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  This review appeared in Philip Payton (ed.), Cornish Studies: Nine, Exeter, 2001, pp. 312-318.



Neil Kennedy

N. J. A. Williams, English-Cornish Dictionary: Gerlyver Sawsnek-Kernowek, Everson Gunn Teoranta and Agan Tavas, Dublin & Redruth, 2000, hardback, 485 pp., ISBN 1-988082-03-4/ISBN 1-901409-04-X.

We have to admire the energy, commitment and focus that Nicholas Williams has brought to Cornish language research in recent years. Within the span of a few years and with little assistance, he has developed a comprehensive project to reform R. M. Nance’s Unified Cornish (UC), publishing two books of note: Cornish Today (1995)1 (reviewed in Cornish Studies: Four) and Clappya Kernowek (1997)2 as well as supplements and journal articles. Williams’s examinations of Revived Cornish, in its various guises, may be regarded by some as unnecessarily abrasive and nit-picking, rather too concerned with discrediting other approaches, but, whilst he is unlikely to win any prizes for diplomacy, his interrogation of the language has encouraged rigour and the exchange of ideas. He has helped to bring debates about the future shape of Cornish into the open where the issues can be subjected to the full scrutiny of academics and grass-roots revivalists alike.

Williams’s revision of UC touches all aspects of the language: pronunciation, orthography, vocabulary, grammar and idiom. He attempts to shift the emphasis from the plays of the Ordinalia to the later writings of John Tregear (c. 1570) and William Jordan (1611), calling his revised version ‘Unified Cornish Revised’ (UCR). This, arguably, positions UCR between Middle and Late Cornish. Clappya Kernowek introduced the grammar of UCR in a concise and not too controversial form. This dictionary, by contrast, provides an extensive vocabulary for twenty-first-century use and in doing so enters into major areas of controversy surrounding language planning, some of which I would like to refer to here.

In trying to revive Cornish, how do we reconcile our wishes to be true to the historical language with the practical requirements of the twenty-first century? How should we deal with lexical gaps, for example, and how should we express recent concepts and notions that the language has never had to cope with?

Whilst learners might well imagine that the language of their course books is a straightforward reproduction of historical Cornish, the reality is that conscious choice has been exercised in presenting every aspect of it. To achieve a practical standard, revivalists have had to cut-and-paste, reconciling diverse sources from different periods. In other words, Cornish has been shaped by the exercise of personal taste and preference. Selections have been made in compiling standard lexicons, in fixing grammatical forms and in standardizing orthographies. At the same time Revived Cornish has come under the intense, often hostile, scrutiny of professional linguists and. amateur detractors, forcing revivalists to enter into academic and media debates.3 In this environment no one can speak Cornish innocently and matters of historical accuracy and verbal hygiene become a cause of anxiety and a source of strife.

Recent debates have tended to echo the supposed opposition between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to language. The move away from judgmental notions of correct language towards relativist positions, from which all forms of language are seen as valid, means that linguists are concerned with describing language as found rather than prescribing ‘correct’ forms. As Deborah Cameron observes in Verbal Hygiene (1995): ‘the term "prescriptivism" has a particular value attached to it, a negative connotation that is almost impossible to avoid.’4

Cameron, however, points out that normative processes are aIways at work in language communities, serving to define and police the boundaries of acceptable speech and writing. She considers whether prescriptions by public commentators or linguists are fundamentally different from these apparently ‘natural’, seemingly common-sense, processes, questioning the belief that it is possible to ‘leave your language alone’ and recognizing that ‘making value judgements on language is an integral part of using it. If common-sense, taken-for-granted prescriptivism is aIways at work, do the prescriptions of revivalists, whether conservative or reformist, differ fundamentally from these everyday practices? It is an important question to ask in considering a publication of this scope and ambition. With its 24,000 headwords, Williams’s dictionary is twice the size of Nance’s An English-Cornish Dictionary5 and offers Cornish equivalents for many objects and concepts never recorded or expressed in the historical texts: air-terminal, airlock, alliteration, biochemist, bourgeois, calculator, cartoon, communist, dynamo and so on. In other words, Williams has attempted to provide a twenty-first-century vocabulary, sifting through the considerable literature of Revived Cornish for useful neologisms and devising hundreds of his own. Inevitably, what we are presented with is a personal exercise in language planning, even allowing for Williams’s careful consultation of UC users; but is there an alternative? Even if a committee could produce such a dictionary, the end result would still be the product of conscious verbal hygiene.

