Why don’t the English speak Cornish?

Or at least a version of Brittonic Celtic, the language that was spoken, along with Latin, when the Romans left Britain in the early 400s. Within a relatively short time the whole of what became England, or at least its southern part, was speaking English. We know this because the number of Celtic placenames in southern England is insignificant, replaced almost entirely by English names.

Originally it was assumed this shift resulted from mass immigration and population replacement. Then archaeologists assured us that the number of settlers was very low. But if this were so we might have expected the native language to survive rather than disappear outside Wales and Cornwall. If population replacement was not the reason it must have resulted from a small elite imposing their language on the mass of the native population. This is supposed to have occurred in the main peacefully, despite the frequent references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to warfare between English and Britons. English archaeologists, embarrassed by the possibility that their ancestors may have indulged in ethnic cleansing, were keen to embrace this model.

Warbstow Bury, in the limited areas of Cornwall where Celtic placenames were replaced

It was never accepted by placename specialists, who pointed out that the later elite takeover by the Norman-French had very little effect on English placenames. We could also look further afield. The elite British dominance of India after the 1760s didn’t lead to the disappearance of native languages either.

More recently, DNA evidence suggests that the English immigration could have been on a larger scale, amounting to around ten per cent of the native population. Given a reproductive advantage, this proportion could have imposed their DNA within 300 to 450 years, which is coincidentally very similar to the period of time over which the language shift took place.

It looks as if the English settlement of Britain was more like the European takeover of North America. Of course, this didn’t just involve warfare, conflict and the ethnic cleansing of the native Americans, but trading, cooperation at times and intermarriage. Nevertheless, it resulted in a similarly comprehensive takeover and the extermination of several native languages.

The English cultural takeover of Britain came to a shuddering halt when they reached the Tamar, when they appear to have been content to leave the natives using their own tongue in their reservation beyond the river. The second question therefore becomes why didn’t the Cornish of the time speak English (like the Britons in Devon and further east)? Wholesale language replacement ground to a halt in the ninth and tenth centuries and Cornish survived west of the Tamar for another 800 years or so.

‘where language shift ‘came to a shuddering halt’

Were we just lucky? Had the English lost their enthusiasm for linguistic colonisation by the time they reached the Tamar? Or were the Cornish in those centuries in a position to trade political submission for cultural autonomy? Did their possession of the valuable resource of tin give them a bargaining chip? Furthermore, this speculation suggests that the answer could be political. Maybe the Cornish were more organised than British communities to the east when the English rode over the horizon.

Has the Standard Written Form of Cornish failed?

For a lot of us the debate over the proper base for the revived Cornish language is about as relevant as medieval theologians arguing over the number of angels that can stand on the head of a pin. Nonetheless, the Cornish language, revived or not, is of considerable symbolic importance for Cornwall and its identity  and therefore the nature of revived Cornish should also be of wider interest. From the 1980s to the 2000s the Cornish language revival was bedevilled by arguments over its most appropriate base. Should it be based on the Cornish of the dramas of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries or the more vernacular but sketchier works from the late seventeenth century? The majority of learners and speakers preferred the former (or were blissfully unaware of the basis for the variety they were learning.) A minority opted for the latter, wishing to pick up the language from where it had left off.

In 2007 a deal was brokered that led to the Standard Written Form (SWF) of revived Cornish. The central element of this was the acceptance that ‘middle’ and ‘late’ versions of revived Cornish were of equal status. This was explicitly stated as ‘The SWF recognises Revived Middle Cornish (RMC), Revived Late Cornish (RLC), and Tudor Cornish as variants of equal standing’. (Tudor Cornish uses a combination of middle and late Cornish variants.) Effectively therefore, RMC and RLC were henceforth to be the two equal ‘main forms’ of the revived language, each with variant spellings for certain words.

