A poem in the Cornish language

And now for something completely different. In the current circumstances a small dose of poetry might lift our spirits a bit and remind us of another reality. But not just any old poetry; let’s sample something written in the Cornish language.

Tim Saunders is the most accomplished poet writing in Cornish. Tim’s most recent publication is Virgil’s Fountain/Fenten Feryl, published by Francis Boutle and described as ‘a poem of love and loss in which myth strives to give shape to unbearable memory’. To give a flavour of Tim’s poetry here’s one from his collection The High Tide: Collected Poems in Cornish 1974-1999. It first appears in Tim’s spelling, then with his literal translation and finally in the traditional, colloquial Cornish spelling that I use.

Vodya

Monez yn-kerdh pan dheu gworthewer,
meyn ow’kwska yn fosow isel,
edreg ow’chwystra’n-kosel, kosel,
avowa kÿvrin dhown dhÿ’nn gewer.

Kerdhez war fordh a-hyz ann morreb,
meyn ow’kwska dhÿ woelez avon,
lanwez gov ow’puthi peub bystyon,
gwovynn heb gwaityanz kavoz gwortheb.
Gwortos ha’ miraz worth ann mordan,
meyn ow’kwska yn mysk ann tyweuz,
gevyanz nowneug ow’c’hwilaz pec’heuz,
gwolsowez worth ann nos polz byc’han.
Kilya a’nn traeth, a’nn tir, a’nn Noarvyz,
meyn ow’kwska yn kylc’how’nn ebrenn,
kov ow’fellyl, kÿvrenn ha kÿvrenn,
c’hwilaz korfow’nn lavarow kÿllyz.

Departing

Setting out when evening comes, stones sleeping in low walls, regret whispering quietly, quietly, admitting a deep secret to the weather.

Walking on a road along by the sea, stones sleeping at the bottom of a river, memory’s tide swamping all dirty water, asking without hoping to get an answer.

Waiting and looking at the fluorescence on the sea, stones sleeping amongst the sand, hungry forgiveness looking for sin, listening to the night for a little moment.

Retreating from the beach, from the land, from the earth, stones sleeping in the circles of the sky, memory failing, link by link, looking for the bodies of the lost words.

Voydia

Moaz e-ker pa thea gothewar,  
mein a cuska en fozow ezal,  
edrak a whistra’n cuzal, cuzal,  
avowa kevrin down tha’n gewar. 
Kerraz war vor a-hez an morreb, 
mein a cuska tha wolez awan, 
lanez cov a perthi pub bistian, 
goofen heb gwaitianz cavaz gorreb. 
Gurtaz ha miraz ort an mordan, 
mein a cuska amesk an tewez, 
gevianz naoneg a whilaz pehez, 
gasowaz ort an nôz pols bian. 
Kilia a’n treath, a’n tîr, a’n Nôarvez, 
mein a cuska en kelghow’n ebarn, 
cov a fillal, kevran ha kevran, 
whilaz corfow’n lavarow kellez.

Hooray, hooray! It’s St Piran’s Day

The actual St Piran, if there ever was one, proves to be a bit elusive. The cult of Piran was venerated at Perranzabuloe in the eleventh century and spread to other sites at an early date. But the Life of Piran, written in the 1200s, was plagiarised from the Life of the Irish saint Ciaran, who lived for 200 years and retained all his teeth. Teeth or no teeth, Piran clearly had a relatively high status in the saintly pecking order, Nicholas Roscarrock devoting a long entry to him in his Lives of the Saints of the 1610s.

Piran seems to have been an early version of Dr Dolittle, conversing with animals and converting a fox, badger and bear on his arrival in Cornwall. He also discovered tin, which seeped out of some rocks that he’d magically set on fire. However unlikely that was, Piran became the patron saint of tinners. While the Reformation put paid to the annual parading of Piran’s relics around the parish, St Piran’s feast day on March 5th continued as a miners’ holiday in the west. On this day games such as wrestling and hurling would be organised and considerable drinking indulged in. By the 1800s this had produced the phrase ‘as drunk as a Perraner’.

as drunk as a Perraner’

However, with the decline of mining after the 1860s Piran’s feast gradually faded. By the 1950s the day was hardly noticed outside Perranzabuloe. However, in the1980s it began its revival to become the major cultural celebration of Cornishness.

