Cornish grammar is the grammar of the Cornish language (Kernowek), an insular Celtic language closely related to Breton and Welsh and, to a lesser extent, to Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic. It was the main medium of communication of the Cornish people for much of their history until the 17th century, when a language shift occurred in favour of English.
Word classes and phrases
Cornish verbs are highly regular and in their infinitive forms they are also considered nouns. For example, amma means the act of kissing rather than to kiss. A handful of irregular verbs exist, and are generally used as auxiliaries.
Unlike English, Cornish adjectives come after the noun they modify. There are simple and derived adjectives. The former comprise adjectives that are not derived of any other word, whereas the latter are formed by adding suffixes such as -ek to the end of a noun (including verbal nouns).
As in other Celtic languages, Cornish has conjugated prepositions.
Cornish lacks indefinite articles, and an functions both as a definite article and demonstrative.
Initial consonant mutation
The initial mutation is a feature shared by all the modern Celtic languages, in which the initial consonant of a word may change under some circumstances. These changes take place when a word starts with B, Ch, D, G, Gr, Gw, K, M, P and T, and occasionally S and F, whereas other initial consonants remain unchanged in every circumstance. The most common mutation occurs after the definite article an, when followed by a feminine singular noun or masculine plural noun.
1 Before unrounded vowels (i, y, e, a), l, and r + unrounded vowel.
2 Before rounded vowels (o, u), and r + rounded vowel.
Word order and focus
The default Cornish word order is verb–subject–object, although like most Celtic languages this is somewhat fluid. Cornish has a system of fronting constituents, in which parts of a sentence can be moved to the front for focus, rather than stressing them in situ as English does. This system has influenced the Anglo-Cornish dialect, heard in the distinctive questioning of dialect speakers such as "Goin' in' town are'ee?" and "'S bleddy hot 'tis".
In description sentences of the verb bos 'to be', the complement is typically fronted:
- Merryn ov vy.
- Merryn am I
- I'm Merryn.
- Lowen es jy.
- Happy were you
- You were happy.
Other existence sentences of bos front the verb:
- Yma hi ow kortos y'n gegin.
- There.is she at wait.VN in.the kitchen
- She's waiting in the kitchen.
- Yth esa lyver war an estyllen.
- VPART there.was book on the shelf
- There was a book on the shelf / A book was on the shelf
Since Cornish prefers to use a 'there is' existence form of bos with indefinite objects (when not fronted for emphasis, that is), an object being definite or indefinite can result in different parts being fronted:
- Y fydh ebost danvenys yn-mes ynno an kedhlow a vri.
- VPART will.be email sent out in.it the information of relevance
- An email will be sent out containing the relevant information. (literally There'll be an email sent out)
- An ebost a vydh danvenys yn-mes a-vorow.
- the email SPART will.be sent out tomorrow
- The email will be sent out tomorrow.
- Y feu kath gwelys y'n lowarth.
- VPART was cat seen in.the garden
- A cat was seen in the garden. (literally There was a cat seen)
- An gath a veu gwelys y'n lowarth.
- the cat SPART was seen in.the garden
- The cat was seen in the garden.
With other verbs, subject-fronted is the default unmarked word order. This still follows the default verb–subject–object order, since sentences of this kind were in origin relative clauses emphasising the subject:
- My a ros lyver da dhe das Jowan de.
- me RPART gave book good to father Jowan yesterday
- I gave a good book to Jowan's father yesterday. (literally It is me who gave a good book)
When the sentence's object is a pronoun, it appears before the verb infixed after the particle a, although it can also appear after the verb for emphasis: My a's gwel 'I see her', or My a's gwel hi 'I see her'. When auxiliary verbs are used, a possessive pronoun is used with the verbal noun: My a wra hy gweles 'I see her' (literally 'I do her seeing'), or when stressed, My a wra hy gweles hi 'I see her'. In both instances, colloquial spoken Cornish may drop all but the suffixed pronouns, to give My a wel hi and My a wra gweles hi, although this is rarely written.
In questions and negative sentences, an interrogative particle and negative particle are used, respectively. These are generally fronted in neutral situations:
- A wruss'ta ri an lyver dhodho de?
- IPART you.did'you VN.give the book to.him yesterday
- Did you give him the book yesterday?
- Ny wrug vy ri an lyver dhodho.
- NPART I.did VN.give the book to.him
- I didn't give him the book.
Subject pronouns can be placed before a negative particle for emphasis: My ny vynnav kewsel Sowsnek 'I will not speak English' or 'As for me, I will not speak English' (said to be Dolly Pentreath's last words).
Fronting for emphasis
Besides the "neutral" structures given above, elements of Cornish sentences can be fronted to give emphasis, or when responding to a question with requested information. Fronting involves moving the element to the beginning of the sentence. English typically achieves this by modifying tone or intonation.
There are two particles involved in fronting. The particle a is actually a relative particle used when the subject or direct object of a sentence is fronted. If anything else is fronted, usually adverbials or information headed by prepositions, the particle used is y (yth before a vowel).
Determiners precede the noun they modify, while adjectives generally follow it. A modifier that precedes its head noun often causes a mutation, and adjectives following a feminine noun are lenited. Thus:
- benyn ("a woman")
- an venyn ("the woman"; benyn is lenited because it is feminine)
- tebel venyn ("a wicked woman"; benyn is lenited because tebel "wicked" precedes it)
- benyn gonnyk ("a smart woman"; konnyk is lenited because it follows a feminine noun)
Genitive relationships are expressed by apposition. The genitive in Cornish is formed by putting two noun phrases next to each other, the possessor coming second. So English "The cat's mother", or "mother of the cat", corresponds to Cornish mamm an gath – literally, "mother the cat"; "the project manager's telephone number" is niver pellgowser menystrer an towl – literally, "number telephone manager the project". Only the last noun in a genitive sequence can take the definite article.
- Williams, N. Desky Kernowek (Evertype, 2012)
- Brown, W. A Grammar of Modern Cornish (Kesva an Taves Kernewek, 2001)