So I am very curious about the Cornish language and the community that speaks it. I assume that it is still mainly second language speakers, if so how does that affect the language? Has it picked up any English grammar traits or does stay pretty true to the Cornish of the past. If anyone could tell me something about it I would be very thankful.
I’m not sure how accurate it is overall to talk of “the Cornish speaking community” — there’s actually no settled community anywhere in the world where the Cornish language is spoken on a day-to-day basis as anyone’s primary language. There are families where one or both parents speak Cornish fluently and raise their children to speak it, so it’s spoken in the home and with friends and relatives who also speak it. But overall there aren’t very many people who do or have done this. And even if they speak Cornish at home, they’ll have to revert to English as soon as they go out shopping, or when they go to school or the workplace. There just isn’t (yet?) a permanent and self-sustaining community of speakers who can and do use the language constantly in every aspect of their lives, as can be done with Welsh for those who live in a majority Welsh-speaking area. So yes, the only people who can be said to be first language speakers of Cornish are those few who’ve been raised speaking it at home, but there’s really no “total immersion” environment even for them (except for an occasional day or weekend at a language event).
“Pretty true to the Cornish of the past” is another thing that’s a bit debatable, since the Cornish language changed throughout its history and there’s been a LOT of disagreement in the revival movement over whether the reconstructed language should be based on the Middle Cornish period (when the number of fluent speakers and written texts was at the highest), the Late Cornish period (the language as it existed in the last century or so before it died out), or some mixture of the two. I can go into more detail if you’re interested, but the short of it is that the majority of Cornish speakers today lean more towards Revived Middle Cornish, probably because that’s the period for which we have the most documentation and where there was less mixing of the language with English. But Cornish as it’s spoken today isn’t completely identical with how it was at any given period in the past — which is true of any language, really, even those that have been spoken continually and kept on evolving, let alone one that was functionally dead for 120+ years and had to be reconstructed from a relatively small number of written records.
I don’t have a full knowledge of Cornish overall (I’m still a learner), but I know the grammar I’ve learned in classes and from textbooks is largely based on what we know from the old texts, with a bit of help at times from Welsh and Breton, the closest related languages, to fill in the occasional gaps. Learners and non-sticklers speaking Cornish informally do tend to throw in calques on English (or outright English words), naturally. But the language is still not spoken widely enough and consistently enough for there to be any really clear trends in how it will continue to evolve.
There’s definitely a tendency (at the official level — those who compile dictionaries and so on) for revived Cornish to coin new words out of existing Cornish roots or borrow them from Welsh and Breton, rather than using English loan-words. The argument behind that is essentially “Why bother speaking Cornish if we’re only going to fill it up with English words?” Of course the original language, in its late stage, did borrow a lot from English and the grammar became more English-influenced, simply because there were fewer and fewer fluent speakers and (historically) no dictionaries or grammar books. As I said, I believe that’s one of the reasons why most (not all) of the revivalists chose to focus on Middle Cornish as the main source of the revived language.
There have been some pretty bitter divisions in the language movement over which is the most “right” or “authentic” form to use and especially over whose spelling system is best — I won’t go into that — but I think in recent years that’s been easing off and most of us who love the Cornish language are just glad to see or hear it anywhere, in any form. There’s definitely increasing public awareness of it and interest in it, so we’ll just have to see where it goes — and hopefully, how it grows — from here.
Hope this is at least somewhat helpful… I’d be happy to put you in touch with some more experienced and knowledgeable people in the language movement if you’d like to know more.
Thank you very much this all very interesting. What is the Cornish that they teach on this site?I see there quite a few instruction books on Cornish, are they all the same or do some of them differ. Is it the same as what are in Dictionaries and written on official things in Cornwall? I would love to be in touch with someone who knows more about it. Thank you!
The Cornish on this site is what’s pretty much the “mainstream” sort now — mostly based on Middle Cornish, using the Standard Written Form (SWF) spelling system. SWF was developed fairly recently and it’s only in the last several years, really, that it’s become popular. Most recently published textbooks and other books in Cornish use either SWF or the previous most popular spelling system, Kernewek Kemmyn (KK). I think KK is probably still used by the majority of Cornish speakers, but there are only minor differences between it and SWF — if you can read one, you can easily read the other.
The biggest Cornish language organisations, Kesva an Taves Kernewek (the Cornish Language Board, which provides exams and correspondence courses) and the affiliated Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (the Cornish Language Fellowship, for people generally interested in the language), support both KK and SWF. There are also smaller organisations that promote other spelling systems, including Unified Cornish (the oldest modern-day spelling system that was developed early in the revival) and Late Cornish (based almost entirely on the late period of the historical language) and one or two other systems that have been proposed over the years. Realistically, though, KK and SWF are by far the most popular and SWF is the system that’s been designed for public use, so that’s the one you’ll mostly see on official things in Cornwall and that is the way the bulk of the language movement is going now.
As for getting in touch with others, Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek / the Cornish Language Fellowship, as I said, is the biggest general organisation for speakers and learners and for promoting the language, so that’s the one I’d recommend. Their website is a little hard to navigate, but there’s a lot of good general info there, and if you go to “A-dro dhyn / About us” and click “Contact”, you’ll get their contact details for enquiries. Most of the really active people in the Cornish language movement are members of the Kowethas — I don’t know who they currently have as enquiry responder(s), but they will definitely be able to answer any questions and point you to the best places to get more information about any aspect of the language.
Oll an gwella (all the best)!
Dydh da Courtenay
I’m quite fascinated by Kernewek and the similarities with Welsh. I’m wondering Why the “LL” in Kernewek, in the word “arall” for instance, is not pronounced as it would be in Welsh? Do you know by any chance? I know both descended from Brittonic and wondered when they diverged, or if the Welsh LL sound was a casualty of Kernewek never having been recorded and was assumed by early revivalists to sound as it would in English?
Dydh da Howard,
That’s a good question and I think you’d have to ask an expert linguist for a proper answer — I’m still only a student and have been learning mostly on my own (and have put my studies mostly on hold in the past couple of years, as I’ve been busy with other things).
To my knowledge, a lot of the early revivalists of Kernewek were also familiar with Welsh, so my guess is that they wouldn’t have automatically assumed an English-style pronunciation. One of the difficulties too is that Kernewek never had an official standardised spelling system at any time in its history, prior to the revival (and there’s been more than enough contention over the spelling since then, but never mind). So even back when Kernewek presumably had the same sound that “LL” represents in Welsh, it wouldn’t necessarily have been written with that spelling. “Arall”, incidentally, is spelled “aral” in some of the modern orthographies, but I’m not sure how it was spelled in the ancient texts.
Anyway, that’s really just guesswork on my part. I’m not sure who the best person would be to answer historical linguistic questions, but you could try contacting Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (the Cornish Language Fellowship), which is the largest of the several language organisations, and ask if they can help you.
Oll an gwella (all the best)!
(Hmmm, now I think about it, “gwella” (“best”), if pronounced with a Welsh-style “LL”, would sound a bit too close to “gwettha” — which means “worst”. Maybe that’s why that sound was dropped in Kernewek… )
Diolch & Meur Ras Courtenay
That makes sense to me, that the “ll” was not necessarily spelt like that originally. Fascinating stuff!