Overview of Historical Background

The Cornish language, unlike the Anglo-Cornish dialect, which is an English dialect spoken in Cornwall, is one of the three living members of the Brythonic family, the other two being Welsh and Breton. The appearance of Cornish as a distinct language dates to about 600 AD as a result of the evolution of the Brythonic language spoken in the south-western region of Great Britain. Its closest relative, however, is not Welsh, but Breton, since both languages were mutually comprehensible for centuries. Moreover, there are many duplicate names in Cornwall and Brittany, with one of the most obvious examples being Kernow, the Celtic name for Cornwall, which is also a region in Brittany.1 This close linguistic relationship facilitated frequent contacts between Cornwall and Brittany until at least the sixteenth century and helped to maintain the language in certain contexts. Cornish remained the daily language for most of the Cornish population for about a thousand years, when it was gradually replaced by English. The last reported monoglot, Dolly Pentrey, died in 1777, although the last reported speaker of traditional Cornish was John Davey, who died in 1891 (Dalby 2006:113). As happens with almost all known languages, the history of Cornish is a history of evolution, acquisition of new vocabulary, grammar developments and orthography adaptations. For that reason, the history of the Cornish language can be divided into five periods from its birth to the twenty-first century:

  1. Primitive Cornish, which lasted from about AD 600 to 800. There are no written records of this phase, but it is logical to think that during those centuries Cornish was probably very similar to other Brythonic dialects of the area, such as primitive Welsh and Devonic. The beginning of Cornish as a separate language must be linked to the political and social events that followed the abandonment of Britain by the Roman forces. During this period of time, the arrival of some Germanic tribes from the continent pushed the Celts westwards and northwards and by 570 AD the Western Britons were finally confined to an area west of Gloucester. While most of them lived in the mountains of west Britain, in the territory called Weallas, the land of the foreigners, by the Saxons, others remained in the westernmost peninsula of the south-west Britain in the land called Dumnonia, modern Devon and Cornwall (McDowall 2006:11).

  2. Old Cornish is the name given to the phase which lasted from AD 800 to 1200. There are just a few pages preserved from the end of that period, the most important of which is the Vocabularium Cornicum, dated to about 1100 AD. It is apparently based on the earlier "English-Latin Lexicon" of Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham (c. 955 - c. 1010). Interestingly, the manuscript appeared under the Latin title Vocabularium Wallicum and for some time it was considered to be old Welsh. It was not until the eighteenth century that Edward Lhuyd identified the list of words as Cornish not Welsh (1707:222). Since then, the new designation, Vocabularium Cornicum, has been widely held to be a Cornish vocabulary (Mills 2010b). The confusion between the two languages is not surprising, since it was only after the battle of Dyrham in 577 AD that the Saxons cut communication by land between the Celts of future Wales and those of Dumnonia. For a period of time, both groups must have spoken the same Brythonic language, with natural dialectal varieties. However, after four centuries of relative isolation, changes on both sides of the Bristol Channel must have produced different but similar languages, the stage probably represented by the Vocabularium Cornicum. Meanwhile, the Dumnonii were ruled by Celtic kings from the land that is now Devon. Their kingdom, however, was not a strong one, since the Saxon hordes continued to advance, pushing the Celts south-westwards. This led a significant percentage of Britons to abandon their homeland for territories such as Galicia and Asturias in the north-western Iberian Peninsula, where they founded the county of Britonia, and Armorica, which was renamed Brittany or Little Britain—Breten Vyhan—in contrast with the Great Britain, after them. The depopulation of Dumnonia made it easier for the Saxon kings to complete their conquest, and by AD 936 the Saxon King Athelstan had confined the West Weallas to the peninsula west of River Tamar, basically the same territory that constitutes the county of Cornwall today. Cornwall, however, was not a truly independent Celtic country, but a satellite of the new and mighty Kingdom of England, a situation that ended only when the Normans conquered Britain. The English spoken by the ruling classes was replaced by Norman-French and Breton, while Latin continued to be the language of the official documents and of the Cornish Church. Moreover, Cornwall had become a more diverse place, where Cornish natives lived alongside Saxons (English), Normans, Irish, Flemish and Bretons (George 2009:489).

  3. The Middle Cornish period lasted from AD 1200 to c. 1575. Although these centuries are gathered into a single phase, Middle Cornish can be subdivided into two parts: the first dates from about 1200 to 1497, the most productive era since about 75 percent of the traditional corpus dates from these centuries (George 2009:488); the second lasted from AD 1497—the year of the Cornish Rebellion against the English Monarchy—until 1575. This sub-period marks the decline of the language, with an estimated 60 percent of Cornish speakers residing in the country, most of them living west of Bodmin (Kent 2006:489). Despite Cornish loss of territory and the reduction in native speakers, mystery plays continued to be performed at open air theatres called plenys an gwary. They were important events within the communities. Some of these plays have been preserved until today, including a trilogy titled Ordinalia that consists of three plays: Ordinale de Origine Mundi or Origo Mundi (The Beginning of the World), Passio Domini Nostri Jhesu Christi or Passio Christi (Christ's Passion), and Ordinale de Resurrexione Domini or Resurrexio Domini (the Resurrection of the Lord). Some other examples of Cornish mystery plays are Beunans Ke (The Life of St Ke), Beunans Meriasek (The Life of St Meriasek) and Gwreans an Bys (The Creation of the World). The mystery plays reflected Catholic doctrine and tradition and they were very popular as long as Cornwall remained faithful to the Church of Rome. In fact, the language of Cornwall and the Catholic Church were closely linked. The eventual change in religious allegiances also resulted in a change in linguistic allegiances: the College of Glasney, where the mystery plays are believed to have been composed, was suppressed in 1548 and English was introduced into religious services in 1549.2 Moreover, contacts with Brittany were reduced when the continental Duchy lost its independence and became a subsidiary of the Catholic Kingdom of France.

