The Origins of Written Cornish

Cornish (p-Celtic Southwestern British) is first found in Ogham, Greek or Latin inscriptions. The problem is how to convert these written forms in to a spoken form. It is not necessarily the case that the people who devised these inscriptions sounded written characters in the way we do today, or even the same way that Roman or Greek speakers would have done.


  1. What value was a grapheme (such as <x>) intended to convey to a Cornish, Brittonic or Gaulish user, and (b) how would a name element have been rendered in Brittonic or Gaulish taking into account any grammatical rules or conventions for abbreviation, such as terminal <e> as a representation of a masculine singular vocative ending, for nominative <-os>.
  2. A tentative phonology of Common Brittonic suggests it had close vowels [i,y,ɨ,ʉ,u], close-mid [e,ø,o], mid allophones of /i,u/ [ə,ɵ], open-mid [ɛ,ɔ] and open [a]. For consonants, nasals [m,n,ŋ], stops [p,b,t,d,k,g], fricatives [ɸ,β,θ,ð,s,x,ɣ], approximants [j,w], lateral [l] and trill [r]. But is this valid?

The Latin Character Set By the C3 Rome had conquered the Mediterranean world, Western Europe and the Southern part of Central Europe. For many of the peoples incorporated into the Empire, particularly in much of Gaul, Iberia and the Italian peninsula, it was a cultural disaster, with their languages, religions and customs being replaced by those of Rome and therefore largely extinguished from history. For others mostly further afield, such as Britain, changes wrought may have been only skin deep with Latin being used alongside native languages and only within a narrow sphere of usage. However the impact of Latin and in particular the use of the Latin alphabet, was much more widespread and become the basis for written language across Western Europe.

Comprising 21 characters and originating from Etruscan (Staples Press & Diringer, 1977, p.44), Latin had its limitations when rendering foreign sounds, but through official use in documents and more durably on monumental stonework, the tradition of using the Latin alphabet had became firmly embedded into wider literature and with it, a more or common system for rendering of sounds. The Old Latin Character Set comprised the following majuscule characters (with corresponding miniscule characters): A,B,C,D,E,F,Z,H,I,K,L,M,N,O,P,Q,R,S,T,V,X.

It is from Latin that the Western European use of <c>, <k> and <q> originated, their selection being determined by the succeeding vowel. The letter <y> was introduced into Latin in order to reproduce the Greek /y/ sound and to distinguish it from /i/, with <z> also being supplied from Greek. Long vowels were marked either with an apex (something like an acute accent) or were shown as taller letters.

Insular Scribal Practice Handwriting used cursive script, from which today’s lowercase characters are derived. As far as insular languages are concerned: Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, English and Lowland Scots, all have written forms derived from this character set (Staples Press & Diringer, 1977, pp.44-49).

The graph <w> originated as a doubling of <v> during the later medieval period. It should be noted that Brythonic /w/ was originally written with /u/, which was either a vowel or a consonant depending on context. By the renaissance, <u> and <i> had become vowels fixed by convention with the corresponding consonants being rendered by <w> and <j> respectively.

Even so, Latin could not render all the sounds found within the insular languages, for example [th], [dh], [ch-symbol], [gh], [lh], [rh]. In British-Celtic languages and in the present era pairs of graphs are used to render these: <th>, <dd, dh>, <ch>, <gh, ch, c’h>, <ll, lh>, <rh>.