Cornish (Cornish: Kernewek /ker’newek/) is a Brythonic Celtic language spoken mainly in the Duchy of Cornwall in south western England. Since the Middle Ages Cornish gradually receded westwards as English moved further into the peninsula and in the 18th century it died out as a community language but remained spoken by a few until the mid 19th century. In the early 20th century, thanks mainly to the works of Henry Jenner and his pupil Robert Morton Nance, the language was revived and continues to grow in strength; in 2002 the UK government registered the language as one of the country’s official minority languages.
During the 20th and into the 21st centuries the revival suffered setbacks due to competing versions. Jenner’s work had been based on Cornish as it had been spoken at its demise in the 18th century, when it had become heavily influenced by English; Nance, however, based his studies on the ‘purer’ Cornish of the Middle Ages and in the 1920s published a standardised form of Cornish called Unified Cornish, which became the standard for much of the century. In the 1980s the place of Unified Cornish was challenged by Ken George, who produced a new form of Cornish called Kernewek Kemmyn which subsequently became popular and was adopted by the Cornish Language Board. By the late 2000s there were a number of competing forms of Cornish, each seeking to improve on the last: Unified Cornish, Kernewek Kemmyn, Modern Cornish, Unified Cornish Revised, Kernowak Standard and Kernewek Dasunys. In order to provide some consensus a Standard Written Form was published in 2008 to give public bodies and others a unified spelling system, which would accomodate all varieties of the language. This article uses the orthography of the SWF to represent Kernewek Kemmyn.
|High||i /i(ː)/||u /y(ː)/||ou /u(ː)/|
|Close Mid||y /ɪ(ː)/||oe /ɤ/||oo /oː/|
|Open Mid||e /ɛ(ː)/||eu /œ(ː)/||o /ɔ(ː)/|
|Low||a /a(ː)/||oa /ɒː/|
Unstressed vowels are often reduced in quality to [ə].
Vowels are generally long in stressed monosyllables, except (a) when followed by a voiceless stop; (b) before a double consonant; (c) before a consonant cluster which does not begin with s-. All unstressed vowels are short.
The following diphthongs occur: aw /aʊ/, ew /ɛʊ/, iw /iʊ/, yw /ɪʊ/, ow /ɔʊ/, uw /yʊ/, ay /aɪ/, ey /ɛɪ/, oy /ɔɪ/.
| t /t/|
|Nasal||m /m/||n /n/|
f, v /v/
|c, s /s/|
s, z /z/
|sh /ʃ/||gh /x/||h /h/|
|Affricate|| ch /tʃ/|
|Approximant||hw /ʍ/||w /w/||l /l/||y /j/|
Double consonants are pronounced with double length. In later forms of Cornish the geminates mm and nn tend to be pronounced [bm dn] with preocclusion and may be written bm, dn.
Word final -f, -v, -th, -dh tend to be lost in late versions (eg. fordh “road” → for’).
The letter s is generally pronounced /z/ in most positions, except in clusters and loanwords.
Cornish has five types of mutation: the soft mutation, the breathed mutation, the hard mutation and two mixed mutations. In some grammars the radical is described as the 1st State and the mutations as 2nd State, 3rd State etc.
The second mixed mutation only occurs following the infixed pronoun ‘th.
Cornish has no indefinite article. Unn was used in some old texts but it is generally omitted in revived forms of the language. The definite article is an.
Nouns are either masculine or feminine.
There are a number of plural endings, the most common of which are -ow, -yow, -yon, -i.
Some nouns in -en have a collective meaning when the ending is dropped (e.g. hasen “seed” → has “seed(s)”); these often have a plural in -ow (e.g. hasennow “seeds”).
Remanants of a dual number can be seen in parts of the body which form their ‘plural’ with a dual form, e.g. diwleuv “hands”, diwskovarn “ears”, dewlagas “eyes”, diwweus “lips”.
The genitive case is formed by placing the genitive noun directly after the noun to which it relates, e.g. gwerthji Yowann “John’s workshop”.
Adjectives follow the noun they qualify. There is no distinction in modern Cornish between masculine and feminine, singular and plural adjectives, though Lhuyd mentions a change of y > e similar to that seen in Welsh.
The particle yn is used before adjectives to form adverbs.
The comparative of adjectives is formed by adding -a and geminating the preceding consonant (e.g. teg “pretty” → tekka “prettier”). The geminate of-th- is written –tth– in the SWF, but the geminate of-gh- remains unchanged where it was previously -ggh-. The superlative is uniquely formed by placing an before the comparative (e.g. an tekka “prettiest”). Comparative and superlative adjectives usually precede the noun.
The following are compared irregularly: byhan “small” → le “smaller, less” → an lyha “smallest, least”; meur “great” → moy “greater, more” → an moyha “greatest, most”; da “good” → gwell “better” → an gwella “best”; drog “bad” → gweth “worse” → an gwettha “worst”; ogas “near” → nes “nearer” → an nessa “nearest, next”.
|5||pymp||pympes||21||onan warn ugens||kynsa warn ugens|
|6||hwegh||hweghves||30||deg warn ugens||degves warn ugens|
|7||seyth||seythves||31||unnek warn ugens||unnegves warn ugens|
|11||unnek||unnegves||70||deg ha tri-ugens||degves ha tri-ugens|
|13||tredhek||tredhegves||90||deg ha peswar-ugens||degves ha peswar-ugens|
The numeral onan is used only in counting where the numerals are used independently; the numeral unn is “one” when a noun follows”.
