Did you know that the people of Cornwall (the Cornish) once had their own language? Many believe that Cornish is similar to Welsh, so today we will be looking to answer the question:
Is the Cornish Language similar to Welsh?
While Cornish as a spoken or community language is pretty much extinct, a conscious decision was made to revitalise it based on the surviving historical and medieval written texts from Cornwall that used it.
As there were no surviving speakers of the language, modern Cornish is based upon what we have written down and therefore any nuances in pronunciation are unknown.
The Cornish language is known as Kernewek or Kernowek and is broken down into Revived Middle Cornish and Revived Late Cornish based upon the periods in which the texts it is based upon were written.
Unfortunately, the surviving texts are not enough to form a whole, complete language with spelling, grammar and punctuation rounded out, so it is doubtful that Cornish will ever be spoken again.
As a result of the holes in the language, scholars of Kernewek attempted to fill in the blanks with words from Welsh and other Brittonic languages, going some way to explaining the perceived similarity between the two.
These days it is currently possible to study and take exams in Revived Cornish.
The restoration of Kernewek as language is a relatively new thing and is thought to have begun in earnest in 1904 when a scholar named Henry Jenner wrote the Handbook to the Cornish Language.
Since then work has been done to standardise the language and invent new words for modern use, all of which can now be learned again.
Since then, there have been various versions of Cornish, that ultimately resulted in the 2005 creation of the Cornish Language Partnership which promotes the adoption of Cornish and has created (and regulates) the Standard Written Form of Cornish.
The University of Exeter’s Institute of Cornish Studies have been working with the Cornish Language Partnership to understand the amount of (and growth of) Cornish speakers and are undertaking a project named Celtic Revival which you can read more about here: http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/history/research/centres/ics/projects/celtic_revival/
In 2017, the Office of National Statistics published findings that there are over 500 self-declared speakers of Cornish, of which over 400 reside in Cornwall.
Much like Cornish, the Welsh language has also evolved and changed over time and is also identified as having “middle” and “late” versions of the language.
It is believed that the middle and late versions of both Welsh and Cornish evolved and grew together, explaining the similarities between the different languages, and the differences between versions of the same languages.
As Welsh and Cornish are both derived from Brythonic language, many words are the same. For instance: numbers, colours, animals and the weather.
A Welsh speaker with some understanding of Brythonic language would most likely be able to work out and understand Cornish (from whatever period) in much the same way ancient Latin is thought to help people understand European languages.
You could compare Welsh and Cornish the way you might compare Spanish and French. In modern society, Welsh is typically taught in Welsh schools.
Brythonic, Brittonic and British Celtic:
Forming one half of the Celtic language family alongside Gaelic (from Anglo-Saxon origins and consisting of Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic).
British Celtic was thought to have been spoken by the indigenous peoples of Britain here before the invading and occupying Roman soldiers arrived in Britain during the Roman period and influenced much of Cornwall and Wales with their own language and included Welsh, Cornish and Breton.
Of these languages, Welsh and Breton are the most common by far. Cornish, despite enjoying an increase in popularity, still has a tiny number of speakers.
Comparing the languages:
While there are differences in the spelling and sound of each of the Celtic languages, they are often comprised of the same roots as each other, and those with an understanding of all should be able to grasp them quickly.
An excellent example of where you might see this would be in the names of places, some of which are archaic, and some of which are modern.
The word ‘name’ is another good example of similarities between the languages, as demonstrated below:
- Irish: ainm
- Scottish Gaelic: ainm
- Manx: ennym
- Breton: anv
- Cornish: hanow
- Welsh: enw
The word ‘what’ is a good example of how different these languages can be:
- Irish: cen
- Scottish Gaelic: de
- Manx: cre
- Breton: petra
- Cornish: pyth
- Welsh: beth
Is the Cornish Language similar to Welsh?
We can see from above that there are many logical reasons as to why Cornish might be seen to be similar to Welsh, but now it is time to look at how and why they became different by examining the history of the languages.
It is thought that Cornish was originally very similar to Welsh, but that the people of Cornwall began to develop their own language in the 7th and 8th centuries, before producing the first written texts in the 9th.
Old Cornish was first discovered scribbled on Latin texts (explaining the Roman connection) and was originally believed to have been Old Breton. These two languages also bear similarities.
However, a scholar by the name of Professor J Loth was able to point out that it was actually Cornish in 1907 (perhaps he had read the 1904 Handbook to Cornish Language by Henry Jenner that we talked about earlier).
It is thought to have grown in use and popularity between the 1200s and 1500s as this was when the majority of the surviving texts were written.
The literature from this period is known as Middle Cornish and is mostly made up of plays and sermons, much of which can still be read today.
Late Cornish, which arose in the 1550s and beyond was more mature and included songs along with Cornish translations of the Bible.
As late as 1776, letters were being written in Great Britain in Cornish, referencing other speakers of Cornish thought to have died before the 1800s.
Finding the last speaker of the Cornish Language was the aim of many academics who in the following centuries concluded that John Mann, who died in 1914, was this speaker.
You can read a great deal about this in the Wikipedia entry here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_speaker_of_the_Cornish_language
In 2019, Cornish names are popular for children and pets in Cornwall, and there are a number of Radio and print publications that broadcast in Cornish, including BBC Radio Cornwall.
It is interesting to note that while the Cornish Language uses the English alphabet, it is missing a few characters, see if you can spot them:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P R S T U V W Y
In popular culture, the Cornish Language appears in the film and book versions of Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison.
If you would like to hear what the Cornish Language sounds like, we suggest that you visit Cornwall Council, where staff are encouraged to greet visitors in Cornish.
The Cornwall Council have even employed a Cornish Language Lead to encourage the use and adoption of the language and you can read their strategy and programs here: https://www.cornwall.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/the-cornish-language/cornish-language/cornish-language-office/cornish-language-strategy-and-plans/.
So is the Cornish Language similar to Welsh?:
In summary, we can see from the above information that there are several reasons to believe that Welsh and Cornish are similar:
- They share an alphabet
- They are part of the same parent language
- They began the same
However, there are more reasons why they are different:
- The people of Cornwall clearly felt a need for their own language
- It is debated if Cornish ever really died out
- National interest in Cornish remains high
We would suggest that there are more differences than similarities, and it is worth looking at Cornish and Welsh in the same way as you might look at Spanish and French.