Your Questions about Cornish: Answered!


No, this flag is not a set of four black buttons. This is St. Piran’s Flag, which is the national symbol of Cornwall and also of the Cornish language.

Ever since my last blog post as well as earlier I got a number of questions about the Cornish language from a variety of people, and here is where they will be answered!

  1. Cornish? Where do they speak that? Like…Cornwall?


Right you are! And before you go ahead and ask “isn’t Cornwall a part of England, and can’t you just use English when you go there? And isn’t Cornwall so tiny that it isn’t worth the effort?”

In response to that first bit, you go ahead and try telling Cornish people that see what happens. I wrote about the unique history of Cornwall here. The existence of Cornwall predates the existence of England, and the Cornish Language has been described by some as having “ancient roots”. Make of that whatever you want.

Cornish is a language that you have to conscientiously search for its speakers, and most of them obviously reside in Cornwall, and a few in other areas of the United Kingdom, especially London. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there are curious souls like myself who have been intrigued by the story of Cornwall and its revived language and seek to embark on a journey to learn it.

And believe it or not, it still is used in some public ceremonies! Not also to mention that there are signs in Cornish in Cornwall and workshops held in Cornwall, London, and even some areas of the United States.

As to tiny, Cornwall is actually larger than Luxembourg, and is a popular vacation destination that has been name-dropped in lots of literary spheres—from Shakespeare to the recent Broadway production of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Only two days ago in Barnes and Noble at Union Square did I see an entire travel book devoted to just Devon and Cornwall (Devon borders Cornwall to the East).

Land’s End? Cornish. Penzance? (Pirates, anyone?) Cornish. Truro (mentioned briefly in the first episode of Black Mirror?) Cornish. And also a place known in English as the “Scilly Islands”.  This is an abbreviated list.

  1. Don’t like only five people speak it?

A more common variation of this question is “don’t like only two hundred people speak it?”

If you count native speakers, then yes, the numbers are somewhere in the hundreds. But after being dead for quite a while (although there are few that debate the idea of Cornish having died at all), it is better than nothing.

And…AND! This doesn’t include the non-native speakers! And there are thousands of them that are not only actively producing a literary and musical culture, but actively solicited for it!

If you want a language that will give you employment opportunities that few even know exist, consider learning a language with few speakers. One person at a polyglot gathering told me that “the fewer speakers there are of a language, the more that language is deemed important by its speakers”.

Perhaps this was a jab at language revivals or attempts to save endangered languages (not the first time!), but the fact remains: if you speak a rare language, even as a non-native, expect employers to hunt you down! (I, of all people, should know.)

  1. What’s the point of learning Cornish if so few people speak it?


Allow me to introduce you to the book that started this whole bonanza, Henry Jenner’s Handbook of the Cornish Language. This book came out in 1904, and the preface reads as follows:


“This book is principally intended for those persons of Cornish nationality who wish to acquire some knowledge of their ancient tongue, and to read, write, and perhaps even to speak it.  Its aim is to represent in an intelligible form the Cornish of the later period, and since it is addressed to the general Cornish public rather than to the skilled philologist, much has been left unsaid that might have been of interest to the latter, old-fashioned phonological and grammatical terms have been used, a uniform system of spelling has been adopted, little notice has been taken of casual variations, and the arguments upon which the choice of forms has been based have not often been given.

