8: The West Cornish language, Kernôwek
Article and photo by Linden Alexander Pentecost, written December 2021, corrections by Daniel Prohaska, who is a teacher of Cornish and expert on Cornish.
This section includes: a photo of the green glens of West Cornwall, with bracken, trees and engine houses, near Camborne, introduction to Cornish, background, my idea that so-called Late Cornish and Middle Cornish are in a sense two languages, and that so-called Late Cornish, West Cornish, is perhaps in my opinion more reflective of Cornwall's unique mythology and landscape, with the older or rather formal register of Cornish being more reflective of the Brythonic Arthurian Druidic world, followed by background and pronunciation, phrases, words, nouns and their gender, more phrases, sample sentences. This section contains 1813 words.
In this article I make reference to mines and to mining, as these are a deeply historic part of Cornwall's heritage. However I strongly feel that mining can be damaging to the environment, and I am particularly against mining on indigenous people's lands.
Photo below: landscape of West Cornwall, with engine houses and torrs
Written in honour of the land of Kernow, of her people and ancestors, of the land itself, and all that is natural and good in the land
I started learning West/Late Cornish about 12 years ago, but I was never a very advanced or good speaker. When I have connected to the language in more recent years, Daniel Prohaska has helped me to better understand a lot of its fundamentals, and answer many of the questions I have. He also helped to look over and correct some things in this text.
Cornish is a Brythonic language like Welsh and Breton. There are in a sense two Cornish languages, both of which have been revived, with the Standard Written Form being something that I think acts as a bridge between the two. Even within Late Cornish itself there are many variations, both in the historical written evidence and in the forms of revived Late Cornish. I prefer the term West Cornish rather than Late Cornish, because I don't think that this Late Cornish is a more recent language, but may be in fact the colloquial and historic Cornish in Western Cornwall, which was somewhat different from the more formal written and bardic language from the eastern areas. Whilst Cornish folklore and language often comes under the umbrella term of 'Celtic', it is perhaps that Cornwall has had a distinctive identity and culture since the arrival of people in Britain, and that this later became manifested through the Celtic world that we see today. Western Cornwall feels Celtic in some senses, it is a part of the Celtic linguistic and historic world. But, the land is abound in legends about giants, explaining natural phenomena, and this closeness and ancient relationship, shared by the Cornish people and their land, is something that quite likely predates 'Celtic', depending on how Celtic is defined. The Middle Cornish language expresses this relationship with the bardic and Arthurian world, but, the Late Cornish or West Cornish language is more connected with a more localised, animistic way of seeing the land, I feel this.
What seems to distinguish West Cornish primarily is word stress, the phonology has differences, which I feel are in relation to a difference in prosody between the older, east Cornish language of plays and music, and the spoken, colloquial Cornish in its heartland.
Background and pronunciation
This is part a brief introduction to Cornish, specifically the West Cornish or Late Cornish variety, that was spoken by people across Western Cornwall into the early Industrial Revolution. The language of this period is revived in the form of Kernôwek. Cornish is a P-Celtic, Brythonic language, descending from a Common-Brittonic language. This language was spoken around two thousand years ago, it is believed to have developed into Cornish, Breton and Welsh, before the first millenium AD. The table below represents a comparison.
a – [æ] as in ‘cat’
â – [ɒː] as in ‘thought’, (some English dialects only)
e – [ɛ], [ɛː] close to the ‘e’ in ‘met’, or [e:] which is like the French é in café
ei – [əˑɪ] similar to the ‘igh’ in ‘night’, but an exact equivelent is found in how some might say these sound in Dublinese/Dublin dialect.
i – [iː] as in ‘seen’, or shorter [i]
o – [oː] long, [ɔ] short, a single vowel
oo – [uː] as in ‘soon’
ü - [iː] as in ‘seen’, or shorter [i]
ch – [tʃ] as in ‘chocolate’
d – [d] as in English
dh – [ð] as in ‘this’
f – [f] as in ‘fish’
g – [g] as in ‘get’
h – [h] as in ‘hat’
j – [dʒ] as in ‘job’
k – [k] as in ‘kiss’
l – [l] as in ‘love’
m – [m] as in ‘mat’
n – [n] as in ‘nan’
p – [p] as in ‘pope’
r – [ɾ] the ‘r’ found in some English dialects, where ‘but it’s wet’ sounds like ‘bur i’s wet’
s – [z]/[s], s, or like the ‘z’ in ‘Zara’
w – [w], as in English ‘way’
wh – [ʍ] like the ‘wh’ in ‘when’ in certain English dialects
y – [j], like the ‘y’ in ‘yeah’ at beginning of a word, pronounced elsewhere as a vowel
dn – [ᵈn], no equivalent in English, the English ‘d’ in ‘paddle’ is the closest equivalent, followed by ‘n’
bm – [ᵇm] no equivalent in English, start saying a ‘b’ but without opening mouth, then say m
dedh da dhe jy – good day to you (singular)
dedh da dhe whei – good day to you (plural)
mettin da dhe jy – good morning to you (singular)
mettin da dhe whei – good morning to you (plural)
dohajedh da dhe jy – good afternoon to you (singular)
dohajedh da dhe whei – good afternoon to you (plural)
nos da dhe jy – good night to you (singular)
nos da dhe whei – good night to you (plural)
scath – boat f, mor – sea m, morverk – buoy m, porth – harbour m, treth – beach m, awon – river f, coos – forest m, trev – town, settlement f, heyl – estuary (muddy, shallow) m, enys – island m, whel – mine m, sten – tin m, cober – copper m, jynnjy – engine house m, shafta an jynn – engine shaft m, jynn ethen – steam engine m, cowfor’ – tunnel f, hens hôrn – railway m, hens – path or way m, odyt – adit (mining terminology) m, avon - river f, Kernow – Cornwall f, Kernôwek – Cornish f, eglòs – church f, tre – town f, lèverva – library f, for’ – road f, menydh – mountain m, bre – hill f, men – stone m, gwels – grass, castel – castle, pedn – head, summit m (only when this word is stressed)
All Cornish nouns are either masculine or feminine. An easy way to tell the gender of a noun, is by looking at whether an accompanying adjective mutates or not. Mutation occurs after feminine nouns, and also on feminine nouns when preceded by the definite article.
