Cornish is a language that is listed as 'extinct' in the UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages but which has experienced a remarkable revival in recent years.

Magazine - The Kernewek success story


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The Kernewek success story

by Linda Baxter

In the first lesson of any language course you'll probably learn a mini dialogue like this. You'll find the translation at the end of this article, but can you guess what it means?

A: "Dydh da! Fatla genes?"

B: "Yn poynt da, meur ras. Ha genes jy?"

What you probably can't guess is the language of the exchange above. It's actually Cornish, a language that is listed as 'extinct' in the UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages but which has experienced a remarkable revival in recent years.

What is Cornish?

It's a member of the Celtic family of languages which also includes Scots, Irish, Welsh and Breton. When Britain was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century AD, the native Celtic people were pushed to the West and North of the country and the language that they spoke developed differently in these separate areas. Some Celts left the country completely and went to the West of France where their language became known as Breton. Cornish (Kernewek) is the language that people spoke in Cornwall (Kernow) which is the county in the extreme South West of England. Welsh and Breton are its nearest relatives and the three languages have a lot of similarities.

When did the language die out?

It really depends on your definition of 'died out'. The story goes that the last person who spoke Cornish (and no English) was a woman called Dolly Pentreath. She died in 1777 and some people say that the language died with her. But of course, there were still people who spoke Cornish as a native language, even if they also knew English. And their children learned some Cornish from them even if they spoke English most of the time. The number of speakers got smaller and smaller and they knew less and less of the language, but Cornish didn't disappear. There are stories of fisherman still using Cornish numbers to count fish in the 1940s and 50s. So some people argue that the language never died out completely, but survived until the Cornish revival started at the beginning of the twentieth century.

What do you mean by 'Cornish revival'?

At the beginning of the twentieth century academics became interested in Cornish and started to study some of the ancient texts that had survived. From these old documents they worked out the rules for spelling and grammar and people became interested in learning to speak the language again and teaching it to their children. Some people still say that Cornish died with Dolly Pentreath and this 'new' Cornish is an artificial language, but the revival has continued to this day.

So how many people speak it now?

Surprise surprise, people don't agree about that either. It depends on what you mean by 'speak'. There are probably only a few hundred people who speak it as their everyday language. But there are several thousand who can have a conversation in Cornish even if they aren't fluent. And if you include all the people who know some words and basic phrases then it could be as many as ten thousand. Not a lot admittedly, but a lot better than a hundred years ago. And the numbers are growing every year. Some children now grow up bilingual and the language is offered as an option in some schools. You can even study the language to degree level at university.

But is it really used in everyday life?

Yes it is. You'll see and hear a lot of it if you visit Cornwall. You'll see road signs in Cornish for a start. Newspapers and radio stations have regular articles and programmes in Cornish and there are some magazines written entirely in the language. There are bookshops which only sell books in Cornish and many businesses use Cornish names. There is even a Cornish language film industry.

Can I understand it if I speak English?

That doesn't help much I'm afraid. Some of the modern words are easy to guess, for example 'ayrplen' for aeroplane and 'pytsa' for pizza. Some words are similar to English: fas (face), mam (mother), onyonen (onion) and plat (plate). 'Avon' is Cornish for 'river' which may explain why there are so many River Avons in Britain. Some words seem to be influenced by French, for example, 'pons' (bridge), 'chambour' (bedroom), and 'eglos' (church). But you might have a few more problems with 'kenynen ewynek' (garlic) and 'scubylen dens' (toothbrush). And remember, if you see 'stevel omwolhy' on a hotel door it isn't the name of the manager - it's Cornish for 'bathroom'.

And here's the translation of the mini dialogue at the beginning of the article.

A: Hello! ("good day"). How are you?

B: Very well thank you. And you?

Obvious isn't it?

Task 1

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Hello everybody,
I really enjoyed the article, despite the small changes in the audio recording, towards the text, at the end (Joking)...
However, it's an excellent essay that shows how people are strongly connected to their roots.
This kind of language revivals, should be a good initiative for other nations.

Interesting article.very useful for learning different cultures through English language.

I am a British Council teacher and I am Cornish, y allav-vy kewsel tamm Kernewek [I can speak a little Cornish]. Kernewek is a real language, 90% of our place names are not English - as a child I lived in Porthpean [little bay] Road. I am very sensitive to the fact that I work for the British Council, not the 'English Council'. Our people are British AND Cornish.

Very nice article reminds me of the fact that Welsh language is been taught in Wales schools nowadays in addition to English and that ,s very useful for the students to have an idea about the meaning of some words and terms that could be found on signposts ,doors etc ..Welsh language might be very locally used but every addition to one,s knowledge is an achievement no matter it was small or big.

Really interesting article! I'm from Ukraine. It's bilingual country. Some people speak Ukrainian (most of them live in Western and Central Ukraine) and some people speak Russian (they live in the east of Ukraine). But the number of Ukrainian speakers get bigger and bigger. I think it's revival of Ukrainian language!

Thanks a lot British Council for this website . it's very useful for improving English.

Thank you British council the space of the preparation has been changed it looks more beautiful and it seems that it is more user friendly 

 that was really a useful article. 

Today many people have particular languages to guarantee their social identity in the moving society. Isn't it the case of Cornish speakers? 

I hope I can get  somethings to improve my english