Patronyms and the Cornish language

Does the presence of patronymic surnames (surnames derived from first names) tell us anything about the last days of the traditional Cornish language? I have argued elsewhere that the distribution of the most common surnames in nineteenth century Cornwall – Williams, Thomas and Richards – offers a good indication of the geography of the language in the sixteenth century. By the end of that century all Cornish-speakers were finally adopting hereditary surnames and most of these were patronyms.

Pursuing this question a little further, I identified the ten most common male first names in Cornwall in the early 1500s and then calculated the occurrence of all the surnames derived from them in the Protestation lists of 1641/42. (The names were Harry, John, Martin, Nicholas, Pers, Raw, Richard, Stephen, Thomas and William.)

The resulting maps show the expected broad gradient from east to west, with the lowest proportion of these names found at Stratton in the far north, where only 2.1% of men shared them, to the highest in the far west at St Buryan, where over 22% did so. If we divide the 44 districts (there is no data for St Austell) into five equal cohorts, we see the picture in the first map below. Within the east to west increase in the proportion of these patronyms two things might be noted.

First, the districts with the highest proportions in the west appear to be found south of the spine of the peninsula. Does this suggest that the Cornish language lingered longest along the south coast, something possibly related to the links with Brittany? Second, some districts in east Cornwall close to the border with Devon had a higher percentage of patronyms than districts to their west.

If we re-order the cohorts into bands of equal percentage change, we can see that the absolute differences between districts were greater in the west. In only a minority of districts (nine out of 44) did more than 14% of men share these patronyms. Meanwhile, in two thirds of districts fewer than 10% of men  bore names derived from these first names.

Another aspect worth noting is that while these maps show the combined presence of these names, there were actually significant differences between individual names. Surnames derived from Harry and Martin were much more likely to occur in east Cornwall, whereas Thomas and Nicholas had an even more pronounced western bias. Perhaps when selecting the most common first names the Cornish-speaking districts in the early 1500s rather than the whole of Cornwall would have been the more appropriate choice. Another day!

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