Cornish in prehistory
The Cornish Language (Kernewek) is the direct descendant of the ancient language spoken by the Celtic settlers who inhabited Cornwall (Kernow) and most of the British Isles long before the Roman conquest.
The Old Cornish period lasted from around 800-1200AD and is the earliest Cornish for which records exist in the form of a Cornish-Latin dictionary and marginal notes in otherwise Latin or English documents.
Pascon agan Arluth
Pascon agan Arluth (The Passion of Our Lord) is the earliest extensive Middle Cornish text and is a poem of 259 stanzas.
The Ordinalia is a collection of three plays: Origo Mundi, Passio Christi and Resurrexio Domini, and was written to be performed in a Plain an Gwary, several of which still exist in Cornwall.
Beunans Meriasek is dated 1504 but is not thought to be the original document. It is the longest single extant work.
The Tregear Homilies are the earliest surviving Cornish prose, and are a collection of 12 sermons translated into Cornish. They appear to contain many more English borrowings than the poetry plays of this time.
Creation of the World
This play is similar to Origo Mundi, and includes Noah's flood.
Wella Rowe was born in St Buryan in the year 1660. He was a farmer in Sancreed. Late Cornish was his first language, and English his second. His wife, Florence, was also a Cornish speaker, but they did not speak Cornish with their children because many people were prejudiced against the language. We know Wella Rowe because he translated texts from the Bible; Genesis Chapter 1, 1-24, Matthew Chapter 2, 1-20, and Matthew Chapter 4. He also wrote a vocabulary but unfortunately the document of some 350 pages was lost during the 19th Century.
William Pryce was born in Redruth in about 1735, but we do not know exactly when, the only son of Samuel, a surgeon, and Catherine. His mother was the niece of William Borlase. William was orphaned while still young and he was raised by his relation Philip Webber, a lawyer.
William became a surgeon, working in Redruth. At the same time he bought shares in local mines, and managed some small mining operations. He was encouraged by Borlase to gather his notes about mining in a book. Pryce used manuscripts about the history of mining in Cornwall, his own notes and information from other people, and his Mineralogia Cornubiensis was published in 1778.
In 1783, William was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. In his Archaeologia Cornu-Britannica, published in 1790, he collected the works of Tonkin, Hals and others, and added to them information that he had gathered by speaking to old people who claimed that they spoke the language. Although he was accused of plagiarism, he described himself as the Editor and mentioned his sources in the foreword of the book.
Price died in December 1790 and was buried in Redruth.
By the nineteenth century, Cornish had died as a spoken community language, although there are records of the language being spoken particularly at sea by Newlyn fishermen. There was, however, a resurgence of interest in Celtic culture at this time and Cornish attracted some academic attention.
This Cornishman was born in St Columb Major on the 8th August, 1848. His father was Henry Lascelles Jenner, the vicar of the parish. In 1852, the family went to live in Kent, and Jenner went to St Mary’s School in Harlow, Essex. Here he discovered fragments of written Cornish.
Jenner returned to Cornwall on holiday in 1867, and studied the words on Dolly Pentreath’s memorial. In 1869 he began to study Cornish texts in the British Museum in London, and a year later he was appointed as assistant in the manuscript department.
In 1871, Jenner joined the Philological Society and read his first paper on the Cornish language on the 21st March, 1873. He often stayed in Cornwall, and married a Cornishwoman, Kitty Lee Rawlings in 1877. In the same year, he discovered the Charter Fragment, lines from a play that were written on the back of an old charter.
The tradition of the Gorsedd, or meeting of Bards, was revived at Boscawen-un, when Cornwall's first Grand Bard, Henry Jenner and 12 Bards were initiated by the Archdruid of Wales. The Gorsedd has been a staunch promoter of the language through the years and recently adopted the SWF.
Robert Morton Nance
Robert Morton Nance published his ‘Cornish for All’; a version of the language based on the medieval texts, known as Unified Cornish, and then in 1938 a Cornish-English dictionary.
During the 1980s and 1990s a number of other variants of the language were developed (Richard Gendall: Late Cornish; Ken George: Kenewek Kemmyn; Nicholas Williams: Unified Cornish Revised).
Recognised as a minority language by the EU, funding became available to allow the development of a standard spelling system for the language.
Standard Written Form
The ‘Standard Written Form’ was agreed in May 2008, for use in schools and in public life.
An Gerlyver Meur
The second edition of An Gerlyver Meur was published in 2009, the most comprehensive Cornish-English / English-Cornish dictionary to date, containing detailed etymologies and historical references.