The last example of written traditional Cornish

At the time, as one of those brokering this deal, I welcomed it as providing a workable compromise between different factions. I also believed that RLC, or as we preferred to call it, ‘Modern Cornish’, had at last attained equality with the middle version on which Morton Nance had reconstructed his Unified Cornish and Ken George his phonemic Cornish. Unfortunately, I was proved wrong.

Since that time Revived Late Cornish, despite being one of the two supposedly equal ‘main forms’ of the SWF, has been systematically marginalised. It now has little presence in teaching materials and even in signage, where Cornish based on the fifteenth century is bizarrely preferred even in parts of Cornwall where the language was still being spoken into the eighteenth century.

Sadly, the equality of the two main forms has been ignored in practice. The most blatant example of this appears in A Learners’ Cornish Dictionary in the Standard Written Form, published in 2018. The introduction to this completely fails to mention the fact of the two main forms. Instead, it claims that in the dictionary, ‘there are no spelling variants’ but then supplies only Revived Middle Cornish variants throughout!

The process whereby this occurred has now been comprehensively documented in an article published this year in Language Problems and Language Planning. This argues that what it calls pluricentricity in Cornwall has failed. The intended equality of the two variants has not worked out in practice. It enumerates the reasons.

  • Learners and users of Cornish fail to understand the function of the two variants.
  • Confusion about main forms and variants has been exacerbated by the presence of ‘main and ‘traditional’ graphs and the secondary status of the latter.
  • There has been no clear guidance from official sources such as the Cornish Language Office (CLO), or the Academy Kernewek (AK) and neither the CLO, Cornwall Council, AK nor Golden Tree (a community interest company producing teaching materials) show any commitment to equality in practice.
  • The fact that RMC users were in a majority in 2007 and RLC proponents were insufficiently involved once the SWF was initiated meant that Late forms became largely invisible, which then contributes to their continuing invisibility.

It also suggests some remedies.

  • Revise the online SWF dictionary to explain the variants more clearly.
  • RLC users should make the late form of the SWF more visible.

Personally, I have no intention of adopting the SWF late form as it is far too close to revised medieval Cornish for my taste. On the rare occasions I write Cornish I shall continue to use the native spellings of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the last recorded phase of the traditional language. In fact, I agree with Ken George, who argues that middle and late varieties of Cornish are too far apart to be satisfactorily combined in one orthography.

Love it or hate it? Attitudes towards the revived Cornish language

A research article by Siarl Ferdinand published online last year provides some intriguing results of a survey into attitudes towards the revived Cornish language. The good news for the revivalists is that there was a broadly positive view of Cornish, with a majority of respondents declaring it was either ‘interesting’ or not being bothered either way. Meanwhile, a sizeable minority – around one in four – of non-learners expressed an interest in learning some Cornish.

The bad news is that a considerable minority – between a third and a half of the respondents – thought that supporting Cornish is a waste of resources. This group does not want it to be supported by the authorities or to appear on street signs (other than in placenames).

Welcome sign in traditional Cornish and revived medieval Cornish

The survey also found that only one in five of the Cornish ‘speakers’ who completed the survey defined themselves as ‘fluent’. As many as 60% of the learners admitted that they couldn’t even hold a simple conversation in Cornish. With approximately 50 fluent speakers in Cornwall, there’s a fairly long way to go to achieve the Cornish Language Strategy’s rather ambitious aim of making Cornish a ‘community language’.

Interestingly, though perhaps not unexpectedly, the research also discovered quite a stark contrast in attitudes between those non-learners who identified as Cornish and those who did not. The latter group was much more hostile to official support for the language or its introduction into schools and expressed far less desire to learn it. Given the current high level of population growth and in-migration being encouraged by local and central government, the attitudes of in-migrants is set to be the key for the future of the Cornish language.

For an extended critical review of this article see here.

Two surnames; two questions

Fanfare in order. This is the first of my on-demand surname blogs, where I respond to requests for information on surnames in Cornwall that do not appear in my The Surnames of Cornwall or in any previous blog. If you’re interested in any such surname let me know and I’ll see what I can find out about its Cornish antecedents.