The spelling has been adapted for the occasion.  All writers of Cornish used to spell according to their own taste and fancy, and would sometimes represent the same word in different ways even in the same page, though certain general principles were observed in each period.  There was a special uncertainty about the vowels, which will be easily appreciated by those who are familiar with Cornish English.  Modern writers of all languages prefer consistent spelling, and to modern learners, whose object is linguistic rather than philological, a fairly regular system of orthography is almost p. xa necessity.  The present system is not the phonetic ideal of “one sound to each symbol, and one symbol for each sound,” but it aims at being fairly consistent with itself, not too difficult to understand, not too much encumbered with diacritical signs, and not too startlingly different from the spellings of earlier times, especially from that of Lhuyd, whose system was constructed from living Cornish speakers.  The writer has arrived at his conclusions by a comparison of the various existing spellings with one another, with the traditional fragments collected and recorded by himself in 1875, with the modern pronunciation of Cornish names, with the changes which English has undergone in the mouths of the less educated of Cornishmen, and to some extent with Breton.  The author suggests that this form of spelling should be generally adopted by Cornish students of their old speech.  The system cannot in the nature of things be strictly accurate, but it is near enough for practical purposes.  Possibly there is much room for controversy, especially as to such details as the distribution of long and short vowels, the representation of the Middle Cornish uueeu sometimes by î, sometimes by ê, and sometimes by eu or ew, or of the Middle Cornish y by ie, or y, or occasionally by an obscure ăŏ, or ŭ, and it is quite likely that others might arrive at different conclusions from the same evidence, though those conclusions might not be any the nearer to the sounds which the Cornishmen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries really did make.  As for grammatical forms, it will be seen that the writer is of opinion that the difference between Middle and Modern Cornish was more apparent than real, and that except in the very latest period of all, when the language survived only in the mouths of the least educated persons, the so-called “corruptions” were to a great extent due to differences of spelling, to a want of appreciation of almost inaudible final consonants, and to an intensification of phonetic tendencies existing in germ at a much earlier period.  Thus it is that inflections which in the late Cornish often seem to have been almost, if not quite, inaudible, have been written in full, for that is the author’s notion, founded on what Middle Cornishmen actually did write, of what Modern Cornishmen were trying to express.  For most things he has precedents, though he has allowed himself a certain amount of conjecture at times, and in most cases of difficulty he has trusted, as he would advise his readers to do, to Breton rather than to Welsh, for the living Breton of to-day is the nearest thing to Cornish that exists.

Why should Cornishmen learn Cornish?  There is no money in it, it serves no practical purpose, and the literature is scanty and of no great originality or value.  The question is a fair one, the answer is simple.  Because they are Cornishmen.  At the present day Cornwall, but for a few survivals of Duchy jurisdictions, is legally and practically a county of England, with a County Council, a County Police, and a Lord-Lieutenant all complete, as if it were no better than a mere Essex or Herts.  But every Cornishman knows well enough, proud as he may be of belonging to the British Empire, that he is no more an Englishman than a Caithness man is, that he has as much right to a separate local patriotism to his little Motherland, which rightly understood is no bar, but rather an advantage to the greater British patriotism,  as has a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman, or even a Colonial; and that he is as much a Celt and as little of an “Anglo-Saxon” as any Gael, Cymro, Manxman, or Breton.  Language is less than ever a final test of race.  Most Cornishmen habitually speak English, and few, very few, could hold five minutes’ conversation in the old Celtic speech.  Yet the memory of it lingers on, and no one can talk about the country itself, and mention the places in it, without using a wealth of true Cornish words.  But a similar thing may be said of a very large proportion of Welshmen, Highlanders, Irishmen, Manxmen, and Bretons.”


Well, as far as I know, I am not Cornish, but there might be some traceable ancestry. After all, I do have some British roots…and then there are those who want to understand the Celtic Languages as whole to a higher degree, especially since Welsh and Breton are related to Cornish very closely (although they are not mutually intelligible).

An attraction to a language is not something to be logically explained. End of discussion.

I’m going to write yet another blog post at some point about the vocabulary, grammar, and the sounds of Cornish, but I wanted to use this in order to get some questions answered.


And here’s one article from the BBC that contains the following gem, to sum things up:


“Contemporary written Cornish is also continuing to develop in quantity and quality. There have been a number of literary publications which have developed the essay, the short story and poetry in Cornish. More recently novels have been produced, along with an increasing amount of children’s publications. In terms of output and publications per head of language users this may constitute a record even higher than Icelandic. Texts from medieval times, especially drama, have also been revived in modern performances, allowing plays enjoyed centuries ago to find new contemporary audiences.”


I have 11 days to become fluent in Cornish. Can I do it?


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