  4. The fourth period of traditional Cornish, called Late Cornish,3 lasted from about AD 1575 until the death of Cornish as a community language in the early nineteenth century. During this period, Cornwall and England were still regarded as different countries, as evidenced by the references to Anglia and Cornubia found in several maps of the time (Figure 1). However, the language of Cornwall had already fallen into a deep abyss from which there was no apparent possibility of escape. During just over two centuries, Cornish went from being the primary language spoken by half the country to a curiosity for linguists and later a subject for antiquarians. The language of Cornwall had become a "backward language" and was a language associated with Catholics. Cornish gentry completely abandoned it and ordinary people followed their example, although the latter process took longer, as documented by Richard Carew's 17th century account of Cornishmen and women refusing to speak English (Carew 1602:152).4 Cornish therefore became the tongue of the poor and of the fishermen of the western part of the peninsula, while English acquired the status of the dominant language of the rest of the population. Relatively few works were written in Cornish during this period. However, some middle class intellectuals, realising the terminal situation of their native language, began to translate texts, John Keigwin (1641 – c.1720) among them. Other authors and scholars who used the Cornish language and whose works have survived to our time were Nicholas Boson (c. 1624 – 1703) and his son John (1665 – c. 1720), Thomas Boson, William Gwavas (1676 – 1741), Henry Usticke, John Tonkin, William Rowe, Oliver Pender, James Jenkin and Thomas Tonkin (Kent 2006: 482). Nevertheless, probably the most important contribution to Cornish was made by a Welsh scholar, Edward Lhyud, who arrived in Cornwall in 1700 and tried to describe both the language and its status at that time. Despite the efforts of such men, Cornish was doomed. One of the last documents originally written in Cornish was a commentary by William Bodinar who in 1776 lamented the situation of the language and announced its near death with the words: "There are no more than four or five in our village who can speak Cornish now, old folk of fourscore years. Cornish is all forgotten by young people" (George 2009:491). By the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century only isolated speakers remained, if any. Curiously, the German polyglot Georg Sauerwein wrote two poems in Cornish in 1865, and some other scholars such as Edwin Norris (1859) collected and translated old Cornish works into English (George 2009: 494).

  5. Figure 1. Map of the British Isles published by Sebastian Müster in 1550 showing the five countries of the area: Anglia, Scotia, Wallia, Hibernia and Corneuall.
    Figure 1. Map of the British Isles published by Sebastian Müster in 1550 showing the five countries of the area: Anglia, Scotia, Wallia, Hibernia and Corneuall.

  6. The last stage of the Cornish language is represented by its revival, which will be discussed in detail in the second half of this document.

Contributory Factors in the Decline

The loss of the language must be viewed as a long and slow process spanning 600 year period from AD 1200 to the 19th century but with its roots in the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries, which represented the first negative consequences for the Celtic language. After the slow decline of the first few centuries post-1200, the killing of Cornish had an effective accelerator in the arrival of the Tudors and the Reformation, which suffocated all possibilities its survival. The remaining elements involved in the decline of the language are, in one way or another, related to those main points.

The Anglo-Saxon Conquest

Southern Britannia, which roughly corresponds to modern England, Wales and Cornwall, was invaded several times from the Continent. By the beginning of our era, the Roman army had invaded and colonised Britannia and remained there for about four centuries. Although Rome left its linguistic imprint in words such as the Cornish fenester (window), stret (street) or lyther (letter), Latin did not represent a real threat for the aboriginal languages of the island, unlike the impact of Romanisation on the Celtic languages of Hispania and Gallia. In fact, as soon as the Roman army abandoned its northernmost province around AD 409, Latin vanished, allowing most local languages and dialects to continue to develop.

The end of the Roman province of Britannia did not signal the end of the problems for the Celts living there. In fact, a new wave of invaders began to arrive to the island in the form of Germanic tribes from modern-day Denmark, northern Germany and the Netherlands who had noticed the prosperity of Britain and had conducted raids there for some time. The chaotic situation that followed the Roman retreat resulted in the settling of Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the eastern regions of the isle of Britain. After about 150 years they controlled most of the land that is now England, with the following consequences for the Brythonic Celts: 1) a massive Brythonic out-migration from Britain led to settlements in other areas of Celtic Europe, including Armorica and the ancient Roman province of Gallaecia (Koch 2006: 276, 291); 2) some Celts became assimilated, becoming English subjects (Weale et al. 2001:1018); and 3) the final group consisted of those who stayed in Britain and maintained their language and culture. That population was gradually restricted to an area west of Gloucester, the regions that are Wales, Cornwall, and Cumbria today, as well as a few counties outside those areas. The new kingdom of England became the main power in the island, and its language was the language of its rulers. Most positions of power and responsibility in Cornwall were assigned to Saxons during this time (George 2009: 489).

The Anglo-Saxon dominance was interrupted 300 years later when, during the Norman conquest, the Saxon élite of Cornwall was replaced by a new ruling class from Brittany whose language, Breton, was very similar to Cornish. However, the affluence of Bretons in their ancient homeland is not only seen in the aristocracy sent by Normans, but also in the lower classes, since wages in Cornwall were better than in Brittany. In fact, Bretons represent more than ten percent of the population in some areas of Cornwall at this time (George 2009:489). Interestingly, some scholars refer to this period of Cornish history as the "Armorican Return" (Mills 2010a:193). Also related to the presence of Armoricans in Cornwall is a theory that links them with the origin of the name for the Cornish language. According to Williams (2006:94), until the arrival of the Armorican Bretons, people from Cornwall probably called their language Brethonek, but the need to distinguish the insular Breton from the Continental Breton or Brezhoneg, might have resulted in the creation of a new name, in this case Kernewek, which means "language of Cornwall". In spite of the waves of immigration, it is estimated that about three quarters of the population of Cornwall were Cornish speakers at this time (Mills 2010a:195), with only a marginal zone of about ten kilometres in the easternmost part of Cornwall inhabited by English speakers.