Tremur was a specifically Cornish second name found in the 1300s. It was given to someone who had come from or who lived at the place named Tremur, of which there were at least nine examples. This is unsurprising given that it means a big or great (in the sense of being more important) settlement. By the 1500s these Tremur places were all being spelt Tremere or Tremeere, or Treveere in parishes that had been Cornish-speaking after the 1300s.

In the 1500s a few Treveres or Trevears were found in the west but none appear the early 1600s. Meanwhile, there was a considerable number of families with names spelt Tremere/Tremear or Tremeer, apparently with multiple origins from at least five places (see map). The question is what happened to them? By the 1861 Census only three Tremeer families were still listed in the Census – at St Juliot in the north, St Ive in the south-east and Newlyn East in mid-Cornwall.

The meaning of Greenaway is also straightforward – the English green way. The heartland of this surname was the English south midlands, but it was present at Kilkhampton in the far north of Cornwall at least from the 1540s. From an early point it was spelt both Greenway and Greenaway. Until the late 1700s the principal spelling in Cornwall was Greenway but, by 1861, it had become Greenaway, which was then five times more common than Greenway. Why did this occur? Although the Greenaway name was still more frequent in Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire in 1881, it was much more likely to be found in Cornwall than in Devon, where Greenway remained more popular.

From rarer Cornish surnames to surnames on demand

The origin of Whitehair would seem to be obvious – a nickname for someone with white or grey hair. Not so. According to the guru of English surnames, P.H.Reaney, this is a version of the original Whityer, an occupational name for a white leather dresser. His theory would appear to be backed up by the spelling of the surname in Cornwall. It first cropped up in the border parish of North Tamerton in the 1620s as Whithear. It was only in the 1700s on moving into mid-Cornwall that the family name began to be spelt Whitehair. It then ramified in the St Austell district in the 1800s.

Wroath came from the medieval name Worth, a nickname for an angry person (or perhaps used ironically for someone who was exceptionally meek). It was present in the 1500s over a wide zone of east Cornwall. The spelling Wroath only began to make an appearance in the early 1600s, first in the Camelford district. At the same time some Wroth family names began mutating to Worth, which in the 1800s became the most common variant (see The Surnames of Cornwall). In 1861 a few Wroaths could still be found in north Cornwall but a branch had also migrated west to the Truro district.

With these two names I’ve now reached the end of my list of rarer surnames that were more common in, or unique, to Cornwall. This has added another 100 surnames to the 750 or so in my book on Cornish surnames. We are now left with the very rare Cornish surnames that have only ever been counted on the fingers of one hand or surnames, such as Taylor or Brown, that appear in numbers in Cornwall but were even more numerous elsewhere. However, even these names also have their Cornish geography and many of them have been well-established in Cornwall since the early days of surnames.

Here’s an offer you can’t refuse. If your name or a name of one of your ancestors hasn’t been covered in any of these blogs or the book why not get in contact. I’ll then include it in a blog covering its origins, meaning and local geography. You can use the comments below to suggest names or get in touch by email.

Rarer Cornish surnames continued

To explain the origin of the following three surnames we have to negotiate various spelling changes over the centuries.

In the 1500s we find no-one called Weary until Richard Weary was baptised at St Pinnock, near Liskeard, in 1598. On the other hand, there were many Werrys. As the surname Weary appeared in broadly the same districts as Werry we can safely conclude it was a spelling variant of that name. I have discussed Werry/Wherry in my book on surnames, where I tentatively follow Morton Nance’s suggestion of an origin in a previously unknown saint’s name. Whereas Wherry and Werry came to be centred on mid-Cornwall, the Weary variant tended to be found further east.

