Cornish is a Celtic language closely related to Breton and Welsh.
The 2021 census recorded the population of Cornwall as 570,305. 96.8 per cent of the population of Cornwall described themselves as ethnically white, and 52.1 per cent described their nationality as British, with 15.8 per cent describing themselves as English only. Identifying as Cornish was not an option, but 17.7 per cent described themselves as having a UK identity which was not English or Welsh. 46.3 per cent of the population described themselves as having no religion, slightly higher than the 45.5 per cent who described themselves as Christian.
The ethnic minorities which were identified in Cornwall during the 2021 census were: Asian/Asian British/Asian Welsh, 0.7 per cent; Black/Black British/Black Welsh/Caribbean/African, 0.2 per cent; mixed/multiple ethnic groups, 1.2 per cent; and other ethnic group, 1.1 per cent. By 1984 the Black British population in the UK no longer consisted predominantly of immigrants but was mainly UK-born.
94.7 per cent of the population was born in the United Kingdom.
97.6 per cent of households said all adults in the household spoke English as their main language. In a further 1.2 per cent of households at least one adult used English as their main language. In 0.2 per cent of households no adults had English as their main language, but children resident in the household did, and in 0.9 per cent of households, no one in the household uses English as their main language.
There were no specific questions in the 2021 census regarding Cornish nationality or the Cornish language. Cornwall Council ran a campaign to highlight that people could write Cornish to identify themselves as such in the sections of the census concerned with national Identity, ethnicity and main language spoken. Looking at these results as published by Cornwall Council, 16.9 per cent of residents in Cornwall described their national identity as Cornish. 7.5 per cent of residents described their ethnicity as Cornish and 471 people described the Cornish language as their main language. This figure was 464 in the 2011 census. Neither figure should be taken as an absolute figure for the number of Cornish speakers.
The Cornish language stems from the settlement by Celtic people of the far south-western peninsula of Great Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries CE following successive invasions by groups including Angles and Saxons. The geographical isolation from other Celts who had moved westwards into Wales and Brittany meant that what had started as one language, Brythonic, diverged into the separate Celtic languages of Breton, Cornish and Welsh.
The earliest manuscripts that include written Cornish include the Bodmin Manumissions, a copy of the Gospels dating from the end of the 9th century, which include details of manumitted slaves written in Cornish. The Vocabularium Cornicum, also known as the Cottonian Vocabulary, is a Latin-Old Cornish glossary dating from around 1200. The major extant pieces of Cornish literature are medieval mystery and miracle plays written in the 14th and 15th centuries. These comprise the mystery play cycle known as the Ordinalia, comprised of three plays: Origo Mundi, Passio Christi and Resurrexio Domini. There are two miracle plays based on the lives of Cornish Saints: Bewnans Meriasek (The Life of St Meriadoc) and Bewnans Ke (The Life of St Kea). There is also a further mystery play entitled Creation of the World. The only copy of this is a manuscript dated 1611, but this is believed to be a copy of a sixteenth century play.
During the period in which these plays were being written in Cornish, Cornwall was experiencing a language shift from Cornish to English. Many scholars attribute this shift to repression on the part of the English towards the Cornish and the anglicisation of Cornish culture more widely. This language shift occurred progressively from East to West Cornwall (with some bordering areas of the neighbouring county of Devon also historically Cornish speaking). There is evidence of a shift from Cornish to English in East Cornwall by the 12th century. The changes to place names in East Cornwall are cited as evidence of this.
The failure to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Cornish following the first Act of Uniformity in 1549 is often highlighted as the event which brought about the swiftest decline of the Cornish language. That these works were introduced into Cornwall in English, at a time when much of the population still only spoke Cornish led to popular rebellion, known as the Prayer Book Rebellion, also in 1549. It is estimated that approximately 20 per cent of the adult male population of Cornwall was killed during this uprising, which was not only a defence of the language but of traditional Catholic forms of worship. After these events, the language continued to retreat westwards until by the beginning of the 18th century, it was mainly used in the coastal regions of the far west of Cornwall and the Lizard peninsula. Dolly Pentreath, who died in 1777, is often cited as the last speaker of Cornish, a position which is contested by evidence of further bilingual Cornish and English speakers in the 19th century. The modern revival is dated from the publication in 1904 of Henry Jenner’s ‘Handbook of the Cornish language.’
Industrial development and the collapse of the mining industry
Cornwall’s rich geological heritage placed the region at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. As mine owners sought to create wealth from the variety of precious metals and minerals becoming increasing available, technological advances were used to mechanise this process. The inventions of Richard Trevithick are perhaps the most well–known of these developments, but progress was also driven by institutions such as the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society which posed engineering problems in its annual reports and offered prize money for the best solutions. This led directly to inventions such as the Man Engine, designed to save miners from climbing up unsafe ladders to reach the surface after long shifts. However, as cheaper imports, especially of tin, became available during the 19th century, Cornish miners began to look overseas for employment. Their skills as hard rock miners were highly prized. Cornish diaspora communities built up in mining centres in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and North and South America.
Cornwall is legally considered part of England. As such, there has never been any Cornish language legislation, nor does the language hold any official status. Since 2002 Cornish has been protected by Part II of the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages and in 2014 the Cornish were recognised as a national minority by the UK government. Financial support for the language varies. Cornwall Council has a Cornish language office which offers some funding to language organizations, runs an official translation service, and offers tenders for educational services. Currently, Golden Tree Productions runs the Primary Schools Language Programme under its ‘Go Cornish’ branding. This programme is available to all primary schools within Cornwall. It is currently used by about 30 schools. Since 2021, it has been possible to study Cornish at undergraduate level at the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus. However, the majority of Cornish language learners are taught through a variety of adult education evening classes. Many Cornish language teachers are members of Gorsedh Kernow, an association to foster Cornish language and culture. Language examinations are available through the Kesva an Taves Kernewek Cornish Language Board; a growing number of students take these exams each year. There are also exams available through the UK exam board WJEC at pre-GCSE levels, although the uptake of these remains negligible.
An increasingly urgent issue in Cornwall is the high proportion of holiday rental properties and second homes whose owners reside elsewhere. In 2022, the county had 12,776 second homes and more than 11,000 holiday rentals. Often standing empty during the winter months, these properties harm the local economy while contributing to an acute housing crisis for locals. The number of people in emergency accommodation has increased drastically, by as much as 50 per cent in 2021-22 alone. This is undermining community efforts to foster Cornish language and culture.
Updated July 2023
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