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Cornwall, the southwesternmost county of England, was so long isolated from the rest of the country by virtue of its geography that its linguistic and cultural traditions developed under a unique set of pressures and influences. The name "Cornwall" refers to the geographic entity, while "Cornish" is the name of the indigenous languagea Brythonic dialect of the Celtic Family, related to Welsh. At its height it is estimated that there were no more than 30,000 native Cornish speakers, restricted to the geographic confines of the Cornish peninsula. As early as the tenth and eleventh centuries, the effects of Anglicization were strongly noticeable, and the Cornish tongue soon came to be thought of as the speech of the uneducated, unlike the situation in Wales where the indigenous tongue retained some cachet as a language of poetry and of erudition. The language became extinct in the vernacular with the death of the last fluent native speaker in 1777, but it has profited in this century from a Cornish cultural revival, and it has begun to be taught in the schools. For all Cornish speakers of today, however, English is the first language.

Cornwall is technically a peninsula, but the landmass is almost completely separated from the remainder of the Country by the River Tamar, and it boasts the longest coastline of all the English counties.

History and Cultural Relations

The archaeological record shows that the Cornish peninsula was inhabited as long ago as the Paleolithic period, but the evidence of these earliest inhabitants is scanty. The first substantial archaeological sites date to the Mesolithic period and suggest a hunting and gathering population. This life-style was supplanted during the Neolithic period by the more sedentary practices of farming and animal husbandry, and it is to this period that the first monumental construction in the Region belongs. The Cornish landscape is dotted with a great many "quoits" (also called dolmens and cromlechs) that are believed to have been chamber tombs. These distinctive structures consist of large upright stones topped by a large flat stone. Later arrivals to the area (approximately 1800 b.c.) were the "Beaker folk," who migrated from the European continent and brought with them a particular style of pottery and more elaborate burial practices. More important, these newcomers introduced mining and smelting to the area, Beginning Cornwall's long association with tin mining that continues to this day. It is, however, with the arrival of the Celts from their homelands in eastern Europe, in the final centuries b.c., that we find the beginnings of what was to become the Cornish language. These Celtic settlers are also the likely source of the nonnucleated pattern of settlement that characterized Cornwall for most of its history.

The Roman invasion of Britain appears to have had little practical impact on the inhabitants of Cornwall. No Roman towns have been found further west than Exeter, so it seems contact must have been limited to trading and tax-collecting visits. However, the arrival of the Romans marked the Beginning of Cornwall's economic and political incorporation into the larger entity of England as part of the Roman Empire. When Roman rule ended in the fifth century a.d., the trajectory of Cornish development once again diverged from that of the rest of England: each area faced invasion, but while the interlopers in eastern and southeastern England were of Germanic descent, in Cornwall the invaders were settlers from Ireland. Anglo-Saxon influences eventually did expand westward, but it was not until near the end of the tenth century that Cornwall was wholly incorporated in the political rubric of the newly united kingdom of England, and its county border was set at the Tamar. Never again would Cornwall or the Cornish people regain political independence. It is to this period that the Arthurian legendoriginally a tale of a strong Cornish king who would free his people from English rulemay be dated. Arthurian sites include the River Camel, from which comes Camelot, and most importantly the castle of Tintagel, where Arthur is said to have been born.


The Cornish economy was traditionally associated with farming and animal husbandry (specifically, sheep farming), tin and copper mining, and the exploitation of the resources of the seaa trilogy of pursuits that remains today, with the Recent addition of tourism. Cornish agriculture traditionally focused on wheat, with some rye being sown in the poorer soils. Potatoes and some vegetables grown for the larger English market have become important, but Cornwall remains Somewhat disadvantaged in terms of access to efficient transport for its goods. In upland areas, sheep raising and dairying have taken on greater importance. Maritime pursuits remain important to the Cornish economy as well, although the days of the legendary Cornish pirates, smugglers, and "wreckers" (who plundered the cargoes of ships that foundered on the rocky coast) are now past. The latter illicit activities once provided an important source of income for the coastal dwellers of Cornwall.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Cornish are, of course, integrated into the larger English polity, but the 1950s brought the formation of the Sons of Cornwall (Mebyon Kernow), a group dedicated to the preservation of Cornish customs and linguistic traditions, but also strongly committed to the concept of a domestically self-governing Cornwall. While the impact of this group has been rather small on the national level, its participation in and Influence on local politics has been great in recent times.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Cornish today are largely Wesleyan Methodist, although other denominations are represented among the population as well. But in the rich folklore and customary practices among the people, one can still find references to pre-Christian beliefs of pagan Celtic origin. The process of Christianization, however, began as early as the second century and was well established by around a.d. 600. The Celtic church enjoyed a certain independence from the practice of Anglo-Saxon "coreligionists" until well into the eighth century. Cornwall was not, however, exempt from the religious strife that plagued Britain, and the clash between Catholic and Protestant forces led Cornwall into direct, and ultimately futile, confrontation with the crown in the 1500s. The ultimate triumph of Protestantism in England eventually made itself felt even in this former bastion of Catholicism. Cornish cultural revival efforts have led to a resurgence of interest in, and performance of, the traditional "mystery plays," a Christianera tradition dramatizing the lives of local saints.


Halliday, F. E., ed. (1969). Carew's Survey of Cornwall, 1602. London.

Hatcher, J. (1970). Rural Economy and Society in the Duchy of Cornwall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Soulsby, I. (1986). A History of Cornwall. Chichester, U.K.: Phillimore.



views updated May 23 2018

1. The ancient Celtic language of Cornwall: ‘In Cornwall is two speches: the one is naughty Englyshe, and the other is Cornyshe speche’ ( Andrew Boorde, Introduction of Knowledge, 1547). The language began to decline during the Reformation, and its last known fluent speaker, Dolly Pentreath of the village of Mousehole, died in 1777.

2. Also revived Cornish. The partly ARTIFICIAL LANGUAGE administered by the Kesva Tavas Kernewek (Cornish Language Board), set up in 1967 ‘to promote the study and revival of the Cornish language’. This medium is sometimes referred to by scholars as pseudo-Cornish. The revival began with A Handbook of the Cornish Language (1904) by the Cornish nationalist Henry Jenner, followed by Robert Morton Nance's Cornish for All: A Guide to Unified Cornish (St Ives, 1929), Nance's dictionaries published by the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, and A. S. D. Smith's grammar Cornish Simplified (1939). The revivalists claim that the traditional accent of English in Cornwall provides a key to Cornish pronunciation. The orthography was developed by Nance from the surviving texts, and vocabulary is extended by analogizing from Breton and Welsh and forming compounds from existing words. See CELTIC LANGUAGES.


views updated May 18 2018

Cor·nish / ˈkôrnish/ • adj. of or relating to Cornwall, or its people or language.• n. 1. [as pl. n.] (the Cornish) the people of Cornwall collectively.2. the extinct Brythonic language of CornwallDERIVATIVES: Cor·nish·man / -mən/ n. (pl. -men) Cor·nish·wom·an / -ˌwoŏmən/ n. (pl. -wom·en) .


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Cornish XV. f. first el. of Cornwall, OE. Cornwēalas, f. OCelt. *Kornovjos, -ja, whence medL. Cornubia Cornwall; see WELSH, -ISH 1. The native name was Kernūak, Kernewec, f. Kernóu (cf. W. Cernyw Cornwall, Breton Kernéō Cornouailles in Brittany).