‘Where was Middle Cornish spoken?’

Oliver J.Padel, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 74 (2017), 1-32.

In this article Oliver Padel asks where Middle Cornish (the Cornish of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries) was spoken and when Cornish was last spoken in east Cornwall. The fundamental framework he adopts is the presence of a long-lasting ‘linguistic faultline’ in mid-Cornwall, dividing an English-speaking east from a bilingual west.

In 2003 Matthew Spriggs covered similar ground in a chapter of Cornish Studies Eleven. But Spriggs concluded that ‘further analyses of place-name and surname evidence are clearly needed’. Padel provides that further evidence here. He offers a closely argued review of the evidence that east Cornwall was ‘thoroughly English-speaking’, but ‘Cornish continued to flourish in the western half’.

An example of a map of assibilation

Four types of place-name evidence are employed in this article. First, and key, is a detailed discussion of the geography of assibilation. This involved the sound change from -t/d to -s. For example, names such as Penquite became Pencoys. Mapping such names can therefore provide a surrogate for the history of spoken Cornish. Central to this argument is the dating of the sound change, which Padel argues occurred during the 1100s and was complete by the early 1200s. He convincingly demonstrates that the presence of -s spellings in east Cornwall does not mean that Cornish was spoken there as late as 1500, but is rather evidence of its presence in the later twelfth century and into the thirteenth.

Even more evidence? Parishes with two-part surnames in the 1520s/1540s

The second type of place-name evidence concerns elements such as chy and bounder. These do not appear in the east, which suggests that when they were being used to coin new place-names, the east was already English-speaking. The third type is the subdivision of settlements in the period of expanding population before the Black Death in 1349. For example, higher and lower indicated an English-speaking community, whereas the use of mur and bian would suggest Cornish-speaking survived. Finally, field names and dialect differences are brought into play to reinforce his argument of a divide between a monoglot English-speaking east and a bilingual west by the 1300s.

Padel then turns to bynames and surnames, using the 1327 lay subsidy (tax) and the early sixteenth century subsidies as evidence. The presence of Cornish nicknames in 1327 is mapped. Similar mapping of Cornish language surnames in the 1520s and ‘40s shows the language border had remained remarkably stable for at least a couple of centuries.

The evidence reviewed leads Padel to conclude that ‘Cornish had disappeared from east Cornwall by about 1300’, with a ‘steep decline’ in the twelfth century and a patchy presence in the thirteenth. This was followed by a long period of stability. However, by the early 1500s Cornish was being kept alive by maritime contacts with Brittany. The Reformation of the 1530s and ‘40s broke that link, although Padel’s argument is that ‘it may have hastened the end by about a generation, but did not cause it’. Indeed, ‘the remarkable fact [given the small number of speakers and its confined geographical extent] is not that the language died, but that it lasted as long as it did’.

Breton migrants to Cornwall in the 15th and early 16th centuries helped keep Cornish alive.

Oliver Padel’s detailed review of the evidence for the historical geography of middle Cornish is powerfully argued and persuasive. It also leads him to point out the ‘folly of forcing Cornish place-names into a standardized format … since this practice … will over time blur the distinctive patterns that exist, distorting and corrupting the Cornish heritage’. The idea that Cornish revivalists are unwittingly destroying the Cornish heritage is provocative, but hardly new (see Neil Kennedy’s Cornish solidarity (2016)). This is an issue that revivalists might care to confront.

2 thoughts on “‘Where was Middle Cornish spoken?’

  1. My surname is Morgan which I know is a common name in Wales but was wondering how popular it is now according to the 1881 census. There was 54 Morgan’s living in Cornwall. Is it a Cornish name that was shared with the Welsh through common language. Did Welsh names evolve desperately in Cornwall.


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