[Spellyans] "small" in Cornish

nicholas williams njawilliams at gmail.com
Thu Sep 1 21:44:57 BST 2011

Nance taught that the Middle Cornish for ‘small’ was *byghan. He was, I fear, mistaken. The form *byghan is nowhere attested in traditional Cornish, though PA has beghan twice (PA 53c, PA 166b). Byhan occurs four times in the Ordinalia, while behen and behan once each in BK. By far the commonest spellings for this word are byan x 14, byen x 13 (Ordinalia and BM) or bean x 12 (TH and NBoson). Lhuyd writes bîan passim. 
	It is quite apparent that the medial fricative had either weakened to [h] in Middle Cornish or had been lost entirely. Nance with his inexplicable desire to render Cornish as archaic as possible, created the unattested form *byghan, presumably by analogy with Welsh bychan. Breton bihan can hardly have influenced his thinking, since if it had, he would have written byhan, a form which has the merit of being attested. Byan, incidentally, was the form favoured by Talek in An Lef Kernewek. As a result of Nance’s archaising, generations of Cornish learners have tried and are continuing to try to pronounce the word for ‘small’ as ['bix at n]. Yet no such form seems to have existed in the earliest Middle Cornish, to say nothing of the later language. The word should be written byan or bian and be pronounced as it is written. 

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