Werring is not so common nowadays. It was found principally in south-east Cornwall in the nineteenth century. But in the 1500s it was spread over a somewhat wider zone, but all significantly found in English-speaking east Cornwall. The addition of <ng> to a name ending in <yn> or <in> was common in the English language at that time. Werring came via Weryn from Waryn, a medieval first name popular among the Normans, also probably the origin of Warne.

Our third surname – Whinnen – is more difficult. In 1543 there were two examples of Wynyan, at St Just in Roseland and at Cury on the Lizard. By the 1600s the name, as Wynnan, Wannen or Winnan, had settled down mainly on Breage and neighbouring parishes. The <h> was introduced first at Gwinear in 1766. By 1861 spellings with <wh> vied with those with just <w> in equal numbers. By that time Whinnens were found mainly at Camborne and Hayle, whereas the spelling Winnan was more scattered. The name looks Cornish but what does it mean? It could be from a name Wynyan – there is a Winnianton in Gunwallow, not far from Cury. It’s most likely to stem from that place without its (English) additional <-ton>. Or is there a connection with the Cornish word gwin or gwyn (white), suggesting a nickname?

Two unexpected Cornish surnames and a relic of the old language

Sometimes surnames prove to be more common in Cornwall than elsewhere, even though they look to be anything but Cornish. Waddleton is one. This was probably a local spelling for the surname Waddington, named after a number of places in northern England and in Surrey. The first Waddleton appears in 1744 in the Antony marriage registers. This location, across the river from Devonport, suggests a maritime route into Cornwall. By 1861 the name had ramified and dispersed as far west as Bodmin although most Waddletons remained in south-east Cornwall.

Walkam is no doubt a spelling variant of Wakeham or Wakem, which has its source in a place in south-west Devon. Present in mid-Cornwall from at least the 1540s, Wakehams dispersed widely across the territory. Around 1600, the variant Walkham began to make an appearance in east Cornwall and at Padstow. This surname in the main confined itself thereafter to a belt of country in mid-Cornwall to the north and east of St Austell.

Distribution of these surnames in 1861

Like Waddleton and Walkam, Watty is a rare surname these days. But unlike the others, it was very common in sixteenth-century Cornwall. Its numbers then gradually diminished over time. By the 1700s there were just relics of its former ubiquity – at St Ives and in mid-Cornwall around St Austell Bay.

Parishes with the surname or second name Watty present

The clue to the history of this surname, presumably a pet form of Watt, short for Walter, lies in its early geography. In the 1500s and 1600s it was entirely confined to the western, Cornish-speaking parts of Cornwall. It was also present on several occasions as one part of the three-part names that were a distinctive element of the Cornish language community’s naming culture. However, with the erosion of the Cornish language, the name lost popularity and probably fell together with Watts or Watt.

Three Cornish surname puzzles

The following three surnames are all a little puzzling.

Trevan looks like a classic trev- name, but it isn’t. There’s a place called Trevan at Probus. However, this was originally Tolvan (from tal and ban, meaning brow of a hill). That placename also occurred at Constantine, Illogan and St Hilary in west Cornwall. In those places the name remained Tolvan or Tolvaddon (a later pronunciation).

Yet, while the surname Tolvan was present at Constantine in the 1500s and 1600s it then disappeared. The spelling Trevan or Trevane eventually popped up, although not until the eighteenth century, in south-east Cornwall, between Liskeard and Saltash. It then dispersed fairly widely across east Cornwall and into Devon. It’s more likely therefore that the origin of the surname is the place called Talvans, spelt Tolvan in 1748, at Landrake near Saltash.

Trevellick is a surname associated with the isles of Scilly since at least the 1700s. But did it origjnate there? Unfortunately, early records for Scilly are sparse. But there is no placename Trevellick there. In contrast there are several Trevillicks or Trevallacks, most first spelt as Trevelek, in Cornwall, from St Keverne in the west to Tintagel in the east. The meaning is probably Eleck’s farmstead. The surname was found in mid-Cornwall and on the Lizard in the 1500s but it then vanished. Had it been taken from the Roseland or the Lizard to Scilly in the period before the mid-1600s, where, in contrast, it flourished?

