The names and naming of revived Cornish

Merryn Davies-Deacon, ‘Names, varieties and ideologies in revived Cornish’, Studia Celtica Posnaniensia, 2(1) (2017), 81-95.

This article assesses the role of naming in legitimating or delegitimating identities, taking as its case study the Cornish Revival. Merryn Davies-Deacon argues that uncertainty over the ‘Celtic’ status of the Cornish identity results in those involved in the Cornish language revival using naming as a strategy to legitimate their version of Cornish identity.

After setting the context, she notes that each of the varieties of revived Cornish that crystallised in the 1980s and 1990s clarified its name over time. For example, the spelling originally described by Morton Nance as ‘unified spelling’ or ‘middle Cornish in unified form’, had by the 1970s become Unified Cornish, acquiring an upper case U. In similar fashion, Ken George’s re-spelling of Cornish, at first merely a ‘recommended phonemic spelling’, had by 1993 become ‘Common Cornish’. The use of ‘common’ implied a ‘comfortingly normal, everyday type of Cornish’, one potentially less formal and more appealing to learners. As this article points out though, the descriptor ‘common’ was strikingly at odds with the new graphs and respellings which to some people appeared the opposite of comforting and normal.

The third variety of revived Cornish was first called Traditional Cornish. This attempted to restore a link between the last days of the historic language and its surviving remnants in placenames and dialect. By 1990 ‘traditional’ had been jettisoned in favour of ‘Modern Cornish’, emphasising its relevance to modern society (and, it might be added, its presence at the dawn of modernism, as opposed to the medieval base of the other varieties.)

Having discussed the names chosen for the varieties of revived Cornish, the article moves on to names for their organisations. It notes how the groups ‘establish their claims to legitimacy by using official-sounding names’ such as Board, Fellowship or Council. Names similar to Welsh and Breton organisations have also been chosen, these analogues working to strengthen the claims to a Celtic identity for Cornwall.

Much of this will be familiar from earlier work on the ideologies of revived Cornish.(1) But Merryn Davies-Deacon then introduces the concept of kernowisation. This was initially coined by Jesse Harasta to describe the replacement of English personal names by Cornish equivalents – Wella, Jori, Hecca and the like. In this article kernowisation is extended to apply to the use of Cornish words in English-language contexts. The increasing tendency to use ‘kernewek’ rather than ‘Cornish’ in otherwise entirely English sentences is illustrated from social media.

The purpose of this is to legitimate Cornish, by stressing its difference from English. Common Cornish users seem particularly prone to this behaviour. According to this article, it fits their project, which is to avoid English influence as much as possible. In doing this, it reflects the way Common Cornish prefers Celtic-based neologisms or borrowings from Breton or Welsh to historically attested English loan-words.(2)

But kernowisation beyond personal names has potential disadvantages as it locates Cornish as something unknown, odd and ‘far removed from the anglophone semantic sphere’. This may make it appear more foreign and alien and put off potential learners. Nonetheless, Cornish language activists have shown little awareness of this potential drawback.

As well as legitimating, naming can also act to delegitimate. Supporters of one variety of revived Cornish can deliberately refuse rival names or replace them with their own, more disparaging, version, as in the widespread use of Late Cornish rather than Modern Cornish (or the description of middle Cornish varieties as ‘medieval Cornish’.)

The article ends on a positive note. While reporting cuts in state funding, it suggests that examining the use of names in revived Cornish might guide how future support ‘should be deployed … in order to sustain the variety of ideologies that underpin the movement’. This may be overly optimistic however, playing down the tendency to ignore that variety. For instance, the Standard Written Form has three equal variants or ‘main forms’. Yet many persist in misunderstanding or undermining this by describing the revived middle Cornish variant as the ‘main’ form.

Moreover, does it also too readily discount the incipient totalitarianism and intolerance that led to some of us walking away from the Cornish language revival in the 1990s and 2000s?(3)


1. See Philip Payton and Bernard Deacon, ‘The ideology of language revival’, in Philip Payton (ed.), Cornwall Since the War, Redruth, 1993, 271-290 and Philip Payton, ‘The ideology of language revival in modern Cornwall’, in Ronald Black et al., Celtic Connections, East Linton, 1999, 395-424. For a criticism of the use of the concept of ideology see Deacon, ‘Language revival and language debate: Modernity and postmodernity’, in Philip Payton (ed.), Cornish Studies Four, Exeter, 1996, 88-106.

2. In practice however this may be overstated as other studies point out how aspects such as the linguistic purism associated with in particular with Common Cornish are ‘intimately connected to assumptions uncritically borrowed wholesale from the superordinate language – English’ (Deacon, ‘Cornish or Klingon? The standardization of the Cornish language’, in Philip Payton (ed.), Cornish Studies Fourteen, Exeter, 2006, 22. And see Neil Kennedy, Cornish Solidarity, Portlaoise, 2016, especially Chapter 4).

3. For a less forgiving and more jaded critique of this tendency see my ‘Deconstructing Kernowek Kemyn: A critical review of Agan Yeth 4’, in Michael Everson et al., Form and Content in Revived Cornish, Westport, 2007, 69-84.

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