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Geryow Gwir: The lexicon of Revived Cornish

Geryow Gwir

By Nicholas Williams

First edition, 2013. Cathair na Mart: Evertype. ISBN 978-1-78201-030-2 (paperback), price: €19.95, £17.95, $23.95.

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If one compares the vocabulary laid out in the handbooks of revived Cornish with the lexicon of the traditional texts, one is struck by how different are the two. From the beginnings Unified Cornish in the 1920s it appears that revivalists have tended to avoid words borrowed from English, replacing them with more “Celtic” etyma. Thus Nance, for example, knew that mona was the ordinary word for ‘money’, but used arhans instead. He understood that enep was absent from Middle Cornish but preferred the word to the attested fâss ‘face’. Similarly he preferred the unattested *comolen ‘cloud’ to the attested word cloud. He preferred blejen, respelt from Old Cornish blodon, to flour, the only word for ‘flower’ in the Middle Cornish texts. Two noteworthy coinages by Nance are *dyvroa ‘to exile’, although the verb exîlya is in Origo Mundi and *blasa ‘to taste’, when tâstya is the only word in the texts. Many further examples of Nance’s purism could be cited. More recently others have gone a step further and have in their handbooks advised learners, for example, to replace the attested pors ‘purse’ with the unattested *yalgh or the attested word fanya ‘to fan’ with the unattested *gwynsella. Again such examples could be multiplied greatly.    
Nowhere is this purism so noticeable as in the verbs. Since the beginning of Cornish as a written language verbs have been borrowed from the English current at the time. One of the earliest is redya ‘to read’, which was already in Cornish by the time of the Old Cornish Vocabulary. Our earliest long text is Pascon agan Arluth (PA), written probably at the end of the fourteenth century. PA already contains inter alia such obviously borrowed verbs as acordya ‘to agree’, blâmya ‘to blame’; comfortya ‘to comfort’; convyctya ‘to convict’; decêvya ‘to deceive’; desîrya ‘to desire’; dyscomfortya ‘to discomfort’; grauntya ‘to grant’; jùjya ‘to judge’; praisya ‘to praise’; rebukya ‘to rebuke’; recêva ‘to receive’; servya ‘to serve’; shakya ‘to shake’; spêdya ‘to succeed’; strîvya ‘to strive’; temptya ‘to tempt’; tackya ‘to nail’ and tùchya ‘to touch’.    
It is also worth pointing out that many of the verbs frequently used by revivalists are themselves borrowings from English, although the origin of such items is not always recognized. The following verbs, for example, are all borrowed from English: ancombra ‘to trouble’ (Middle English encombren); assoylya ‘to solve’ (Middle English assoilen); crùllya ‘to curl’ (Middle English crullen); gordhya ‘to worship’ (Middle English worthien); gwaya ‘to move’ (Middle English weien); gwedhra ‘to wither’ (Early Modern English wither); gwetyas ‘to be careful, to hope’ (Middle English waiten); mellya ‘to interfere’ (Middle English medlen, mellen); sconya ‘to refuse’ (Middle English schonen); sewya ‘to follow’ (Middle English seuen); sordya ‘to rise up’ (Middle English sourden) and trailya ‘to turn’ (Middle English trailen).    
John Tregear and the author of Sacrament an Alter are both fond of using verbs borrowed from English. It should be noticed, however, that verbs like Tregear’s dryvya ‘to drive’ and shynya ‘to shine’ are Middle English in form, that is to say, neither has undergone the Great Vowel Shift. They were thus not adopted from English by Tregear himself, but had been in Cornish since the fourteenth century at the latest. Tregear and Sacrament an Alter use ùnderstondya, ùnderstandya ‘to understand’, a verb which is not attested elsewhere. As I attempt to show below, the verb convedhes, most commonly used by revivalists to mean ‘to understand’, does not really mean ‘to understand’ as much as ‘to perceive’. Convedhes is an exclusively Late Cornish word, being found only in the Creation of the World (1611) and in Pryce (1798). It is a variant of the verb *canfos ‘to perceive’ (canfethis, canfethys in Bewnans Ke). The verb ùnderstondya, ùnderstandya was adopted into Cornish probably because speakers believed no native verb expressed the notion of understanding adequately. It is also likely that ùnderstondya had been in Cornish long before it first appears in John Tregear’s sermons (c. 1555). After all, we know that Tregear’s remembra ‘to remember’ and overcùmya ‘to overcome’ were already in use in Beunans Meriasek (1504).    
In the following pages I attempt, with examples, to elucidate some small part of the vocabulary of the Cornish texts. We have all been guilty of using words that were never part of the lexicon of traditional Cornish. As a result some Cornish written in recent years has the appearance of a conlang, rather than of a revitalized form of a historical language.    
I have suggested elsewhere that the influence of English has been decisive for the phonology of Middle Cornish. It seems to me also that the influence of English has been of the greatest importance for the vocabulary of Cornish. Breton was, naturally enough, largely untouched by English, since the language developed and flourished in the ambit of French. Moreover in modern times French borrowings have often been replaced by more native words. Welsh, because it had so many more speakers than did Cornish, and was not so thoroughly penetrated by English, developed its medieval and early modern vocabulary along native lines. The more Celtic appearance the vocabulary of both Welsh and Breton has been a source of envy to some Cornish revivalists. From Nance onwards such purists have believed that English borrowings disfigured Cornish and in some sense did not belong in the language. They considered that revived Cornish would be more authentic, if as many borrowings as possible were replaced by native or Celtic words. Such a perception is perhaps understandable in the context of the Cornish language as a badge of ethnic identity. From a historical and linguistic perspective, however, it is misplaced. Cornish, unlike its sister languages, had always adopted words from English. Indeed it is these English borrowings which give the mature language of the Middle Cornish period its distinctive flavour. Cornish without the English element is quite simply not Cornish.    
Cornish is unlike both Welsh and Breton in that it lacks native speakers. The closest learners of Cornish can come to the traditional language is in the Cornish texts in their original spelling. Those should be the touchstone for our own attempts to speak and write Cornish. Where there are gaps in our vocabulary, it may be necessary to devise or borrow terms. Where, however, a suitable borrowing from English is attested in traditional Cornish, that item should be used in preference to an unattested word devised on the basis of Welsh and/or Breton.    
If the Cornish speaking community were large and contained many people for whom Cornish were a native language, the situation would be quite different. The language, including its lexicon, would be determined by the linguistic practice of its speakers. The words used by native speakers of Cornish would be decisive. As it is, the number of people fluent in Cornish is pitifully small and does not at present appear able to perpetuate itself. Since there is no sizeable community speaking revived Cornish as a native language, we are compelled to rely on the only native speakers available to us, namely the writers of the traditional texts. We must follow them as closely as we can. It is not legitimate for us at this stage in the revival to attempt to reshape the language according to our own preferences.    
I hope that this book will in some small measure assist learners of Cornish to speak and to write a form of the language more closely related to what remains to us of traditional Cornish.    

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A set of errata is available.

HTML Michael Everson, Evertype, 73 Woodgrove, Portlaoise, R32 ENP6, Ireland, 2013-05-22

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