[Spellyans] Lhuyd's Cornish

nicholas williams njawilliams at gmail.com
Wed Jul 15 21:18:29 BST 2009

At the risk of making myself even more unpopular, I would say that  
George didn't really do the most damage to the revival.
The damage was done by Nance [howls of outrage from various quarters].
Nance was an antiquarian, not a linguist. He was meticulous as a  
scholar, but when it came to the reconstruction of Cornish he had some  
interlocking prejudices (?preferences) which ultimately did great  

He was quintessentially obscurantist. He hated water in pipes and  
preferred drawing it from the well. He loathed telegraph poles because  
they spoilt the view and because they were new-fangled.
In a word Nance was anti-modern. This is reflected in Unified Cornish.  
Instead of developing Jenner's Cornish, based on the later materials  
but using the
earlier sources (a process later I described as tota Cornicitas)   
Nance went back deliberately to the fifteenth century. His foundation  
text was the Passion Poem, the most archaic and indeed obscure piece  
of writing in Middle Cornish. This was consonant with Nance's  
preferences, but it did mean that the revival was backward looking and  
To make matters worse Nance preferred the invented word or the word  
found only in Old Cornish (12th century) to the ordinary word in the  
Middle and Late periods, because such later items were too English. As  
a result for years the revival has been saddled with
stevel 'room', kenethel 'nation', enep 'face', avon 'river', mil  
'animal', etc. when the actual words used were rom, nacyon, fâss,  
ryver, and best, etc.
Caradar wanted to writes clowes, cowsel because such forms were  
commoner than clewes, kewsel. Nance overruled him.
Nance regarded pre-occlusion as a late corruption and banned it from  
UC, even though it was all around him in the toponymy of West  
Cornwall. And preocclusion was in Lhuyd, whose phonology Nance used  
for UC.
Nance knew perfectly well about anodhans, gansans, etc. but didn't  
allow them. He knew about forms like ma's teffons in y'm bus but  
wouldn't countenance them.
Nance wanted his Cornish to be a complete, compact perfect language at  
once wholly Celtic and wholly medieval. He invented whole paradigms,  
which were unnecessary since traditional Cornish used auxiliaries. He  
disliked me a vyn mos 'I will go' presumably because it was based on  
English. Thus nowadays, 50 years after Nance's death, revivalists are  
saying Eus meur a dus a vyn desky Kernowek?'for 'Are there many people  
who want to learn Cornish?' when the sentence actually means 'Are  
there many people who will learn Cornish?' 'who want to learn Cornish'  
is a garsa desky Kernowek. Revivalists are still saying me a drig dhe  
Gambron 'I live in Camborne' when traditional Cornish would have said  
Yth ov vy trigys in Cambron. This is one of Nance's mistakes.
Me a drig means 'I shall dwell'. Nance also coined the wholly spurious  
mos ha bos 'become'.
I suspect that Nance adopted me a drig 'I live' because he thought the  
present-future was mostly present. In fact it is mostly future and the  
unmarked present is made by bos and the participle, e.g. Nyns esos ov  
attendya an laha 'You do not pay attention to the law' BM 848. In fact  
this periphrastic form is universal in TH and SA. Because he failed to  
notice this, Nance made a drig mean 'dwells' not 'will dwell' as it  
does always in traditional Cornish.
Nance does not seem to have allowed fatell, tell, dell, introducing  
indirect speech even though it is found as early as the Passion Poem.

I suspect that Nance used in kever with nouns, because Breton e keñver  
is so used. But there are further points for which there really was no  
excuse. Nance didn't distinguish the vowel in deus 'come' for that in  
a dus 'of people', though Jenner did. Caradar even suggested that the  
preterite of bos be written bue (as it is in the texts; cf. UCR).  
Nance ignored the suggestion.
Nance didn't notice that in the texts -gh occurs at the end of a  
syllable, but h at the beginning. So he wrote fleghes and arghans.  
This latter he used for 'money', because mona (the actual word in  
Middle and Late Cornish) was too like English 'money'. So revivalists  
say arkanz 'money' with sound substitution, where neither the  
phonology nor the word itself is correct.
If one reads Lyver an Pymp Marthus Seleven one is struck how precious,  
quaint and full of inversion is Nance's prose style. It is quite  
unlike the down to earth, workmanlike prose that Caradar wrote. I  
wonder whether Nance really expected people to use his sort of Cornish.
In fact for the most part they didn't. That is why even now so few  
people are really fluent, and this has nothing to do with the spelling  
wars. In spite of George's Bretonising and aspirational phonology, all  
speakers of revived Cornish have the same sound system, and it is  
pretty much the phonology of English.
In this respect George's influence on the revival has been minimal.  
The only way in which he has affected it is by his a priori spelling,  
which survives in part in SWF M. In the long term these a priori  
features will disappear. Unfortunately the Nancean idioms will persist.
The real difference is that everybody, including George, accepted  
Nance's morphology and syntax, but George's spelling (and its  
aspirational phonology) was clearly a construct and thus subject to  
constant criticism.

In my dictionary (which was written at the end of the last century, I  
followed Nance, because I had learnt from him and from Caradar and UC  
was my yardstick. It is only by reading the texts again and again that  
I have gradually come to realise just what a large distance there is  
between Nancean UC and traditional Cornish. It is to Gendall's credit  
that he also realised that and mined the late sources. Whether his  
English based spelling was sensible is another matter.


On 15 Gor 2009, at 20:16, Craig Weatherhill wrote:

> When you bear in mind that the revival is now 105 years old, an  
> argument for 'evolution' can, I think, have some justification.   
> What isn't evolutionary, to my mind, is the drafting and imposition  
> of highly non-traditional graphs, such as those brought in by Ken  
> George.  That was revolutionary and markedly so, not evolutionary.

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