enys – island (masculine)
awon – river (feminine)
enys bian – a small island
awon vian – a small river
an coos – the forest (masculine)
an vre – the hill (bre is the unmutated form)
an coos brâs – the big (great) forest
an vre vrâs – the big hill
pe hanow os ta? - what are you called? (what name are you, sing.)
pe hanow o whei? - what name are you? (polite, plural)
...ew o hanow - … is my name
fatla genes? - how are you (how with-you) (sing. or informal)
fatla genowgh? - how are you? (plural, polite)
genes – with you (singular or familiar)
genowgh – with you (plural or polite form)
thera vy o scrifa lever – I am writing a book
thera vy o – I am (in the process of), scrifa – to write, lever – a book
my a vedn scrifa rag tüs a Gernow – I will to write for the people of Cornwall
me a vedn – I will, scrifa – to write, rag – for, tüs – people, community
Kernow – Cornwall
pandr’ew hanow an chei brâs ha rüdh? - what is the name of the big, red house?
pandra? - what (what-thing), ew – is, hanow – name, an chei – (of)the house
brâs – big, ha - and, rüdh – red
da ew genam an arvor teg – I like the pretty coastline
da – good, genam – with me, da ew genam – I like, an arvor – the coast, lit ‘on-sea’
teg – pretty
ple ma’n jynnjy? - where is the engine house?
ple? - where? (what-place), ma’n – there is, there are/is there, are there, ’n – contraction of definite article
jynnjy – engine house, from jynn ‘engine’, plus chei ‘house', in the unstressed form, which is chy, mutated here to jy
da ew genam an eglòs vrâs-na ogas dhe Gambron – I like that big church near Camborne
da ew genam – I like, an eglòs vrâs – the big church, an eglòs vrâs-na – that big church (the church big-there)
ogas – near, ogas dhe – near to
my a wra mos dhe’n castel hedhyw – I am going to walk to the castle today
my a wra – I will do, mos – go(ing), dhe’n – to the, castel – castle, hedhyw – today
thera vy o mos dhe’n treth lebmyn – I am walking to the beach now
thera vy – I am, right now (present continuous), o – in the process of, mos – (to) go, treth – beach, lebmyn – now
pe hanow ew an scath bian e’n heyl? - what is the name of that small boat in the estuary?
pe hanow? – what name? ew – is, an scath bian – the small boat, e’n – in the, heyl – estuary
Note heyl refers to a specific type of estuary, shallow with mudflats. Deeper estuaries or ‘riers’ are referred to as logh, which also means ‘pond’.
Other resources about Cornish by the author:
.Cornish language and heritage, part one - By Linden Alexander Pentecost
.Cornish language and heritage, part two - By Linden Alexander Pentecost
.Basic Late Cornish, part one - By Linden Alexander Pentecost
Available in the book:
.An introduction to language – with particular focus on the Celtic languages and upon Scottish Gaelic dialects By Linden Alexander Pentecost
.(Update, January 2023): the above resources are also available in my ebook published on this website, Languages and dialects of Northwestern Europe, and their heritage, the articles are listed and their pages in this book:
.Cornish language and heritage, part one - page 132
.Cornish language and heritage, part two - pages 133 and 134
.Basic Late Cornish, part one - page 135
My ebook Northern dialects of Scottish Gaelic, with sections on other Celtic languages and upon indigenous American languages, contains some information and examples of revived Medieval Cornish, which is significantly different to the Late-Modern-West Cornish shown here and in the articles listed above. The information on revived Medieval Cornish is on pages 13, 14 and 15 of this book.
Various other references to Cornish exist in my ebooks, including in the article Are there only three Brythonic languages? This was originally written under a pseudonym but has been included in Languages and dialects of Northwestern Europe, and their heritage