This was largely due to the adoption in the 1950s by Cornish revivalists of the black and white St Piran’s flag as the flag of Cornwall. The folklore collector Robert Hunt had in the 1860s described the simple white cross on a black background as the ‘device of St Piran’ and the ‘standard of Cornwall’. Its advantage lay in its simplicity, lending itself to the explanation that the black represented the black tin ore while the white was the smelted metal.

In the 1960s St Piran’s flag was derided as ‘MK’s flag’. Yet, it began to infiltrate the mainstream in the 1970s as the native Cornish reacted against mass in-migration from east of the Tamar and looked around for resources with which to reassert their Cornishness. St Piran’s flag was perfectly placed and by the 21st century had become the immediately recognisable and taken-for-granted emblem of Cornwall, adopted by businesses and even accepted by government.

In the 1980s and 1990s processions began to be seen on St Piran’s Day, first at Truro and then across the dunes at Perranporth. Here, a play about Piran was performed on a promenade from the holiday camp to the parish church that had been abandoned to the sands in 1804. Alan Kent points out how this was a re-invention with a powerful sense of place, taking place just a mile or two north of Perran Round, a plain an gwarry where an original but lost Life of Piran may well have been performed on his feast.

Pilgrims pay homage to Piran

Since then St Piran’s Day has gone from strength to strength, with events taking place in Cornish towns from Penzance to Lanson and among Cornish communities overseas. The parades and processions echo those of Catholic Europe. At Redruth, in a conscious evocation of earlier traditions, a giant lamb (the lamb and flag being a common symbol used in tin smelting) is paraded around the town. Meanwhile, older festivals such as the Hal an Tow at Helston and Padstow’s Obby Oss incorporate references to Piran and have adopted the ubiquitous St Piran’s flag. All this gives St Piran’s day, in reality a relatively recent reinvention, in Kent’s words, ‘an illusion of timelessness’.

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.

When did William (or Richard or Robert or … ) add an -s to his name?

Some of our most common surnames in Cornwall were very uncommon 500 years ago. Take the names Williams and Richards for example. Nowadays these are the the most frequent surnames found among the native Cornish. In the 1540s there were hardly any examples of people named Williams or Richards. But of course there were scores called just William or Richard, without the -s.

When was the final possessive -s added? This practice had first appeared in some English regions in the later 1200s and became particularly common in the west midlands in the 1300s and 1400s. That geography helps to explain why later, in the 1600s and 1700s, when Welsh speakers adopted hereditary surnames they looked for examples to their neighbours across Offa’s Dyke and favoured names such as Williams, Jones or Evans.

As the table below shows, in Cornwall in the 1540s the practice had yet to appear, with the sole exceptions of Harries or Harris for Harry and Hicks for Hick (a short form of Richard).

1540s1640s1740s
Williams1%85%99%
Richards0%51%98%
Harris12%52%71%
Martin0%0%4%
Robert1%58%99%
Stephen0%57%100%
Rogero%39%100%
Bennett0%0%33%
Philip (including Philp)0%44%78%
Johns0%13%69%
Davi(e)s1%7%38%
Hicks5%90%94%
Names with -s as a % of all examples of patronym

By the 1640s the transition was well underway. By the 1740s, the process was complete for most names and William, Richard and Robert had become Williams, Richards and Roberts.

There were a few exceptions. Martin (and Allen) did not experience the addition and it only partially occurred for Bennett. Moroever, the development of the separate surname Philp in the the later 1500s meant that Philips did not become universal.

Patronyms such as Williams, Richards (or Thomas) were more common in west than in east Cornwall. As in Wales, this was a result of the relatively late formation of hereditary surnames among the Celtic-speaking community. But did Cornish and English speaking zones also differ in the speed they adopted -s? I shall look at that issue in the next blog.

Who was Tom Bawcock?

Today at Mousehole people celebrate Tom Bawcock’s Eve. Children parade, paper lanterns aloft. Traditional songs such as ‘Tom Bawcock’s Eve’ are sung, starry-gazy pie will be eaten. This age-old festival has its roots extending deep into the past. But how deep?

