Cornish, past and planned, placenames and polemics

Ken MacKinnon, ‘Papers on Cornwall and the Cornish Language’, 2019 and Rod Lyon, Colloquial doesn’t mean Corrupt: Observations on contemporary revived Cornish, Evertype, Dundee, 2019.

Ken MacKinnon first came to Cornwall aged seven in 1940, on being evacuated from wartime London. Since that time, he’s had a lifelong interest in Cornwall and the Cornish language. Ken’s background as an academic in the sociology of language and, after his retirement, his work as a consultant in language planning, especially in Scots Gaelic, brings a sociolinguistic and comparative perspective to the Cornish language. This collection of Ken’s papers has been brought out with the help of Merryn Davies-Deacon and is available to download for free from her website.

Two of the ten chapters (in practice nine as one comprises just a diagram of the Cornish language’s management structure), were previously published in Cornish Studies; the other seven are previously unpublished, mainly conference papers, written in the period from 2002 to 2019.

Five chapters are concerned with language planning and the Cornish language, while four are studies of placenames. After outlining his work producing the ‘Independent Academic Study on Cornish’ report for central government in 2000 in the first two chapters, chapter 3, ‘Cornwall and the future of the Celtic languages’, puts Cornish in a comparative context. This chapter re-assesses the state of the Celtic languages at the beginning of the new millennium. It ends with a ten-point strategy for planning the Cornish language,

Chapter 6, ‘Cornish language research landscape’, also proposes a detailed research agenda for the language, beginning with research into language acquisition and what aspects of Cornish might attract (or repel) potential users. However, as Ken points out in this article, written in 2014, this ambitious research agenda depends on the resumption of full-time academic and research posts in the subject. With cutbacks in funding for revived Cornish and no hint of new academic posts on the horizon, this looks a somewhat forlorn hope. The reality is that most research on Cornish continues to be undertaken by enthusiastic amateurs or is buried in disconnected doctoral research projects. A joined-up, scientifically-based and coherent research strategy on the lines proposed by Ken seems as far away as ever.

Indeed, the chapters on the Cornish language here are more useful as a historical record of a period in its history when, for a fleeting moment, prospects looked favourable. Nonetheless, chapter 6 offers an off-the-shelf research agenda if the miraculous were to happen and government (either central or local) or higher education institutions suddenly began to take the Cornish language seriously.

The other chapters in Ken’s collection turn to the study of placenames. He argues that placenames need to be studied as part of a dynamic process of interaction between people and landscape over time rather than the static and rather dry focus on form, derivation and etymology that has marked toponymic studies hitherto. Chapter 5, ‘Bys Kernewek: a Cornish language world’, shows how placenames provide a ‘continued living domain in which the language still functions’. They can  illuminate the development of the Cornish landscape and be of potential use in assisting Cornish people to regain their world. In this chapter Ken peels back the various layers of placenames, a theme returned to in chapter 8 on the spiritual landscape.

Meanwhile, chapter 7, ‘Henderson’s Black-more revisited’, is a detailed dissection of a lost landscape, now buried under clay tips, using Charles Henderson’s notes from late seventeenth century records. This intriguingly hints at continued use of Cornish in this area as late as the 1660s. The final chapter, ’Summercourt: location, landscape and language’, reviews possible Cornish names for Summercourt, where the fair appears to have been known by an English name from its inception in the 1200s.

Ken’s approach to the language and language planning tends to be quantitative, making use of census and survey data on users and the public, but lurking behind his proposals for Cornish language planning is the Cornish language as it really is. Apart from its symbolic role, important in maintaining a distinctive identity – as Ken says ‘without Cornish, Cornwall is just another county’ – what is this language that’s the object of the planning?

All too frequently, spoken Cornish is embarrassingly and excruciatingly stilted, as in its token use in the Cornish Gorseth. It’s difficult to shake off the feeling that at such events, in Q’s words, ‘the audience’ is still ‘play-acting even more strenuously than the actors’. Is the relatively poor state of spoken Cornish after a century of revival an indictment of the kind of Cornish that’s been revived?

Ken MacKinnon’s own preference is made plain in chapter 4, his submission to the Cornish Language commission in 2007. Then he suggested that any single written form, while based on a ‘rigorous scientific method’, should also be fully attested and use a traditional orthography, picking up where the ’language last left off as a vernacular’. In other words, it should re-adopt ‘Jennerian Cornish’, based on the language of the 1600s and 1700s, rather than the medieval forms and conservative register of the Cornish dramas that Nance and his successors adopted.

Dolly Pentreath, claimed to be the
last Cornish speaker

Unfortunately, the medieval infatuation continued with a standard form that, although having two supposedly equal variants, has adopted an orthography which is entirely unsuited to expressing the ‘late’ variety. Furthermore, it’s anything but ‘traditional’ or ‘fully attested’. Rod Lyon, in his Colloquial doesn’t mean corrupt, tackles this issue head on.

Rod focuses on the poor state of spoken Cornish, describing the speech of many Cornish users as ‘dull, slow and lacking any life’. He ascribes this to the excessive purism of revivalists, intent on seeking some pristine Cornish free of baleful English influence. In the process any linguistic developments since the middle ages are rejected as ‘corrupt’. Adopting Nicholas Williams’ method of drowning the reader in a cascade of textual examples, Rod shows how various grammatical and lexical features of the language now deemed unacceptable were never entirely confined to ‘late’ Cornish but were also found in earlier texts. The absurdity of revived medieval Cornish, adopting a fourteenth century base for twenty-first century neologisms within a non-traditional orthography is convincingly spelt out.

Bards of the Gorseth, claimed to be the
defender of Cornish traditions

In order to be ‘lively, fluent and idiomatic’ Rod concludes that Cornish should be rebased on the language as it really was at the end of the 1600s, on that spoken by the Cornish writer Wella Rowe, and not on what ‘we wish it to have been’. This seems eminently sensible, although one might ask why, if we are basing our Cornish on that of Wella Rowe, we don’t use a modified version of his spelling rather than one based essentially on the Cornish of the middle ages.

One thought on “Cornish, past and planned, placenames and polemics

  1. Meur ras bras, Bernard – very many thanks for this review – very much appreciated.. And Merryn did a first class job with it – Ken MacKinnon


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