The origin and meaning of Trewavas is more certain. The surname arose from placenames at Breage and Wendron in west Cornwall that mean farm of the winter-dwelling, or winter farm. The surname stayed in that district in the 1500s and early 1600s but then migrated to West Penwith. Dying out in the Carnmenellis district, it established itself mainly at Mousehole, where it grew as the fishing industry expanded in the 1700s and 1800s.

When surnames mutate – why spelling matters

Often, the surnames we have nowadays can differ from their ancestors of half a millennium ago. In the case of the three below the difference is subtle but nevertheless significant in identifying their origin.

There is a place called Trengrove in Menheniot, near Liskeard. But this was not the origin of the surname Trengrove. The Menheniot Trengrove was also spelt Trengof in the medieval period and is in fact an example of the common placename meaning smith’s farmstead. Like the placename the family name is a re-spelling of this more common name. The first example I’ve found is from the late 1590s in west Cornwall between Hayle and Camborne. Trengroves remained confined to this district until the 1800s when they headed eastwards (or maybe some Trengoves to the east independently began to add the <r> to their name.)

The surname Trenwith stems from a place in St Ives spelt Treyunwith in 1391 and Treunwith in 1508, meaning farmstead of the ash trees or possibly the farm of someone called Yunwith or similar. Sure enough, in 1524 we find a Thomas Treunwith at St Ives, one of the wealthiest men in that town. During the 1500s and 1600s the surname usually changed to Trenwith and some migration occurred to the east. This reached as far as Redruth (with a single example in east Cornwall at Calstock) by the 1700s. But it then contracted smartly back to West Penwith to huddle around Mount’s Bay in 1861, on the opposite side of the peninsula from its starting point.

Trescowthick only gained its <th> in the 1700s. Before then it was Trescowick or similar. It originated in the place also spelt Trescowick in the 1500s but now Trescowthick in Newlyn East south of Newquay. There a David Tresuyacke was living in 1543. The surname never strayed far from that part of mid-Cornwall until the eighteenth century, when branches sprouted both to the east and to the west.

By Tre, Pol and Pen. But mainly Tre

My series of notes on the rarer Cornish surnames has reached the Tre- names and these will occupy the next few weeks. It’s not the number of families with a Tre- name that is so impressive – Willamses, Thomases and Richardses far outnumber them. It’s the frequency and variety of Tre- names themselves. Tre– is the most common placename element in Cornwall, originally referring to an agricultural settlement but later extended to any settlement. Moreover, there are around 1,300 places with names that contain this element.

Not all of those gave rise to a surname, although many did. Fortunately, explaining the origin of Tre surnames is usually a lot easier than other names, the main question being whether a name has a single point of origin or arose in multiple places. The first three below each had single points of origin, although their 1861 distributions might well mask these.

Tregoweth arose at a place of that name in Mylor parish near Penryn. The meaning is a little unclear. Middle Cornish coweth (friend or companion) has been suggested as the second element. But many Tre- placenames involved a personal name and the earliest spelling of Tregewyd could hint at an unidentified name of that type. The family name moved away from the Penryn district in the late seventeenth century, at first towards Truro and then further east to the St Austell district.

Tremellan means mill farm and occurs as a placename at St Erth. It’s an earlier spelling of Tremelling, which has an entry in The Surnames of Cornwall. The pattern of its dispersal, first across west Cornwall and then in the nineteenth century to the St Austell district, might suggest involvement in the mining industry.

Tremethick is not connected with Trevithick but is a name in its own right. Originally it must have been Tre’n methak, meaning farm of the doctor. The <an> prevented the normal lenition (or mutation) of the second element following the feminine noun tre. The surname first appeared in the Madron parish registers as Tremethack in the 1570s and this is where we find the place of the same name. Unlike Tremellans, Tremethicks largely stayed put, suggesting an involvement in fishing rather than mining.