Angels dancing on pins. Or studies in the history of the Cornish language.

Ken George, ‘What happened to Primitive Cornish / ɪ / when long in closed syllables’, Studia Celtica Posnaniensia  3.1 (2018), online.

The topic of this article is simple, the investigation detailed, the methods relatively sophisticated and heavily statistical. Yet the underlying assumptions are questionable and unexamined.

‘Primitive Cornish’, usually dated to the period before 1200, possessed four unrounded front vowels – the vowels in the English words beet, bit, bet and bat, which for simplicity’s sake I shall refer to as ee, i, e and a in the rest of this review. By the modern period, at the end of the 1600s, four had become three in most cases as i had fallen together with e and words like bys (world) become bez. The issue is when did this happen.

Traditionally, by analogy with Welsh and Breton, it’s argued to have occurred by 1200, before the equally traditional dating of Middle Cornish (from roughly 1250 to 1550). Ken George however has always held that the change occurred ‘substantially later’. His academic sparring partner Nicholas Williams on the other hand agrees with the traditional explanation and argues that the spelling of this vowel as <y> rather than the later <e> was merely an example of orthographic conservatism and a Cornish scribal tradition. Here, Ken George sets out to prove him wrong.

He does this essentially by quantifying spellings ‘word-sets’ and also the rhyming sets found in the dramas which make up the bulk of the Middle Cornish texts. These rhyming sets, George asserts, tell us more about pronunciation.

In the texts he finds a clear difference in the spelling of words like bys (world), brys (mind), hys (length) or prys (time), all of which he claims contained the i vowel, and words with the sound ee such as thys (to you), mys (month and prys (price). The vowel in the latter set was virtually always spelt with a <y>, those in the former spelt half and half between <y> and <ey>/<e>. Meanwhile words with e were invariably spelt with an <e>. This suggests that the vowels i and e were still distinguished in the Middle Cornish texts, ‘at least on a statistical basis’.

So far so obvious. He then investigates the rhymes and finds a clear distinction between rhyming sets within his spelling word sets. Thus, words like bys were rhymed differently from words such as byth (will be) or dyth (day). For George this reveals that some words originally pronounced with i were switching to e. He calls this a process of ‘lexical diffusion’, i.e. not all words were changing at the same time but at different times.

Specifically, he notes that the word cref (strong) was always spelt with an <e>, meaning the change had occurred in this case before the Middle Cornish phase. Words like dyth/deth, byth/beth, sygh/segh (dry), rys/res (must) were undergoing vowel change during the Middle Cornish period. For others such as bys, prys (time), ryp (by), the change to bez, prez and reb occurred later, at the end of the Middle Cornish period.

George concludes that ‘the revived language needs to take account of this’ although he doesn’t explicitly suggest how it should do this. At present all the above words save cref are spelt with the old-fashioned <y> in the Standard Written Form (SWF-Middle variant). The implication is that some at least ought to be <e>.

This is all very ingenious but questions remain. First, it seems odd that in relation to the byth/deth set of words, supposedly with a sound-change ‘in progress’, a far higher proportion of <e> and <ey> spellings occur in the fourteenth century texts than in two of the three late fifteenth century texts. Meanwhile one of the latter (Bownans Meriasek) stands out as completely different with a majority of <e> spellings of this word-set.

This might seem rather to imply authorial or scribal inconsistency. Moreover, spellings of <ey> may indicate a long vowel, as in placenames such as Pencoys, and not a diphthongised pronunciation. The device of adding <y> to a preceding vowel seems to be a clear part of Middle Cornish spelling conventions.

But what do we mean when we talk of ‘Middle Cornish’? Nowhere in this article does George pin down its timing, so we’re left to assume the traditional dates of 1250-1550. But let’s take one of George’s words – sygh/segh – and look at other evidence. His count finds this word spelt nine times in the texts with an <e>, and three times each with <ey> and <y>. For him this is proof that the change from sygh to segh was ‘in progress in Middle Cornish’.

However, this word is also a place-name element. I find six places (Pensignance (Gwennap), Polshea (St Tudy), Polzeath, Sellan (Sancreed), Sethnoe (Breage) and Suffenton (St Teath)) that had this element and with examples of medieval spellings. The earliest examples of these names date from 1284 to 1361. Not one is spelt with a <y>; all are spelt segh or shech and all with an <e>.

This implies that the change was already complete by the end of the 1200s. It therefore looks more likely that the <y> and <ey> spellings in the texts are merely examples of orthographic conservatism (think through/thru) or the use of <y> to denote a long e. George’s ‘in progress in Middle Cornish’ only makes sense if we date Middle Cornish to the period of the 1100s/1200s, even earlier than the established preference for basing revived Cornish on 1450 and the high medieval period.

Of course, all this is only relevant for the revived language because of the insistence of revivalists on a fifteenth century, or perhaps in reality thirteenth century, base. By 1700 only three unrounded front vowels accounted for the vast majority of such words and there is less of a problem.

The simple and more elegant alternative – to base revived Cornish on the most recent historic phase – must not be allowed to rear its head however. In this article the aura of scientific detachment masks an ideological naivete and lack of reflexiveness that has become a familiar trope within the Cornish language movement. Occasionally it peers out from the undergrowth of technical language and statistical sophistication. For instance, he reports that ‘in an attempt to reduce the chronic strife between these (Late or Modern Cornish users) and the majority, a new “political” orthography was introduced’, as if there were orthographies that aren’t ‘political’.

In any case the politics of this particular ‘political’ orthography would appear to have worked to the advantage of medieval Cornish. These days, the late variants of the SWF are comprehensively ignored or excluded rather than given the ‘equal’ status that was part of the original SWF agreement. Ken George might also reflect on the fact that in his Table 34 in this article all the spellings of the SWF (Middle variant) are identical to those of Kernewek Kemmyn. The SWF(M) is actually KK-lite and both are effectively based on a Cornish last spoken around 1300.

This early medieval basis for revived Cornish is even more bizarre when we consider the number of neologisms and lexical inventions that litter the revived language as it seeks to mimic living vernacular languages. Taking six pages of the Gerlyver Meur at random we find that 44% of the 118 words were not actually attested in the texts. Revived medieval Cornish is fine as a hobby but the tendency to date historical changes to much later periods plus the necessarily high proportion of neologisms combined with an excessive resort to subjective purism in lexical choice means it has little connection to historical Cornish – of any phase.