As mentioned previously, this state of affairs lasted about three centuries. After AD 1300, everything continued according the plan designed by the Saxons. Once again, English became the language of the ruling classes while local languages were condemned as mere nuisances for both the rulers, who came from England and were English monoglots, and for the rest of the population, mainly monoglot in their own languages and totally unable to progress unless they learned to speak the language of the rulers. Cornish, however, retained part of the force that the Norman domination had allowed it and it was still spoken by most people. It even enjoyed some prestige among the gentry, who used it in family mottoes (Mills 2010a:194). The local language was also used to name some streets in the roughly twenty new towns established during that period, evidence that Cornish was not confined to rural areas. Nevertheless, this time there was no obstacle for London to continue its social and linguistic policy of domination in Cornwall. After two centuries of submission to England, Cornish had lost all the regions between Fowey-Pastow and the river Tamar.

The Tudors and the Reformation

In 1485 a new dynasty took over the English Crown, the Tudors. Its first king, Henry VII (1485-1509) was half Welsh and apparently felt a strong attraction for his Celtic heritage, based on the fact that he fought the battle of Bosworth under the emblem of the Welsh Red Dragon. Moreover, Henry promoted the ancient legend of King Arthur, suggesting that there was a connection between himself and the mythic king of Camelot. The new "Celtic" king also appointed loyal Cornish men to high posts in his court and even gave to his eldest son—the heir of the throne of England—the name of Arthur, bestowing the title of Duke of Cornwall upon him.

Despite his interest in old myths, however, Henry VII was not an idealistic or quixotic king. He was a pragmatic ruler who had the aim of creating a powerful country in order to resist the influences of the main European giants, especially the kingdoms of France and Spain. To that end, he made some unpopular decisions, including raising taxes and centralising control, suspending some institutions of self-government within the kingdom. One of the first of those decisions affecting Cornwall was the suspension in 1496 of the Stannary Parliament. That resolution also allowed the King to raise taxes to finance his war against Scotland. The impoverished Cornish did not understand why their money had to be invested in such a project and Michael Joseph, known as An Gof, Cornish for "The Blacksmith", from St Keverne, and a lawyer from Bodmin, Thomas Flamank, incited the people of Cornwall to revolt against Henry VII in 1497. The adventure ended, as could have been expected, with the victory of the larger and better prepared army of King Henry (Mills 2010a:196).

The Cornish Rebellion had been intended to strengthen Cornwall and its people. Instead it caused the deaths of about 2,000 men and reduced to slavery to many of the 13,000 rebels who survived the attack of King Henry. Whether the Rebellion was a demonstration of Cornish distinctiveness or even a form of early nationalism is debatable but what is clear is the effect that it had on the Cornish language. In a country with an estimated population of 50,000 people, including children and women, the deaths of 2,000 men and the enslavement of some additional thousands—most of them Cornish speakers—must be considered a loss of almost a generation of men capable of rearing families and transmitting the language to the next generation.5 This initial Rebellion was followed four months later by another uprising against the King of England, this time supporting the pretender to the English throne, Perkin Warbeck. Unfortunately for Cornwall, England won this engagement also (Stoyle 2002: 20-21).

Both events were a clear sign that the Celtic connection which Henry Tudor claimed to possess had vanished in the land of King Arthur. The relationship between Cornwall and the English Crown became bitter and sometimes violent. Some examples of this warfare have come down to us in the form of mystery plays, theatrical performances with a religious background such as Bible episodes and lives of Saints. In the one entitled Passio Domini, the writer calls Jesus "son of Joseph the old blacksmith" (verse 1695), in a clear reference to Michael Joseph "An Gof". In two other plays, Bewnans Ke and Bewnans Meriasek, the wicked pagan king is called Teudar, which in Cornish basically has the same pronunciation as Tudor, who is said to possess no legal right over Cornwall (Mills 2010a:196-7).

Despite the challenges for Cornwall and its language posed by the reign of Henry VII, Cornish continued to be widely spoken in the westernmost areas of the county. In fact, it seems that the local language enjoyed relatively good health, with new mystery plays being composed and performed in open-air theatres, sermons being delivered in Cornish every Sunday, and a majority of Cornish speakers stretching from Land's End to Bodmin. The religious domain was, therefore, the main arena in which the Cornish language continued to be kept alive. However, in 16th century Europe, religion was not a safe haven and the Reformation that began in Germany spread across all of Europe, changing beliefs, rulers and traditions.

Meanwhile, the financial situation in England was extremely chaotic. The first Tudor, Henry VII, was a capable ruler who, by the time of his death, left behind the huge amount of two million pounds—about fifteen years' worth of income. Henry VIII, however, spent vast sums on maintaining an efficient court and establishing himself as an important influence in European politics. Moreover, gold and silver acquired by Spain in the Americas worsened the economic situation of England, precipitating a financial crisis (McDowall 2006: 69). In fact, all the measures taken by the King failed, leaving the religious realm as the only salvation for England's dire financial deficit, but not in a traditional way. Henry's father had become powerful by expropriating the lands of his nobles, but by the days of his son, the only huge landowner left was the Church. Fortunately for the King, the Roman Catholic Church was also in crisis due to the behaviour of many members of the clergy, which had infuriated people across Europe, leading to the spread of the Protestant Reformation. Those factors, along with some personal conflicts with the Church of Rome, led Henry VIII to break England's relationship with the Pope, creating a new national church, the Church of England. Since at first most doctrines were basically the same for both churches the only difference was in who owned and governed the institution. In England, Henry took over the position that the Pope had occupied in Rome, allowing him to manage all the resources of the new Church (McDowall 2006:69).

This news was not well received around the kingdom. Since the introduction of Celtic Christianity, Cornwall had been a stronghold of Catholicism. Although masses were held in Latin, as in the rest of Catholic Europe, the Roman Church had been tolerant of the Celtic language of Cornwall. In fact, the Cornish language was used in most religious contexts, since this was the only way to be understood by the local population. In addition to the tin miners' patron, Saint Piran, the County shared some of its venerable men with Ireland, Wales, and especially with Brittany. As discussed previously, the mystery plays were one of the most popular activities in the country, filling up open-air theatres with hundreds of viewers. In order to counteract the religiously conservative spirit of most of England, Wales and Cornwall, King Henry VIII ordered the dismantling of the monasteries (1536-45), the removal of all symbols of Catholicism and even the banning of pilgrimages and processions. Once again, Cornwall demonstrated its nonconformity with the policy of the Crown by killing its envoy, William Body, in 1548.

