Page 2 of 2
History of Cornish
The history of Cornish
The Cornish language was the language of Cornwall from the time of the Dark Ages through to the late Middle Ages. At its peak, Cornish is estimated to have been spoken by as many as 38,000 people. Although a predominantly spoken language, Cornish did have a literary tradition, chiefly in the form of religious drama and verse. Cornwall's significant trading links with Brittany also meant that it was a language of commerce.
During the 16th century, use of Cornish diminished - especially in east Cornwall, as the area came under the influence of the Tudor state. This resulted in the use of English in the upper orders of society and within the new industries which subsequently developed in Cornwall. Nevertheless, knowledge of Cornish and, to some extent, speaking ability continued to be transmitted through family and social networks.
However, the upheavals of the 17th century Civil War and other rebellions further destabilised the language. In 1700, Edward Lhuyd, a noted scientist and anthropologist, visited Cornwall and reported the language to be in substantial decline and limited to the western extremities of the county, where fishing communities especially kept it alive into the 19th century. These sources helped scholars in the 19th century compile the first dictionaries and learners' lessons in the language, crucial for its survival. A landmark was Jenner's 'Handbook'.
The 20th century witnessed the beginnings of a revival. Between the first and second World Wars, a number of key language and cultural institutions were established. Gradually, after the Second World War, the revival gathered impetus as new journals were established. Jenner's original work was revised by Nance and came to be called Unified (Unys) Cornish and a Cornish Language Board was established in 1967.
However, by the early 1980s, disquiet grew with Nance's updated Unified Cornish due to problems with spelling, pronunciation and word usage noted by Dr. Ken George. Richard Gendall was developing ideas of basing the revived language upon its later vernacular and written forms. These were the seeds of the 'tri-partite split' between Unified Cornish, which was based upon the late mediaeval classic texts; Gendall's Late/Modern Cornish; and those who adopted Dr. Ken George's version of Common Cornish (Kemynn). The debate over the revival versions was addressed at public meetings and the Language Board adopted Kemynn.
The language controversies had a stimulating effect upon public awareness of the language and attracted a new generation of learners. Kemynn is the variety which dominates spoken and written Cornish today.