The event is said to commemorate the actions of Tom Bawcock, a fisherman who set out during a severe storm just before Christmas. This storm was the latest in a series so bad that Mousehole’s fishing fleet had not ventured to sea for weeks. In consequence the folk of Mousehole faced starvation.

But Tom was their saviour. Braving the gale and, in the latest iteration of the tale (The Mousehole Cat of 1990) with the help of his cat who soothed the tempest, Tom brought home a boatload of ‘seven sorts of fish’. These were promptly baked into a giant starry-gazy pie and the community saved from a hungry Christmas.

As Alan Kent points out in the most comprehensive account of this festival (The Festivals of Cornwall, 2018, pp.323-325), Tom Bawcock’s Eve underwent several revivals or revisions during the twentieth century. The first reference to it was from Robert Morton Nance, the Cornish Celtic revivalist, in 1927. Nance wrote that ‘at Mousehole this is the eve before Christmas Eve, which was formerly kept as a feast among the fisher-folk there’. This has been widely taken to mean that the festivity was still being kept up in the early 1900s. But the word ‘formerly’ would seem to add some ambiguity to that conclusion.

Mousehole harbour in the 1890s

It’s not clear whether Nance observed such a festivity or not. He was not averse to reconstructing or re-inventing aspects of Cornish culture, as he did with the Cornish language. It was in fact Nance who wrote the song ‘Tom Bawcock’s Eve’ around 1910, a song he himself described as a ‘conjectural description’ of what might have been sung in possible earlier feasts.

Various theories swirl around the origins of the tale. Some assert that it was a product of the staunch Methodism of Mousehole, with Tom Bawcock acting as the shining exemplar of selfless commitment to community values. This would date it to the later 1700s or 1800s. Others, including Nance, suggest an older origin in pre-Christian times.

Anyone seeking an actual person called Tom Bawcock will be disappointed. Bawcock is not a local surname. The word was used by Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale and Henry V, and was a generic term for a fine fellow, an anglicised version of the French beau coq. Tom Bawcock was the perfect moniker for this local hero. Based on the Shakespearian provenance of bawcock some claim that the tale therefore dates from the 1600s. However, as the word was used by another playwright as late as the 1850s, it could imply a date anywhere between 1600 and the late 1800s.

While the precise origins of the tale, one that no doubt shifted in its telling, remains obscure, it’s likely that Tom Bawcock’s Eve emerged as a local variant of widespread pre-modern mid-winter celebrations, of which Christmas is of course one. In mid-Cornwall there was Picrous day, held by the tinners of the Blackmore Stannary on the second Thursday before Christmas. Other miners took a holiday on Chiwidden Thursday, the last Thursday before Christmas.

It may also be significant, certainly interesting, to read that there’s a traditional Christmas eve feast among Italian-American households called the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Were there seven sorts of fish traditionally, or did Nance, aware of the significance of the number seven in the Bible as a sign of completion or fulfilment, add this element as well as the song?

But at the end of the day who cares? As Alan Kent writes, ‘origins do not matter, only the event matters.’

What’s the point of the Cornish language?

Do languages have a life after death? The answer from Stuart Dunmore is a resounding yes. Stuart has an article forthcoming with the rather forbidding title of ‘A Cornish revival? The nascent iconization of a post-obsolescent language’.

The Cornish language as a traditional, vernacular means of communication died somewhere around 1800, possibly living out its last days at sea on board fishing boats, or hidden away in out of the way farms or cottages deep inland in West Penwith or the Lizard peninsula. Not long after its demise however, efforts were being made to revive it, eventually producing the revived Cornish of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, one based on the written Cornish of the late medieval period.

Stuart’s argument in his article is that the importance of this lies not in the language as a means of communication but as a symbol for something else. The ‘something else’ in this instance is the Cornish identity. Apparently dead languages can still fulfil a role in shoring up feelings of difference and identity. In this respect the precise nature of the revived language is less important than its presence as a reference point for those who wish to claim and proclaim their Cornish identity.

A fuller summary of Stuart’s article can be found here.