily increasing and the language is becoming more and more visible. Many cars display Kernow stickers (‘Kernow’ is of course the Cornish word for Cornwall), many street signs and town name signs are bilingual these days. Cornish is being used by Cornish businesses to show the local distinctiveness of their products. You will probably notice a well-known brewery using the word ‘korev’ – the Cornish word for beer.
“Cornish speakers meet regularly all over Cornwall to practice and improve their speaking skills and every year, Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (the Cornish Language Fellowship) organises a residential weekend at a holiday park or hotel – it has been held twice at Tencreek.
“During your stay in Cornwall, look out for the Cornish language!”
Cornish Language Office
Run by Cornwall Council and based in Truro, the Cornish Language Office is similarly passionate about spreading the use of Kernewek all over the county through a programme of education and awareness. There is plenty of information on their website about the history of Cornish, where and how it is taught today, and even a calendar of Cornish-speaking events.
The team behind this programme sent us some more facts about the language, and even shared a few resources for anyone who is keen on getting to grips with speaking Cornish themselves!
“Cornwall is one of six Celtic nations of Europe, the others are Brittany, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales. It has its own distinct language – Cornish (Kernewek) – and this is most similar to Breton, which helped Breton and Cornish fishermen communicate with each other long after most people had stopped using the language. Plays written in Cornish hundreds of years ago are still studied today and were performed in “Plen an Gwari” – circular playing places, like the ones at St. Just and Perranporth.
“Cornish is an endangered language but it is officially recognised by the UK Government and the number of speakers is growing. There are short films, radio programmes, music and social media all in Cornish and you can see Cornish words in our place names, on signs and in marketing, such as for Kelly’s of Cornwall, English Heritage and Boardmasters. ‘Kernow’ (Cornwall), ‘dynnargh’ (welcome) and ‘korev’ (beer) are some of the Cornish words you are likely to see as you travel around Cornwall, while you don’t have to go far before you see ‘tre’ (homestead), ‘penn’ (top, headland) or ‘porth’ (cove, harbour) in the names of towns and villages.
“If you are interested in hearing some phrases, visit www.learncornishnow.com
“And if you would like to learn a few words, download the Learn Cornish app
As you can see, there are plenty of opportunities for anyone who is interested to learn more about the beautiful Cornish language and to help assist in its amazing resurgence.
Kernewek is just one of the many things which makes Cornwall stand out from the crowd when it comes to holiday destinations, along with its pristine beaches, stunning countryside and charming port towns. Why not book your next trip to the county soon to see all that it has to offer for yourself?
Note: The British Pathé images are reproduced with the kind permission of their archive. To view the videos from which they are taken – and several others charting the history of Looe – please visit this page.
Image Credits: British Pathé; travelsofamonkey, john47kent, ben124 (flickr.com)