One of the last episodes linking the Roman Church with the Cornish language and culture was the suppression of the Kollji Glasneth, Glasney College, in April 1548. Founded in 1265 in Penryn, for about three hundred years Glasney College was the most important religious and cultural institution in Cornwall. To illustrate its importance, it must be mentioned that the Ordinalia which includes the plays Ordinale de Origine Mundi, Passio Domini Nostri Jhesu Christi, and Ordinale de Resurrexione Domini, as well as two other plays, namely Beunans Ke and Beunans Meriase, were composed at Glasney. The end of Glasney College in particular, and the banning of the Catholic Church in general, are therefore considered to mark the end of the main bastion of traditional culture in Cornwall (Mills 2010a:197).

Nevertheless, the goal of London was much more than suppressing monasteries and banning the Catholic Church. What started in the 1530s as a political process became part of the Protestant Reformation. The primary objective of the Crown was to educate the population in the new faith in order to weaken the still strong influence of the Pope in England. To that end, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, replaced in 1549 the four old liturgical volumes in Latin with the new Book of Common Prayer, published in English. The Catholics in Devon and Cornwall reacted against that new measure and revolted against the royal power. In Cornwall, another uprising—the third in just 52 years—implied more than resistance to changing old beliefs; it indicated a strong desire to preserve one culture in preference to another that was considered foreign by the inhabitants of the County, as illustrated by one of the demands made by the resistance: "...and so we the Cornyshe men, whereof certain of us understand no English, utterly refuse this new English" (Jago 1887: ii). The Prayer Book Rebellion, as it is called, was quickly quashed by the English Government. The Royal troops, along with mercenaries from Germany and Italy, advanced through Devon and entered Cornwall, annihilating the "rebels". The English fought in the field but they also executed unarmed men, including the 900 Cornishmen who were killed in the space of ten minutes at Clyst Heath. Villages were burned along with their inhabitants, as in the case of Clyst St Mary. The "brutal and stupid behaviour of the English", paraphrasing Bill Ind, Bishop of Truro in 2007,6 led to the death of half of the Cornish speaking adult male population. Moreover, English was finally introduced in all religious services throughout Cornwall, whether it was understood or not.

Ten years later, in 1559, Queen Elizabeth I introduced a new Act of Uniformity inciting the Church to preach in the language of the people. The words of the Head of the Church produced visible results when Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer was translated into French (1553), Welsh, and Scottish Gaelic (1567), Irish (1608), and even into Manx Gaelic (1608). No translations into Cornish of the Book of Common Prayer or the Bible were commissioned, however, possibly as punishment for the strong anti-Tudor feeling that the country had shown since the beginning of the dynasty. That measure in particular showed a total lack of respect for thousands of subjects of the English Crown who wanted to have the information in a language that they could understand, but also signified a loss for Cornish of its last prestigious domain: religion. From that moment on, Cornish became the almost-unwritten language of the lower classes of Western Cornwall (Jago 1887: v). An example of the stigmatisation of the Celtic language is represented by the case of the Cornish writer Nicholas Boson (c. 1650), who commented that his mother had forbidden the family's servants to address him in Cornish, so that he could not learn the language (George 2009:531-2).

An external factor that must be taken into consideration in the final decline of Cornish is the situation of Brittany, Cornwall's sister nation and best ally. After being defeated by French troops in 1488, Francis II, Duke of Brittany, was forced to allow the King of France to determine the marriage of the Duke's daughter. Thus, Duchess Anne was obliged to marry Louis XII of France. After Anne's death, Brittany passed to her daughter, Claude, whose husband, Francis I of France, incorporated the Duchy into the kingdom of France in 1532 (Minard 2006: 10). The new status of Brittany caused a change in attitude in London, which now considered the Celtic Duchy to be simply a Catholic French region, while Paris considered Cornwall a Protestant English county. As a result of the oppositional dynamic created by the dominant political powers, the relationship between Brittany and Cornwall was clearly doomed. Far more than a mere "Brythonic or Celtic brotherhood", the connection between the two regions could be considered both a cultural and economic alliance. By the end of the 15th century, Breton traders accounted for 47 percent of shipping at Fowey, 47 percent at St Ives, 54 percent at Penzance, 63 percent at Padstow, and 94 percent at Mounts Bay, while in the English-only and ethnically Saxon Plymouth, in nearby Devon, Bretons accounted just for 10 percent of the trade (Hicks 2005:11). Cornish and Breton, which were mutually intelligible, became undesirable regional tongues of alien states and would never be used again as a common trade and culture language in the Channel, except for personal and occasional interactions.

Despite the lack of official recognition, despite the compulsory education in English, despite the lack of a Bible translation, despite the lack of popular support, despite having changed the language status into a simple home patois, it took more than 250 years to kill Cornish. The remoteness of Cornwall helped the language to survive at the community level until at least the beginning of the 19th century. Then, after a silence of slightly more than a hundred years, Cornish would be heard again in the streets of Cornwall, but this time as a revived language.

The Cornish Language Revival Movement

Although the spirit of the language was still alive in place names, surnames, dialect words, and even in pamphlets and studies about it, the Celtic language had apparently ceased to be a tool for daily communication by the Cornish people during the first half of the nineteenth century, as the Strategy for the Cornish Language recognises (Cornwall Council 2004:3). Studies of the Cornish language were typically aimed at a scholarly audience, such as the work Sketch of the Cornish Language, published in 1859 by Edwin Norris, and the Lexicon Cornu-Britannicum, published in 1865 by Robert Williams, or were tools designed "to preserve what is left of the old language of Cornwall", as F. W. P. Jago declared in the introduction of his English-Cornish Dictionary, published in 1887 (Jago 1887: xiv). During the 19th century, however, there was no clear intention to resuscitate Cornish. It was not until about a hundred years after the living language became extinct that an event occurred that would change the history of Cornwall and even that of international linguistics. In 1904, Henry Jenner, a Cornish member of the Gorsedd (Assembly) of Bards of Brittany, published a book entitled A Handbook of the Cornish Language. In clear contrast with previous works about the ancient language of Cornwall, the Handbook was "principally intended for those persons of Cornish nationality who wish to acquire some knowledge of their ancient tongue, and to read, write, and perhaps even to speak it" (italics added) (Jenner 1904: ix). According to Jenner, even though the local Celtic language was not really useful and its literature was scanty and derivative, there was still a powerful reason to encourage people in Cornwall to learn it: "because they are Cornishmen" (Jenner 1904: xi).

