Skip to main content

Emmet’s Visit to Kernow: Cornwall's History and Culture

My interest in social and cultural politics extends from my interest in genealogy and history and how they project into today's societies.

Cornish Fishing Village

Cornish Fishing Village

Visiting Cornwall

We only live 120 miles from Cornwall, so we occasionally visit Cornwall for a holiday. In some ways it’s a little like visiting a foreign country; they have their own language, culture, food, flag, and using the Cornish roads is an experience.

A growing number of Cornish people don’t consider Cornwall to be part of England, and prefer it to be known by its Celtic name of Kernow; and those same Cornish people view English tourists as foreigners, hence the term Emmet.

Kernow: This Is Not England

What Is Emmet and Where Is Kernow?

Emmet is an ‘Old English’ word for Ant. These days it’s used as a derogatory word by Cornish people to describe English tourists visiting Cornwall, England.

Kernow is the Celtic word for Cornwall.

What Is Old English?

Old English is a Germanic language spoken by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes tribes who settled in England from the mid-5th century to the mid-11th century; England being a derivative of the word Angles.

Middle English is a blend of Old English and the Norman language (Old French), which was spoken in England from after 1066 until about 1500, after which the language evolved into early Modern English.

What Is Celtic?

The Celts are the tribes of people who occupied most of Europe before the Roman Empire over 2,000 years ago. When the Romans invaded England in 43 AD, the British Celts were pushed to the far corners of Britain, including Cornwall. The Romans, who occupied England from 43 AD until their withdrawal in 410 AD, called it Britannia (Latin word for Britain).

Today, the only six surviving Celtic nations are:

  • Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Wales and Cornwall in the UK, and
  • Brittany in France.

Useful Source Information

The 5 Celtic Nations in the UK

Four of the five Celtic nations in the UK are well established and have their own Celtic languages. Celtic is the official primary language in the Republic of Ireland (a separate country, not part of the UK) and Wales. English is still the primary language in Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK). However, a small number of people speak either Irish or Ulster-Scots (two variants of the Celtic languages).

Cornwall is a little different in that although it has never been fully conquered and occupied by invading forces (e.g. Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, or the Normans in 1066), the English Government (in London) since the middle ages have always assumed authority over it.

In contrast, while England has never acknowledged Cornwall’s separate status, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are recognised as separate countries, albeit bound to England as part of the United Kingdom; Scotland and Northern Ireland by treaties of 1707 and 1800, respectively.

Despite this, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have all acquired various degrees of semi-independence from England in recent decades, with Scotland now pushing for complete Independence.

It’s in this context that, in recent decades, Cornwall has been pressing for official recognition as a Celtic State. In 2014 it was granted ‘National Minority Status’ by the British Government under European Law. This gives Cornwall the same status for the protection of ‘national minorities’ as the other four Celtic nations in the UK.

Cornwall Granted National Minority Status by British Government (Under EU Law) in 2014

Flavouring Cornwall’s Culture

Although we might be Emmets in the eyes of some Cornish people, we do love holidaying in Cornwall, and each time we visit, I’m always fascinated by the subtle differences between Cornwall and the rest of England, which include:

  • Language
  • Culture
  • Flag
  • Food
  • Cornish roads

Cornish Language

The Cornish language is a Celtic Language dating back thousands of years that almost became extinct in the late 18th century, but which has had a revival over the past 20 years.

In the 2011 census, there were 557 people who can speak Cornish fluently and around 5,000 people who have a basic understanding of the language. This might not sound like a huge number, but in the context of the Cornish population being only 536,000 people, 5,000 is 1% of that population, and with it now being taught in some schools and promoted within the community the use of the language is likely to slowly rise.

Therefore (unlike Wales), when we’re on holiday in Cornwall, apart from the occasional road sign, such as the border sign when crossing the River Tamar from England into Cornwall, which reads “Kernow, a’gas dynergh,” meaning “Welcome to Cornwall,” you don’t generally see or hear the Cornish language.

In contrast, when we visit Wales, all road signs are in Welsh (with English underneath) and all public announcements (e.g., at train stations) are first spoken in Welsh, then in English.

Five Hundred: A Story of the Cornish Language

Cornish Culture

Cornwall doesn’t appear so different to England to a casual visitor, and its culture declined in recent centuries as Cornwall began to amalgamate into England. Still, there has been a revival in recent decades, supported by many groups promoting Cornwall’s culture.

So while on holiday, if you have the time to look under the surface, there is a lot to learn about the Cornish culture, including language, literature, folklore, religion, symbols, art, architecture, music, food, sports, films and traditional dress.

Cornish Culture: Montol Festival

Cornish Flag and National Anthem

Each nation in the UK has its own flag and national anthem:

  • English flag is a red cross on a white background
  • Scottish flag is a white X on a blue background
  • Flag of Northern Ireland is a red X on a white background
  • Welsh flag is a red dragon
  • Cornish flag is a white cross on a black background

The Union Jack (flag of the UK) is an amalgamation of the Northern Irish, Scottish and English flags.

Outside of the tourist areas of London, you rarely see the Union Jack unless visiting the Protestant areas of Northern Ireland, where the Union Jack seems to be everywhere. In England (outside of London), you are more likely to see the English flag than the Union Jack, especially during football season.

As with Wales and Scotland and their own flags, you are more likely to see the Cornish flag flying than the English flag or Union Jack in Cornwall.

National Anthem of Cornwall: Sung in Cornish, With English Subtitles

Cornish Food

As with every nation in the UK, Cornwall has its own iconic foods, specifically the Cornish pasty and Cornish Cream Tea.