The notion of certain selections being natural and neutral is especially unrealistic in the case of a revived language where all of the adult speakers have made a choice to learn it. Cornish is obviously a special case, as Wella Brown points out: Speakers of Modern Cornish are not yet numerous enough to have created a natural criterion [of what is correct]. There is no one to whom we can go and ask whether a particular utterance is acceptable as to its structure, its vocabulary or its pronunciation.’6

The prescription versus description debate has been centre stage in recent arguments. Should revivalists attempt to present the language as found, confining themselves strictly to historically attested forms, or should they attempt to ‘improve’ and tidy it up? The readiness of critics to denounce Revived Cornish as a ‘made-up language’ and the extreme liberties taken by some revivalists both serve to produce a conservative, descriptivist response. Similarly, the desire to use Cornish as an everyday language and the imperatives of learning and teaching tend to produce innovation and prescriptivist standardizations. This may be seen simplistically as a choice between a hands-off approach, driven by notions of historical accuracy or an interventionist, hands-off project that attempts to produce consistency and unity. Despite having formerly accepted this opposition myself, I now see it as an unhelpful and overly simplistic way of understanding the issues. The accurate description of historical Cornish need not exclude standardization of its orthography or the coining of new words.

Williams’s approach is particularly interesting. He is descriptive in his acceptance of historical vocabulary from all sources and his evident rejection of the extreme ‘Celtic’ purisms that have characterized Revived Cornish. Thus he includes many of the numerous English borrowings that are a feature of historical Cornish: byldya, excludya, stoppya, underston[d]ya, and so on. (though I note that he is somewhat selective with Tregear’s vocabulary, omitting for example: prodigall, holy, beautiful). This in marked contrast to the established practice in both UC and Kernewek Kemmyn (KK) where there has been a gradual weeding out or deselection of English vocabulary to produce forms that differ from the historical texts in composition and character. Williams’s own writing is notable for having a general feel or flavour that is reminiscent of Comish from the Tudor period and he seems to have been guided by this objective in compiling his dictionary. He frequently provides neologisms, based on English, that closely resemble borrowings already found in Middle Cornish. Ken George’s An Gerlyver Meur (1993),7 by contrast, includes some of the historically attested, English vocabulary but directs the reader to purist alternatives with such entries as:

byldya, V-N build ... N.B. Use drehevel.

dampnashyon: MN damnation, N.B. The modern. Replacement dampnyans is preferred.

I am not offering a critique of either approach in terms of right and wrong, though my own taste and practice is closer to that of Williams. I am worried, though, by the apparent closeness of language purism to essentialist notions of identity. Williams’s avoidance of purism is therefore welcome and brings UCR close to the recent practice of Richard Gendall (2000).8 Until recently the elimination of English vocabulary has been assumed to be desirable. Removing the traces of English is still seen by some as part of the process of language recovery. Cornish, it seems, must be unambiguously separate, ethnically cleansed of impurities and ‘corruption’. This reveals an understanding of Cornish identity as separate or rather a desire to construct it as absolutely distinct from Englishness in ways that remove any fuzzy boundaries. More than this though, it shows an understanding of language as ideally pure. There is an evident unwillingness to live with the impurities and indeterminacies of historical Cornish because it offends the desired oppositions of Cornish/English, Celt/Saxon, Colonized/Colonizer and forces us to live with a blurring of categories. Williams’s approach, like that of Gendall, is remarkable for its relative freedom from such anxieties.

I am less comfortable with Williams’s readiness to form new words from Cornish elements, not because I am against the practice, but because I wonder if more restraint should be exercised. In an environment where Cornish revivalists are accused of inventing their language it would perhaps be wise to be more cautious. Obviously, there is not an easy answer. Cornish speakers want to use the language in all domains and to do so they need a full vocabulary but it is often possible to explain concepts simply and at length rather than devising neat neologisms that translate English equivalents. Do we, for example, need ysaswonvosek: subconscious, ysambos: subcontract or yskevarweth: subdirectory? I do not think so. These particular examples raise another difficulty; how far should we go in making use of prefixes and suffixes that had become dormant by the Middle Cornish period? The prefix used here is ys: lower, sub-, mainly known from place-names that pre-date the emergence of Cornish as a distinct language. Again, I’m not sure that there is any easy alternative but it seems that by Tudor times Cornish formed relatively few new words from suffixes and prefixes. Should that discourage us now?

Advocates of linguistic diversity are fond of telling us that individual languages represent particular worlds of thought, distinctive cultural perspectives and outlooks. If that is the case, do we not compromise the particularity of Cornish by devising a neologism to translate every word in English? The bilingual dictionary has a bearing on this, its dual-columns serving as a sort of DNA template for the lexical reconstruction of Cornish in the image of English. Where the English entry has no corresponding Cornish equivalent we are tempted to devise one. Thus Williams has: creativity: creaster, invisibility: anweladewder, linear: lynek, libertarian: lybertarek, internationalize: keskenedhlegy. Such one-word solutions to perceived lexical gaps subtly change the character of Cornish. It certainly alters the thought-world of Cornish to one in which such concepts as creativity suddenly exist. Of course, we need answers but perhaps these should include partial solutions, not the tidy insistence on neat semantic equivalents. This requires recognition that Cornish brings the benefit of different perspectives and subjectivities and that this has implications for vocabulary. Williams is far too sophisticated a linguist to be unaware of the issues but the cumulative effect of his neologisms is, nevertheless, a radical reshaping of Cornish. I do not know if that is bad but it does feel as though some of the particularity of the language is lost with every act of modernization and expansion.