While interest in Cornish steadily grew during the first decades of the twentieth century, the language was still mainly used in its written form and spoken Cornish, due to the difficulties encountered by Cornish speakers in finding others with whom to converse, was only heard on ceremonial occasions, such as the annual Gorsedh (Cornish for "Assembly of Bards") or at church services. The revival required some vital tools to ensure its progress, one of which was a standardised system of spelling. The texts in traditional Cornish that survived until the twentieth century contained about 176,000 words7 (George and Broderick 2009:754) from different periods (from c. 800 AD to c. 1800) and different parts of Cornwall. Different dialects were always written according to authors' own choice, resulting in numerous variants of the same word, a real obstacle for a written language. In order to overcome this problem, in 1929 Morton Nance published Cornish for All, in which he outlined a standard form for the language referred to as Unified Cornish or Kernewek Unys. Although Jenner assumed that the language was in its final stages when he initiated the revival, Nance based his spelling mainly on Middle Cornish and particularly on the Ordinalia. Although Nance's code was intended to be a solution to the issue of spelling, it never satisfied everyone and during the next decades a lack of agreement regarding spelling became the most prominent difficulty that Revived Cornish had to overcome.

In the sixteenth century, when Cornish was still a living language, the Welshman Edward Lhuyd created a system of spelling the then almost entirely oral language. This system was published in his Archæologia Britannica (1707). However, because Cornish was the language of the largely poor and illiterate people of Cornwall, this system did not succeed and finally disappeared with the spoken language. The beginning of the revival in1929 was marked by Nance's Unified Cornish, the only spelling system available for revived Cornish. However, in the 1970s the new emphasis on the spoken language and its correct pronunciation became increasingly important. Some speakers began to question Nance's spelling, suggesting that it was not as accurate as it seemed. In 1979, Saunders published the first criticism of Unified Cornish (George and Broderick 2009: 756). Moreover he created another spelling system based on Lhuyd's spelling. However, this system was so different from Nance's that it did not gain acceptance among Cornish speakers. Another small group questioned not only the spelling of revived Cornish, but also the foundations of the system upon which it was based. As previously explained, Nance based his spelling and grammar on Middle Cornish, the language as spoken in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while the group led by Richard Gendall considered that the revived language must be based on the last stages of the traditional language, that is to say, as it was spoken in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, as Gendall (1991) notes, "the only indications that we have for the pronunciation of our living language refer to its latest, most modern stage, and any other system proposed from an earlier period must necessarily be theoretical and open to doubt" (Gendall 1991: iii). Gendall's theories produced another popular spelling system for revived Cornish, Nowedga or Late Cornish. At almost the same time, Ken George created a new orthography, Kernewek Kemmyn or Common Cornish, based on the pronunciation that Middle Cornish is supposed to have had (Bock et al. 2010: 4). This version became the most popular spelling system and was adopted by the Kesva an Taves Kernewek or Cornish Language Board. Nevertheless, unanimity remained elusive as most Cornish speakers as well as some organisations continued to back Unified Cornish and Late Cornish. It was not until 2008, after long meetings and deliberations of representatives of all the organisations supporting the language and partisans of all the spelling systems of revived Cornish assisted by international experts, that Cornish was finally provided with an official, universally accepted spelling system. That new system would become known as the Standard Written Form (SWF), in Cornish Furv Skrifys Savonek. As Albert Bock and Benjamin Bruch stated in their Outline of the Standard Written Form "The Standard Written Form (SWF) for Cornish represents a common ground for users of all existing orthographies and for speakers of all varieties of Revived Cornish" (2008:1).

An additional obstacle faced by Revived Cornish was the incompleteness of its syntax, semantics and lexicon. Since Cornish had been silent for about a century, there was no possibility of consulting with traditional speakers in order to fill in gaps or resolve inconsistencies. The issue of grammar and syntax was basically resolved by Nance and A. S. D. Smith between 1920 and 1940 using the works of Lhuyd (1707), Stokes (1872) and Breton grammar, the closest language to Cornish, as a comparative model. Although there were some mistakes in the reconstruction, these were rectified as soon as they came to light. However, the problem with the lexicon was more complicated. During the first decades of the revival, learners used the old dictionaries such as Lexico Cornu-Britannicum, by Williams (1865), or the English-Cornish Dictionary, by Jago (1887), both based on traditional Cornish, since these had been printed before the revival. Although these volumes were useful tools for scholars and translators of the ancient texts, they were not sufficiently up to date for twentieth century speakers. The preserved works in Cornish were mainly religious plays and short texts and their vocabulary was rather limited. Moreover, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had been marked by many changes in society, science and obviously, industry. English and most other living languages had added many new words to their dictionaries while Cornish remained stagnant. In order to be able to use the language in a contemporary context, Cornish had to add not only the missing traditional words but also many necessary neologisms that would allow its use in modern times.

The first dictionary for users of revived Cornish was published in 1934 by Morton Nance and Arthur S. D. Smith, where the Cornish equivalents of the English headwords were given in Unified Cornish (Hawke 2006: 596-597). This work not only gathered all the vocabulary found in the then known texts in traditional Cornish, but it also incorporated terms extracted from Cornish place-names. Neologisms were added by using Welsh and Breton cognates and Celtic words from the English dialect spoken in Cornwall, although occasionally some words from Middle English were borrowed as well. During the next decades, the development of neologisms replaced (at least in part) loanwords from other Celtic languages while the discovery of new texts confirmed the accuracy of many of the conjectured missing words. All the advances were summarised in two other Cornish-English dictionaries published by Morton Nance in 1952 and 1955 (Hawke 2006: 596-597). It would not be until the 1990s that new dictionaries would be published that included neologisms created in the preceding 35 years. In 1991 Richard Gendall published A Student's Dictionary of Modern Cornish, where all the Late Cornish spelling variants are provided for each English headword. In 1993 Ken George published Gerlyver Kernewek Kemmyn, based on the new spelling system that had been developed for the language, Common Cornish. Since then, a number of other dictionaries and vocabularies have been released; the latest, An English – Cornish Glossary in the Standard Written Form (Bock et al. 2010), is intended to serve as a provisional link between the various different spelling systems found in earlier dictionaries and the still unfinished project of a full dictionary in the Standard Written Form.