The numerals 2, 3 and 4 have masculine and feminine forms. All nouns following numerals are in the singular.
The word for “half” is hanter; all other fractions are formed with the ordinal followed by rann “part”, e.g. tressa rann “third”.
Multiplicatives are formed by compounding the cardinal numeral with the feminine noun gweyth: e.g. unnweyth “once”, diwweyth “twice”, teyrgweyth “three times”, milweyth “thousand times”.
|Subject||Suffixed||Emphatic Suffixed||Infixed Object||Prefixed||Infixed Possessive|
|3sg m||ev||ev, va||eev||‘n||y|
Subject pronouns are used when the subject comes before the verb. Cornish retains a t-v distinction, using hwi for a polite form of the second person.
Suffixed pronouns are auxiliaries following verbs; they are often optional.
Infixed Object pronouns are fixed after particles.
Prefixed pronouns are possessive adjectives and act as the direct object of a verb noun: e.g. y hwrav y dhannvon “I send him”.
|“this”||hemma||homma||an re ma|
|“that”||henna||honna||an re na|
When the demonstrative pronouns are placed before the copula, the final –a is dropped: e.g. hemm yw lyver “this is a book”.
The demonstrative adjectives are an … ma “this, these”, an … na “that, those”: e.g. an keun ma “these dogs”, an gathes na “those cats”.
The interrogative pronouns are piw “who”, pyth, pandra, pan “what”, pyneyl “which one”. The interrogative adjective py “what” is used to form a number of adjective and adverb phrases:
- py lies, pes, pyseul “how many”
- pygemmys “how much”
- py lies termyn “how often”
- ass(a), fatel/fatla “how”
- prag(a) “why”
- p’eur “when”
- re, rann “some”
- nebonan “someone, anyone”
- neppyth “something, anything”
- tra vyth “anything”
- nagonan, den vyth “no one”
- onan “one”
- an eyl y gila “each other, one another”
- pubonan “everyone”
- pubtra “everything”
|Present Indicative||-av||-ydh, -ys||–||-yn||-owgh||-ons||-ir|
|esov||esos||yma, eus, usi||eson||esowgh||ymons||eder|
In the present and imperfect indicative there are short and long forms of the verb: the short forms are used in the copula construction, generally following the complement; the long forms are used when expressing where something is or what it’s doing, e.g. with the present participle. The 3rd person singular yma means “there is” and is used with indefinite subjects; eus is used for indefinite subjects in interrogative and negative sentences and in replies; usi is the equivalent of eus used with definite subjects.
The verb gul “do” is regularly used as an auxiliary with the verb noun: e.g. my a wra mos “I go”
a is used when the subject or object precedes the verb. It is omitted before forms of bos “be” and mos “go” beginning with a vowel.
y (yth before a vowel) is placed before verbs in simple sentences. Yth is used before vowel-initial forms of bos when they occur at the start of a sentence.
ny is the simple negative. It may be placed at the start of a sentence, or replace a following the subject or direct object. It becomes nyns before forms of bos “be” and mos “go” beginning with a vowel.
na is the negative particle used in the imperative and in replies.
re is a perfective particle used with the past indicative to form the perfect tense. It becomes res before forms of mos “go” beginning with a vowel.
The particle ow (owth before a vowel or h-) is used before verb nouns to create the present participle: e.g. ow tos “coming”.
The past participle is formed by adding -ys to the stem of the verb. This may be used with a preterite form of bos “be” to form the passive voice: e.g. gwelys veu “he was seen”. A similar meaning can be conveyed with the impersonal forms of the verb.
Like all Celtic languages, prepositions are ‘conjugated’. Most prepositions follow the example of yn “in” with endings in -o but variations occur.
|yn “in”||war “on”||dhyworth “from”||gans “with”||dhe “to”|
William Bodinar’s Letter (1776)
Transliterated using the Standard Written Form:
Bloodh vy ew trei ugens ha pymp. Th ero’vy den bohojek an puskes. My rug dyski Kernowek y’n termyn my veu maw. My veu dhe mor gen sira vy ha pymp den moy y’n kok. My rug skant lowr klowes udn ger Sowsnek kowsys y’n kok rag seythen warbar’. Na rug evy byskath gweles lyver Kernowek. My [rug] dyski Kernowek o’ mos dhe mor gen tus koth. Nag eus moy ’vel pajar po pymp y’n drev nei ’ell klappya Kernowek lebmyn, pobel koth pajar ugens bloodh. Kernowek ew oll nakevys gen pobel younk.
I’m sixty-five years old. I’m a humble fisherman. I learnt Cornish when I was a boy. I was at sea with my father and five more men in a fishing boat. I heard barely word of English in the boat in seven days. Inever saw a Cornish book. I learnt Cornish going to sea with the old men. There are no more than four or five in our village who can talk Cornish now, old people, eighty years old. Cornish is all forgotten by the young people.
- Jenner, H. (1904) Handbook of the Cornish Language, London
- Norris, E. (1859) Sketch of Cornish Grammar, OUP
- Kernewek Dre Lyther at http://www.kdl.org.uk
- Bock, A., Bruch, B. et al (2010) An English-Cornish Glossary in the Standard Written Form, Maga Cornish Language Partnership
- Bock, A., Bruch, B. (2008) An Outline of the Standard Written Form of Cornish, Maga Cornish Language Partnership