Cornwall’s True Name

By Craig Weatherhill

Just as “Wales” is not that nation’s true name (its native and proper name is Cymru), so “Cornwall” is not the true name of our homeland, either.  In fact, it’s a late 9th century hybrid of the Celtic root “corn-”, from early British “korno-”, ‘horn, promontory’, and the West Saxon term “walas”, their word for the indigenous Celtic speakers of the far west that they tried, and failed, to conquer.  So, during the 9th and early 10th centuries, the Germanic-speaking West Saxons called the Cornish “Westwala” and the Welsh “Northwala”, while King Alfred of Wessex’s will, written before his death in 891, refers to the Cornish as “Wealcynne”, i.e. ‘Wala kin, or kind’.  Wales, of course, is from the same West Saxon word, as “Walas”.

Cornwall’s native name, Kernow, is incredibly old, and first appears on record in a place-name in the Ravenna Cosmography, an itinerary of routes in the Roman Empire, compiled from sources dating from around 400 AD.  One of the listed routes ran from Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) to “Portus Alaunus”, a port on the Camel estuary (the lower part of the River Camel was formerly the River Allen, an ancient Celtic name).  On the western part of that route is “Durocornouio(n)”, ‘fortress of the Cornovii, or Cornish”, believed to have been the Dumnonian royal seat at Tintagel.  Supporting this is the existence of two Roman milestones within a very short distance of Tintagel itself.  “Cornouion” would, in modern Cornish be written “Kernowyon”, ‘Cornish people’ and, already, there is the name of Cornwall itself:  as Cornou.  The -0u ending is a plural, so that the name translates as “horns, promontories”, or as: “people of the horn or promontory”.

Celtic Britain, into Roman times, had three unrelated people called by a similar name, each undoubtedly after a “horn” or “promontory” in the landscape.  Cornwall’s long peninsula or, alternatively, its Iron Age cliff castles situated on headlands, explains the name of the south-western Cornovii, or Cornish.  The Cornovii of an area centred on modern-day Shropshire probably took their name from the impressive and abrupt 1400-foot “horn” of the hill called The Wrekin, only 4 miles from their regional capital at Viroconium (from which the hill takes its name).  The Cornavii of NE Scotland occupied a tapering peninsula that is tipped by Duncansby Head.

A Welsh source refers to a mid 6th century Cornish king as “Custennin Gorneu”, ‘Constantine of Cornwall’, while the Annales Cambriae, also Welsh, call the Cornish ‘Cornuenses’ in 722 AD.  The O vowel remains until the year 875 when the same Annales Cambriae refers to Cornwall as “Cerniu” (modern Welsh writes “Cernyw”).  Cornish did not adopt that vowel in the name until the 14th century when our familiar spelling “Kernow” first appears in a miracle play written at the Glasney Collegiate Church, Penryn.

That the Romans called us “Cornubia” is not actually true.  It’s a pseudo-Latin term first used by the Saxon Bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne Abbey c.700 AD when he wrote of travelling through “Domnonia” to “Cornubia”.  In 766, Cynewulf, the Saxon king of Wessex, wished to atone for “certain harassment of our enemies, the race of the Cornish”, these last words being written in Latin as “Cornubiorum gentis”.  Eventually it became accepted as a Latin term and was used by Cornwall’s Bishop Kenstec in a mid-9th century letter to Archbishop Ceolnoth of Canterbury.  In 875, the Annales Cambriae entry already referred to listed the death by drowning of the Cornish king Donyarth (Doniert), calling him “rex Cerniu, id est Cornubiae” (‘king of Cornwall, that is, of the Cornish people’).

There is no link, as surmised by some New Age enthusiasts, between Cornwall’s name and the antlered Celtic nature-god Cernunnos.  Although two ancient depictions of him have been found in Britain, his name has not, and, on current evidence, was solely restricted to Gaulish use.
The modern hybrid name makes its first appearance in 891 AD, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as “Cornwalum”, and is echoed by the 1086 Domesday Book as “Cornualia’. 

Interestingly, the first appearance of the hybrid name occurred just a year after England’s own name first appears in record as “Englaland”.

KERNOW (pron. “CARE-nau”) is our nation’s true and ancient name.  Let’s use it more widely than we do.

Kernow – WEDNESDAY, 22 FEBRUARY 2017