Revivalist Organisations

The first years of the Cornish revival, from 1904 until the early 1920s, were hampered by a lack of organisational leadership. Individuals who were usually isolated from one another studied the language on their own. Although there were obviously a handful of people with some knowledge of Cornish, the language was still a relic from the past that was used almost exclusively in its written form. The end of the First World War brought about a deep change for the revival of Cornish. In the 1920s two important organisations were established, namely the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies in 1920 and the Gorsedh Kernow in 1928. Both institutions served as key instruments of language revival during the inter-war period. The Gorsedh in particular held annual competitions for original works written in Cornish, which aided in the promotion of a modern Cornish literature. Although the Second World War was another obstacle for the still weak Cornish Revival Movement, it could not stop the process of resuscitation of the language that had already begun. The 1960s saw the creation of new organisations to promote Cornish, including in 1967 the Kesva an Taves Kernewek or Cornish Language Board, formed to organise and supervise examinations in Cornish and to publish books. In addition to the above mentioned bodies, the second half of the twentieth century saw the creation of other revivalist groups. These organisations often took part in the polemic issue of spelling, supporting one or other of the written forms. Among these, Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (Fellowship of the Cornish Language) decided to choose Common Cornish as its official spelling, although it offered courses in Unified Cornish as well. The stronghold of Unified Cornish was Agan Tavas (Our Language), and finally Cussel an Tavas Kernuak (Council of the Cornish Language) promoted Late Cornish. By the year 2,000, an independent Cornish language study undertaken on behalf of the Government Office of the South West identified 40 organisations promoting Cornish in different categories, from the language itself, to its use in politics, media, or daily life in general (Sgrùd 2000:33).

Contrary to expectations, the appearance of all these supporting groups did not mean an easier life for the resurrected language. In fact, these organisations not only backed different spelling systems, but also declared a linguistic civil war on one another that lasted for decades. During those years, indifference towards supporters of variant Cornish language systems, insults and even disqualifications were more the rule than the exception. However, most language activists were ultimately interested in the survival of the language and some raised their voices demanding the end of the spelling conflict and the creation of a single, official and neutral spelling system to be used in schools and in public life (Bock and Bruch 2008: v). The efforts to promote the language began to bear fruit and on 5 November 2002 the UK Government recognised Cornish as a British minority language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The process begun that day gave more credibility to Cornish and under the direction of political, language, and cultural entities, 2005 saw the creation of a new organisation: the Keskowethyas an Taves Kernewek or Cornish Language Partnership, also known by the name Maga Kernow. As described on its website, Maga Kernow was set up to oversee the implementation of the Cornish Language Development Strategy. It is supported by Cornwall Council, Communities and Local Government and its website is partly funded by Objective One of the European Union. The Partnership includes various language organisations, including Agan Tavas, Cussel an Tavas Kernuak, Gorsedh Kernow, Kesva an Taves Kernewek and Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek, local authorities, such as Cornwall Council and Cornwall Association of Local Councils, and some other organisations that promote the language, as for example Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Economic Forum, Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, the Institute of Cornish Studies and the Learning and Skills Council.8

Current Status of the Language

Although the use of Cornish is growing, it continues to be very marginal, being spoken by a tiny minority of mostly educated people. According to the Sgrùd report, in 2000 there were only about 300 fluent speakers of Cornish and perhaps 3,000 people were able to have simple conversations in the revived language (Sgrùd 2000:20). Eleven years later, the UK Census 2011 reported 600 people in England and Wales whose main language is Cornish,9 500 of them in Cornwall, that is to say, only one person out of 1,000 inhabitants of the Duchy (Office for National Statistics 2013:7). Despite this fact, most people in Cornwall are aware of the existence of the language, with 92 percent of the sample polled claiming knowledge of its renewed presence and 5.7 percent claiming detailed knowledge (PFA Research 2007: 102). Support for the language has increased as well. In the same poll, 31.8 percent of the participants showed themselves favourable to the promotion of Cornish while 9.9 percent of the total strongly support it. The group against the promotion of Cornish is also considerable, at about 20 percent, although the majority of the population was indifferent to the issue of the language (PFA Research 2007: 103).

Official Recognition

The efforts to promote the language began to show some progress when on 2 March 2000, the United Kingdom signed the Council of Europe Charter on Regional and Minority Languages, which aims to protect and promote the regional and minority languages of Europe for the contribution they make to Europe's cultural diversity and historical traditions and to avoid as far as possible their extinction. On 5 November 2002 the British Government announced its decision to recognise Cornish as falling under Part II (Article 7) of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This recognition supposed a measure of official status for the language for the first time in history, although it does not mean that Cornish is an official language in Cornwall. This has partially solved the problem of financing, allowing a larger sum of money to be made available for the preservation and promotion of the language than formerly. This fund is channelled through the Cornwall Council. The new status for the Cornish language opened the way in 2004 to the development of a Strategy for the Cornish Language designed by government entities and by some language and cultural organisations.

