Were Cornish speakers slower to add an -s to their name?

Because the practice of adding an -s to a personal name that then became a surname first arose in England and within English-speaking communities, one might assume that non-English speakers were slower to adopt it. It didn’t stop them eventually doing so, of course. Quite the contrary, as the number of Williamses or Evanses in Wales in the 1600s and 1700s attest. That came as Welsh-speakers were transforming their traditional naming system into hereditary surnames on the general European pattern.

But what about Cornwall? Here’s a hypothesis. Cornish-speakers more belatedly added an -s than did their English-speaking compatriots, who had embraced the -s much earlier. As we saw in the previous blog, for most patronyms this change was about half-completed in the mid-1600s. So maps of distributions in 1641 ought to give us a picture of its geography. At that point the Cornish language was still in use west of Truro, had probably largely ceased a generation or so earlier in mid-Cornwall and had been defunct east of Bodmin since the 1300s at the latest.

Here are two maps, one for Richard/Richards and the other for Robert/Roberts.

Hmmm. Richard/s may support my model, although numbers are low in the east. But Robert/s doesn’t appear to do so. What do you think? Perhaps the presence of an -s was merely the result of the preference or whim of the local literate elite.

6 thoughts on “Were Cornish speakers slower to add an -s to their name?

  1. This piece makes me wonder why an ‘s’ was added to a surname. I do not have any knowledge per se but I wonder if it is because the ‘s’ is a possessive ‘s’ – as in the dog’s basket. In other words, the ‘s’ was added to the surname to make it clear it belonged to the forename, i.e. Duncan Richard’s (Duncan belonging to Richard but obviously dropping the apostrophe). If so this would make it seem that Cornish speakers were adopting English grammar.

    The other option for why an ‘s’ was added could be to indicate that the named person was someone’s son (as is so common in Scandinavian naming) but highly abbreviated of course.

    Without understanding the function of the ‘s’ it is surely hard to fathom out why it was adopted. There are surely more educated understandings than mine out there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Cathy, those are exactly the reasons put forward. Although it’s assumed that Richards may have meant something along the lines of ‘of the family of Richards’ by the time the -s was added. Originally, when it first became hereditary Richard would have meant the son of someone called Richard, but that’s before the -s was appended. However, I suspect that by the 1600s it was added because it was the fashionable thing to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great posts 🙂
    What do we think? I’m thinking 2 things: (1) “Why has your 1641 map an hugeous Robert blob in, I think, Linkinhorne parish please?“. As a near-outlier of 1600-1700 ‘Robert-with-no-s’ east of the Fal, a search of 1600-1700 BMD suggested only an isolated eastern ‘Robert’ cluster perhaps in Botus Fleming parish. (On the map but shown fewer than at Linkinhorne.) Meanwhile Robe(a)rt-with-no-s is found throughout the south and west.
    Maybe, given e.g. Roberts ~ Robartes, whims prevailed.
    There are consistently about twice as many Richard(s)-es as Robert(s)-es, whether in 1861 (pp138-139 of your book) or earlier. That’s still enough Robert(s)-es to rule out statistical anomalies.
    (2) My own wonky theory was: if middle Cornish had no patronymic prefix like Welsh & Breton (m)ab-/merch- or Gaelic mac-/nic-/o-/ni, and if, hypothetically, middle Cornish patronymics instead just relied only on word-order – exactly like possession in the language (e.g. *chi Richard / Richard’s house; *Jowan Richard / Richard’s John (i.e. Richard’s son John) – that is unattested mind) – then the Cornish patronymic-with-no-s would have been both established and close enough to contemporary English usage to pass muster often during early years of Cornish-to-English shift (independent of the process on p vi of your book).
    I had wondered, in your maps, “Is the absence of either recorded Richards or Roberts from 1641 northern west Penwith significant?
    However, it was a wake-up to read in your book p 1 that Andrew (with no ‘-s’, as in e.g. SJ Andrew at Southgate, Redruth) was recorded from St Germans to Zennor in the 1600s. That doesn’t seem to fit a possessive-patronymic language model either.

    So I’m baffled at the mo :-/


  3. Hi Bernard

    How do you produce the maps of Cornish parishes with dots?

    Thanks for all the great work.

    Joe Flood

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


    1. Manually, Joe, using GIMP free software. I’ve had the templates for so long that I’ve forgotten the original source, although they were painstakingly revised to produce bmp files and then jpgs. Those were the days before clever mapping software.


  4. I can just give an example from my Family History research which ties into your Richard/Richards map. My observations relate to the largest concentration which covers Paul Parish (Newlyn and Mousehole).In one particular family unit in the mid 1600s they used both Richard and Richards, but afer this point Richards was the norm.

    I cannot comment on whether the Cornish Language affected the spelling, but this area would have been quite cut off geographically. The majority of men traditionally fished for a living so their working environment no doubt helped preserve their language and culture.

    It’s also an interesting thought regarding links with Brittany and the crossover with Cornish and Breton.


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