The processes of verbal hygiene in language planning are plain examples of people acting with an apparently high degree of agency in shaping the language that they use. Williams’s UCR project is the latest instance of individuals or small groups attempting to produce holistic, codified systems of pronunciation, orthography, standard grammar and approved lexicon. The peculiar circumstances of Cornish make these triumphant prescriptions somewhat inevitable but we should still be Cautious. Revived Cornish has a history of infallible patriarchs, an apostolic tradition that has resulted in forms that disproportionately reflect their personal tastes as individuals. We have naturalized the idea of monumental figures producing standards that are rubberstamped by committees of disciples. Academic commentators reinforce this paradigm, assuming the established norm, of independent male leaders and decision makers with rank and file followers. Thus, UC becomes ‘Mordonek’ or ‘Nancian’ whilst KK and Revived Late Cornish are referred to as Ken George’s and Dick Gendall’s Cornish respectively. Grass-roots loyalty to gurus works against the productive exchange of research and knowledge between groups, making it difficult for rank-and-file learners to co-operate on practical projects. It is also hard to explore hybrid, compromise forms through consensus and experimentation. Instead, change may only take place through the emergence of assertive challengers who present fully crafted alternatives and gather supporters.

All of these standards seek to impose upon the language a monoglossic form that eliminates the rich variety of historical Cornishes. If UCR, or any other standard, is to contribute fully then perhaps it needs be permissive enough for individuals to draw upon this diversity and allow traces of past Cornishes to show through. If the presence of alternative Revived Cornishes has given us anything positive it is the ability to draw upon internal variety and express our selves differently. Of course, we need a greater degree of mutual intelligibility than we have now. It will be disastrous, for example, if the various factions continue to develop neologisms independently in the manner of this dictionary. Nevertheless, it would be a great pity to lose some of the hetero[gl]ossic richness provided by the current situation.9 Williams’s UCR seems well placed to contribute to the idea of a united but plural Comish, a situation that might allow the various standards to inform each other and overlap, In vocabulary, grammar and even pronunciation UCR comes much closer to Late Cornish than either UC or KK and seems to occupy a position between. all of these alternatives. Williams has been cautious and pragmatic in revising Nance’s orthography so is unlikely to lose the support of conservative UC learners. Although I will not endear myself to fellow speakers of Late Cornish by saying so, the plain fact is that the appearance of UCR makes all forms of the language more viable by aiding mutual intelligibility.


The technical standard of this publication, in terms of layout and printing, is high. There will be some disappointment that sources are not indicated for individual words, though such an undertaking would be easier in a Cornish-English dictionary. Curiously, only feminine gender is marked, masculine gender being assumed to be the norm.


  1. N. J. A. Williams, Cornish Today: An Examination of the Revived Language, Sutton Coldfield, 1995. See also N. J. A. Williams, A Supplement to Cornish Today: Some Further Problems in Kernewek Kemmyn, Dublin, n.d.; N. J. A. Williams, ‘"Linguistically Sound Principles": The Case against Kernewek Kemmyn’, in Philip Payton (ed.), Cornish Studies: Four, Exeter, 1996, pp. 64-87.
  2. N. J. A. Williams, Clappya Kernowek: An Introduction to Unified Comish Revised, Redruth, 1997.
  3. Payton discusses the issue of academic detractions in Philip Payton, ‘The Ideology of Language Revival in Modem Cornwall’, in R. Black, W. Gillies and R. O’Maolalaigh (eds.), Celtic Connections: Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Celtic Studies, Volume 1, Language, Literature, History, Culture, Edinburgh, 1999, pp. 395-424.
  4. D. Cameron, Verbal Hygiene, London, 1995, p. 3.
  5. R. M. Nance, An English-Cornish Dictionary, Marazion, 1952.
  6. W. Brown, A Grammar of Modem Cornish, Saltash, 1984, p. v.
  7. K. J. George, Gerlyver Kernewek Kemmyn: An Gerlyver Meur, Saltash, 1993.
  8. See for example, R. M. M. Gendall, Tavas a Ragadazow, Menheniot, 2000. Gendall is the main advocate of Late Cornish.
  9. Mikhail Bakhtin valued ‘heteroglossia’ as the dynamic contestation of plural dialects and voices within a language. He views languages as inevitably an amalgam. See for example, M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, Austin (Texas), 1998 and P. Morris, The Bakhtin Reader, London, 1994.
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