Objectives of the strategy included appointing a dedicated officer to develop the detailed implementation plans and the establishment of a group to oversee the production of the strategy document to monitor progress and compliance with the Charter. The tangible result was the setting up in 2005 of Maga Kernow, the Cornish Language Partnership, which acts as a referee official institution in all matters related to the promotion and preservation of the Cornish language. In November 2009, the Cornwall Council adopted a new language policy, putting in practice the process that began at the beginning of the new millennium. With that decision, the Council recognised the Cornish language as a unique cultural asset and accepted responsibility for safeguarding and promoting it in accordance with the principles laid down in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This recognition takes the following forms: 1) implementing a system of bilingual signage for street and place names and providing new and replacement signs; 2) including the language in all future Council publications and promotional literature, such as the Council website; 3) ensuring the availability of Cornish language material to the public; and 4) considering additional ways to incorporate Cornish in the different departments of the entity.10

The recognition of Cornish as a minority language has also been symbolically evident in the British Parliament, when four of the MPs for Cornwall swore their Oaths of Allegiance in Cornish. The first two MPs were North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson and St Ives MP Andrew George, who swore their oaths in Cornish on 19 May 2010. Several days later, 24 May 2010, Stephen Gilbert, MP for St Austell and Newquay, and Sarah Newton, MP for Truro and Falmouth, followed by swearing their oaths in Cornish.11 All of them used the formula: "My a li re Dhuw Ollgalojek del vedhav len ha perthi lelder gwir dhe HY BRASTER AN VYTERNES ELISABETH, hy Erys ha'y Henedh, herwydh an laha. Yndella re'm gweresso Duw."12


The final objective of the language movement is to restore Cornish as the vernacular of the Cornish people. However, as George recognised, "This long-term objective is unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future, though it would be brought nearer if Cornish were to be made available as a proper subject to all schoolchildren in Cornwall" (George and Broderick 2008:759). Cornish began to be taught in schools in the 1930s. However, between the 1930s and the 1980s the number of schools teaching Cornish was largely symbolic and only a handful of pupils were learning the language. In 1984, the State of the Language Report noted that Cornish was being taught in only seven schools. In 1988, only six schools reported some activity related to the Cornish language but the number of pupils involved amounted to no more than 150, mostly 3rd and 4th -year pupils. The lessons, moreover, were limited to one hour a week and resources for learning the language were very scarce. In 1979, Dalleth (Beginning) was established to press for bilingual education especially in pre-school, infant school and primary school education. The organisation was responsible for preparing most of the material used for teaching children. As for the teachers, they were either Cornish speakers who happen to be members of staff, or Cornish speakers who came to the school to give unpaid lessons. Cornish was not compulsory.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century the situation had improved but not much, as reflected by the fact that there was some form of Cornish language instruction in only twelve primary and four secondary schools (Cornwall Council 2004:6). According to the report Cornish in Education in the UK (2001), only 120 students who received Cornish classes in one way or another out of 39,000 students attended primary education in Cornwall during the school year 2000-2001 (Hut 2001:17). During the same school year, 70 students out of the 32,000 who attended secondary education had some lessons in Cornish (Hut 2001:18). Since Cornish is not generally required when entering a workplace, it was not taught or used at the vocational education level (Hut 2001:19). In general, Cornish is not used to teach any subjects other than the Cornish language itself.

Despite this less than positive situation, there is some hopeful news related to language education. For example, in January 2010 the Lyther-Nowodhow (newsletter) produced by Maga Kernow announced the imminent opening of the first Cornish language pre-school, Skol Dy Sadorn Kernewek, in Pool. The objectives of this initiative include teaching Cornish to children through play as well as teaching the basics to parents in order to reinforce their children's learning.13 In addition to children's education, in 2000, 36 formal evening classes were reported with an enrolment of 365 (adult) students. Moreover, another 80 learners were reported in informal and self-help groups (Hicks 2005:27). Some regular groups in London and Australia were also documented and since 1983 a distance learning course, Kernewek dre Lyther, has been available online. The independent report for the Government Office for the South West reported a total of 750 students of Cornish for that course (Sgrùd 2000:28).

There are also several curious and highly symbolic initiatives with regard to the language. For example, the Maga Lyther-Nowodhow issue of December 2012-January 201314 reported Cornish classes in the House of Commons that were voluntarily organised by Dan Rogerson, MP for North Cornwall. Although the linguistic usefulness of the lessons may be negligible, the action taken by Dan Rogerson raises awareness of the existence of a local language in Cornwall that is not English.


Since Cornish is understood by only a few thousand people, most of them unable to speak it fluently, the number of publications in the language is still very limited. However, the Cornish media industry is a growing phenomenon that includes magazines, books, websites and digital publications, as well as radio and television programmes. At least three magazines are published only or mainly in Cornish. The most successful is An Gannas, a monthly magazine published by Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek. It contains articles ranging from local and international news to short stories and material for beginners. An Gowsva is published quarterly by Agan Tavas while An Garrak is intended for learners of Cornish who use the spelling adopted by Cussel an Tavaz Kernuak.

Cornish also appears in some sections of English publications. For example, My Cornish Magazine runs a series of Cornish lessons for beginners entitled Dyskyn Kernewek!, and Cornwall Today works to produce a Cornish language page every month. Moreover, it is not unusual to find letters or short articles in Cornish in some local newspapers. BBC Cornwall broadcasts An Nowodhow, a news bulletin, every Sunday. The programme is entirely in Cornish. Moreover, it is also possible to listen and download Cornish lessons from the website of BBC Radio Cornwall. Another initiative is Radyo an Gernewegva, a website that offers a weekly magazine programme featuring music and topical items of interest to the Cornish language community. The local film industry has started to produce some works in Cornish as well. One of them, Hwerow Hweg (Bitter Sweet), was premiered at the House of Commons in 2002. An important percentage of the films in Cornish, however, seem to be addressed to children, such as Konin ha Pryv about the adventures of a rabbit and a worm. Nevertheless, there is also an annual award for Cornish language films at the Cornwall Film Festival. Govyn Kernewek is awarded each year to a film maker to finance the production of a short film in Cornish.15

Public Life

Despite its official recognition and its appearance in various media, the presence of Cornish in daily life is still difficult to perceive in shops, public transport, or informal conversations. This is due to the fact that Cornish speakers are still a tiny minority, namely one fluent speaker for every 1,000 people (0.1 percent). To help Cornish speakers or aspiring speakers meet one another and practice their language in a variety of real contexts, the revivalist movement tries to provide as many tools as possible. One of the most popular is the organised gatherings in pubs around Cornwall for informal conversations, called Yeth an Werin, Cornish for "Language of the People". The Cornish Language Partnership lists on its website seven regular yeth an werin meetings in places such as Hayle, Truro, St Ives, Gulval, Helston, Mabe and Bridge.16 The Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek and Agan Tavas organise one Pennseythen Yeth (Language Weekend) a year each. The weekends usually take place in a hotel and feature a wide variety of activities such as party games, plays or guided walks in Cornish around places of interest in the area. Finally, the Dedhyow Lowender, or "Fun Days", are held across Cornwall at different dates. They are organised by different language groups and are free of charge. These events are intended to provide occasions for families to practice the language while having a good time together.

