Cornish (Kernowek) is a revived language that became extinct as a first language in the late 18th century. It is a Southwestern Brittonic Celtic language that is native to Cornwall in south-west England. A revival began in the early 20th century. The language is considered to be an important part of Cornish identity, culture and heritage. Cornish is currently a recognised minority language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. It has a growing number of second language speakers. A few parents are inspired to create new first language speakers, by teaching their children the language from birth.
Along with Welsh and Breton, Cornish is descended directly from the Common Brittonic language spoken throughout much of Britain before the English language came to dominate. It was the main language of Cornwall for centuries until it was pushed westwards by English, maintaining close links with its sister language Breton, with which it was mutually intelligible until well into the Middle Ages. Cornish continued to function as a common community language in parts of Cornwall until the late 18th century and continued to be spoken in the home by some families into the 19th and possibly 20th centuries, overlapping the beginning of revival efforts. A process to revive the language was begun in the early 20th century, with a number of orthographical systems still in use, although an attempt was made to impose a Standard Written Form in 2008. In 2010, UNESCO announced that its former classification of the language as "extinct" was "no longer accurate".
Since the revival of the language, some Cornish textbooks and works of literature have been published, and an increasing number of people are studying the language. Recent developments include Cornish music, independent films and children's books. A small number of people in Cornwall have been brought up to be bilingual native speakers, and the language is taught in many schools. The first Cornish language crèche opened in 2010.
Cornish is one of the Brittonic languages, which constitute a branch of the Insular Celtic section of the Celtic language family. Brittonic also includes Welsh, Breton and the Cumbric language; the last is extinct. Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx are part of the separate Goidelic branch of Insular Celtic.
Joseph Loth viewed Cornish and Breton as being two dialects of the same language, claiming that "Middle Cornish is without doubt closer to Breton as a whole than the modern Breton dialect of Quiberon is to that of Saint-Pol-de-Léon ."
Cornish evolved from the Common Brittonic spoken throughout Britain south of the Firth of Forth during the British Iron Age and Roman period. As a result of westward Anglo-Saxon expansion, the Britons of the southwest were separated from those in modern-day Wales and Cumbria. Some scholars have proposed that this split took place after the Battle of Deorham in about 577. The western dialects eventually evolved into modern Welsh and the now extinct Cumbric, while Southwestern Brittonic developed into Cornish and Breton, the latter as a result of emigration to parts of the continent, known as Brittany over the following centuries.
The area controlled by the southwestern Britons was progressively reduced by the expansion of Wessex over the next few centuries. During the Old Cornish period (800–1200), the Cornish-speaking area was largely coterminous with modern-day Cornwall; the region of Devon was isolated by Wessex in 936 AD and many inhabitants fled to Cornwall or Brittany. The earliest written record of the Cornish language comes from this period; a 9th-century gloss in a Latin manuscript of De Consolatione Philosophiae by Boethius, which used the words ud rocashaas. The phrase means "it hated the gloomy places". A much more substantial survival from Old Cornish is a Cornish-Latin glossary (the Vocabularium Cornicum or Cottonian Vocabulary) containing translations of around 300 words. The manuscript was widely thought to be in Old Welsh until the 1700s when it was identified as Cornish. At this time there was still little difference between Welsh and Cornish, and even fewer differences between Cornish and Breton, with some scholars arguing that the terms "Old Cornish" and "Old Breton" are merely geographical terms for the same language.