Cream Tea

When we visit Cornwall or Devon, we always treat ourselves to a Cornish or Devon Cream Tea. There is nowhere else in England (or anywhere else in the world) that can replicate the delight of a Cornish or Devon Cream Tea.

Devon and Cornwall are neighbouring counties in South West England, and both have similar cuisine (e.g., pasty, cream tea, etc.). The cream teas in both counties are identical except for one fundamental difference:

  • Cornish Cream Tea is where the jam is spread on the scone and the cream is placed on top of the jam.
  • Devonshire Cream Tea is where the cream is placed on the scone first, and the jam is placed on top of the cream.

Cornish vs Devonshire Cream Tea

Cornish Pasty

As a vegetarian, I don’t eat the Cornish pasty, but by all accounts it is something to be savoured.

The Cornish Pasty: History and Recipe

Cornish Roads: Not Suitable for American Drivers

There are some main roads in Cornwall, but most of the Cornish roads are far more commonly narrow (no wider than a vehicle), even though they are for two-way traffic, so traversing them can be a challenge at the best of times.

Many of the Cornish roads date back to the 8th century and were originally the dirt tracks peasants used to travel between villages and get to the town markets. The verges on most of these roads are a haven for wildlife, including flora and fauna, so these roads are recognised as part of the outstanding natural beauty of the Cornish countryside. As such, they have official legal protective status. Therefore, it is an extremely difficult process for a Local Government to obtain consent from the National Government for road improvements, including road widening.

On the basis that pictures speak louder words, this choice video below is just one of many from our recent Cornish holiday, highlighting some of the delights of driving on narrow Cornish roads. You can vote in the poll below on whether you would enjoy driving on such roads and expand upon your answer in the comments box.

Driving From Lansallos to Polruan Fishing Village in Cornwall

© 2019 Arthur Russ

Your Comments

Arthur Russ (author) from England on April 10, 2019:

That brings back memories; at school, in our history lessons we were taught the origins and history of English Counties, such as:-

The ‘Shires’ dating back 2,000 years to the Roman era; Shire being the Roman word for ‘Administrative Area’ e.g. Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire etc.

In southern England we also had the old Wessex (West Saxons), which now comprises the counties of Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire; plus today’s counties of Sussex (South Saxons) and Essex (East Saxons). Wessex covered a large area because of King Alfred (King of the West Saxons) who united all the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in southern England in the 9th Century against the Danish Viking occupation of northern England.

Then to the East of London is East Anglia (East Angles); which encompasses the counties of Norfolk (North Folk) and Suffolk (South Folk).

Liz Westwood from UK on April 09, 2019:

We had tutors who had done a lot of place name research. I still notice any 'tons' and 'hams' in place names. It has definitely stuck. It was a bit like studying Latin. Easy to revise translations for exams especially as there were tips as to which passages might come up.

Arthur Russ (author) from England on April 09, 2019:

Thanks for your feedback Liz, on my presentation of Cornish culture. It’s a subject I’ve wanted to write about for a while, but if I’m not careful it would be so easy to make it too dry a subject. Therefore, focusing on the Cornish people campaign for legal recognition as a Celtic Nation seemed a right and proper starting point; especially in consideration of comments left by Cornish people on some of my Cornish holiday videos (YouTube) pointing out that Cornwall is Kernow, and is not in England.

Moreover, being Bristolian and with Bristol having its own distinctive Bristolian dialect (which I’m proud of) the wealth of regional variants in culture, dialects and accents across the whole of the UK is something I take a keen interest in.

The title of the song “Thee's Got'n Where Thee Cassn't Back'n, Hassn't” is Bristolian for “You’ve got it stuck where you can’t back it out, haven’t you”

Adge Cutler & the Wurzels (Famous Bristolian Singer and Folk Band) sing “Thee's Got'n Where Thee Cassn't Back'n, Hassn't”:

Samples of other Bristolian words and phrases include:

• I'm gunna to see ar mua = I am going to see our mother.

• Or-roight me ole mucker? = How are you my dear friend?

• T'wunt I, t'was ee = It wasn’t me it was him.

• Gert biggun = very big.

Wow Liz, I’ve always had a keen interest in the origins of Modern ‘British English’, and the way it’s evolved over the millennia from its early German and French routes. So to actually study Olde English, I would find quite fascinating; although I guess some might find it a bit dry!

I still have a copy of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Chaucer, written in Middle English, which I studied parts of when I did my English Literature ‘O’ Level (GCSE) at College (many years ago). I’ve never read the whole book because it’s harder to understand than Shakespeare, but what little I’ve read does fascinate me.

When doing my own writings or research I often try to trace the origin and meaning of words, such as my own city of Bristol, that over a 1,000 years ago the Saxons called Brycgstow, which translated from Olde English is ‘Bridge’ (Brycg) and ‘Place’ (stowe). A logical name in that Bristol was founded on the spot where the Saxons built a wooden bridge across the River Avon (Avon being a Saxon word for ‘River’). The modern Bristol Bridge, in the middle of the city, stands almost on the exact same spot where the original bridge stood, and overlooks the preserved ruins of a church bombed during the blitz in the second world war, the church itself standing on the ruins of Bristol Castle that was dismantled after the cities defeat to the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War.

With your interest in Olde English you might also find this video of some interest e.g. it provides a light-hearted, but educational overview of the origins of all native languages spoken in the Bristol Isles.

Languages of the British Isles:

Liz Westwood from UK on April 08, 2019:

Many years ago I studied Olde English. This is an interesting explanation of Cornish culture.