Cornish is also used in singing sessions organised by the revivalist movement and in traditional festivities such as St Piran's Day.17 However, it is also possible to hear the language in more serious contexts, such as the religious services that are held in different towns and villages throughout the course of the year. Some sport teams are also helping Cornish to have a place in the country's life. A notable example is the one set by the best rugby team of Cornwall: the Cornish Pirates, who display their name along with the local Cornish translation, An Vorladron Gernewek. Moreover, some of the players, as local celebrities, have participated in activities on behalf of the language.18 Fortunately, the events and activities related to the promotion of the language are not limited to the ones mentioned in this section. Improved means of communication and the extensive use of the Internet, with tools such as Skype, chats, email etc., are helping Cornish speakers to meet, talk, write and read in other contexts apart from the traditional and/or the official ones.


As discussed above, Cornish or Kernewek, the Celtic language of Cornwall, was displaced by English and almost completely vanished during the nineteenth century as the result of a long process of decline. Henry Jenner's A Handbook of the Cornish Language (1904) provoked a revival movement of the unspoken but documented language. Due to both World Wars and the difficulties encountered by speakers interested in meeting to use the language, the success of the revival was very limited initially, with a small number of second language speakers and virtually no neo-native speakers. After the 1980s the creation of new tools for learning Cornish, such as the correspondence course Kernewek dre Lyther by Ray Edwards,19 the revision and introduction of new spellings and improvements in communications multiplied by six the number of speakers reaching to approximately 300 by the end of the century, including some native speakers.

Although still very marginal in Cornish society, the revival movement more recently has become strong enough to begin acquiring some privileges, among them recognition as a living language by UNESCO and status as a protected minority language in the United Kingdom. This new situation has resulted in additional changes to the already improved situation of the revived language. Firstly, official recognition resulted in consensus regarding a unified spelling system (SWF) for use in administrative and political contexts as well as in education. Secondly, Cornish is currently being used in official signage all over Cornwall, making it fully visible to all the inhabitants and visitors of the Duchy. Moreover, the language is being introduced in more schools and playgroups, helping the new Cornish generation to learn or at least to become acquainted with the country's native tongue. Finally, the revivalist organisations now enjoy enhanced funding, allowing them access to more resources on behalf of the language.

While it is still soon to see results for the new status of Cornish, the foundation has been established for a new phase that should provide Cornish with a status similar to that of Manx. Manx Gaelic is still spoken by a minority of over 1,800 people (Isle of Man Gov. 2012: 27) in the Isle of Man. However, it enjoys the status of an official language and is currently taught in primary and secondary schools, one of which (Bunscoill Ghaelgagh) offers Manx-medium education. What cannot be disputed is that after a hundred years of silence and many more centuries of discrimination, enough Cornish is now being spoken in the streets and houses of Cornwall to warrant official protection and recognition.


1 The Breton for Kernow—Cornwall—is Kernev or Kerne which is translated into French as Cornuaille.

2 The death of King Henry VIII in 1547 marked an inflection in the English Reformation. The heir of the throne of England was Henry's only son, King Edward VI. However, because he was only 9 years old at the time of his accession, the kingdom was in fact in the hands of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. During his protectorate, the Crown passed new laws to weaken the still strong influence in England of the Catholic Church. Among these were a new and definitive declaration of the destruction of religious images in 1548, and the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, abolishing the use of Latin and introducing the English language in services (Löffler 2006: 211).

3 This period is also called Modern Cornish.

4 Richard Carew (1555-1620) was an antiquary, translator and MP for Saltash. Although himself a Cornishman, Carew often referred to English as our language and our natural language. His Survey of Cornwall (1602) is a vital tool for understanding Cornish society and the state of the Cornish language by the end of the Tudor period, probably the most difficult centuries for Cornwall in history.

5 Due to the fact that the current population of Cornwall is about ten times higher than in 1497, it is easy to understand what the Rebellion meant for the country by adding a zero to the historical numbers. Thus, the 2,000 dead and more than 10,000 enslaved in 1497 would have their equivalent in a holocaust of 20,000 adult men and a deportation of more than 100,000. Both amounts can only be understood after comparing them with the deportations and the systematic genocides carried out by the Nazis in Germany and other parts of Europe and by the Stalinist regime in Russia in the twentieth century.

6 http://www.thisiscornwall.co.uk/discussions/BISHOP-APOLOGISES-CORNISH-MASSACRE-SIMON-PARKER/discussion-16497407-detail/discussion.html#axzz2XDh5AH7t 25 June 2013

7 Some Cornish works were discovered after 1904, thus the corpus used during the first years of the Revival was even smaller.

8 http://www.magakernow.org.uk/default.aspx?page=28

9 The figures do not consider those who have Cornish as second language.

10 http://www.magakernow.org.uk/idoc.ashx?docid=264fa1ff-faac-4d60-84e1-ace29d319f8f&version=-1

11 http://www.magakernow.org.uk/idoc.ashx?docid=15d024fb-fbe9-4136-9fe2-e5f03dd5483e&version=-1

12 A translation of the English original: "I do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."

13 http://www.magakernow.org.uk/idoc.ashx?docid=938eafd7-c9f4-446c-be21-300f35602403&version=-1

14 http://www.magakernow.org.uk/idoc.ashx?docid=e7e139d6-70e4-48e9-b356-311441050cf1&version=-1

15 Communicative competence.

16 http://www.magakernow.org.uk/default.aspx?page=16

17 http://www.cornwall.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=30617

18 http://www.magakernow.org.uk/idoc.ashx?docid=37c75b47-db59-40d7-8486-c47b4ceddfb4&version=-1

19 Kernewek dre Lyther is also available online at http://www.kesva.org/KDL


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