[Spellyans] The Cornish for 'cousin'

Thomas Leigh callanish at gmail.com
Tue Jul 29 19:39:01 BST 2014

I don’t normally respond to this list (though I read everything) simply
because I don’t feel I have the expertise or experience to do so in any way
that would contribute much to the conversation. However, I am very
interested in the subject of pronunciation and phonology, so I’ll offer
some of my own thoughts and experiences (though perhaps we should start a
new topic for this, as we’ve drifted away from the Cornish for “cousin”!).

I’ve talked about this before a long time ago, in other Cornish language
fora, but I learnt Kemmyn first, to the point of doing the first grade exam
in it (I did get up to a second or third degree level in terms of grammar,
but I never acquired the vocabulary for those levels, so I never sat any
higher exams). Learning the language far outside of Cornwall, with
literally no contact with Cornish speakers (apart from Ben Bruch, who
learnt the language in the same way) I took the information in the books
quite literally — not just as how Cornish “ought” to be pronounced, but as
how Cornish WAS pronounced — and I had as close as I could get to a
textbook Kemmyn pronunciation, with geminate consonants, alveolar tap /ɾ/
for <r> in all positions (and a trill /r/ in initial position), a six-way
vowel distinction between /ɪ ɪː/, /ɛ ɛː/ and /i iː/… the works. Then I went
to Cornwall for a Pennseythun Kernewek and was honestly shocked to discover
that literally NO ONE spoke Cornish like I did. From the point of view of
my learning materials, I was the only person pronouncing Cornish correctly;
from the point of view of all the Cornish people, no matter how fluent my
speech might have been, I undoubtedly sounded extremely and conspicuously
foreign and non-Cornish. Once that shock wore off, though, the thing that
struck me, and which has stuck with me, is that everyone there, no matter
what version of Cornish they wrote or regarded themselves as using, spoke
Cornish very similarly. I came to the conclusion that over the century plus
of the Cornish language revival, there has developed to a large extent a
common (but not Common/Kemmyn) pronunciation for the revived language, and
different though it might be from that of historical Cornish, it serves its
purpose more than adequately. The same is true of modern Hebrew, whose
phonology is markedly different from that of Biblical Hebrew — it has lost
phonemic vowel length, geminate consonants, and a whole slew of consonant
phonemes — yet it has worked perfectly fine for generation after generation
of L1 speakers in Israel. I can't imagine anyone going up to an Israeli and
saying, “You’re speaking Hebrew wrong”.

Though I’ve lost a lot of my Cornish through disuse (I got very discouraged
by the polarization and exclusion which emerged during the SWF process, and
let it drop) I have tried over the years to bring my own pronunciation more
in line with what I heard in Cornwall. I've dropped consonant gemination
entirely, and try to use /ɹ/ for <r> in many positions (though I still
mostly use /ɾ/ intervocalically). I've also adopted the "ow" variants for
words like <Kernowek> and <clowes>, and I try to use the variants with long
<e> rather than the Kemmyn long <y> in words like <dedh> and <bes> (though
I confess the pronunciation /dɪːð/ for that one word is particularly
difficult to overwrite). I do still regularly use front rounded vowels /ø/
and /y/ (though I suspect I realize them rather as short [œ ʏ] and long [øː
yː]) and I do pronounce long <e> and <o> as monophthongs [ɛː]/[eː] and [ɔː]
rather than as the diphthongs [eɪ] and [oʊ] that I hear from a lot of
Cornish speakers (I try to aim for [eː], though prescriptive Kemmyn [ɛː]
still comes out unconsciously a lot of the time). In syntax I try to use
dell/fatell to introduce subordinate clauses, although I seem to be in a
minority there; I will adapt and use the subject + dhe + verbal noun
construction, depending on the person I’m talking to.

I don’t know if anyone on this list has seen my short video for Speak
Cornish Week, but I would be interested to know how my current spoken
Cornish sounds to fluent Cornish speakers in Cornwall. Does anything in it
sound “properly” Cornish to you? What sounds “off” or not Cornish?

Changing the subject a bit, I’d like to know more about the L1 speakers of
Cornish that Ray mentioned, as I’ve never met any. He says that “their
Cornish is spoken in an entirely different way to nearly all second
language speakers”. I wouldn’t expect their pronunciation to be much
different, as they would have gotten it from their L2 Cornish-speaking
parents. So what exactly in their Cornish is so different? I’m genuinely

Another thing, which perhaps I oughtn’t wade into as I don’t want to incur
ire, but it’s honestly bothering me: continued aspersions cast against
“self-styled academic ‘experts’” (as if there’s anything wrong with being
an academic!) or “*learners*…” — emphasized, but how can learning Cornish
be a bad thing? We are all learners, save for that small number of L1
speakers that Ray mentioned — “…who set themselves up as ‘experts’ in the
Revival… [who] don't even speak Kernewek… telling all the other learners
[what] they shouldn't use”. I usually see such remarks lobbed at Nicholas,
despite the fact that he does speak fluent Cornish (I’ve heard him) and has
probably written more words of Cornish than any other single person in the
history of the Revival. Even if you don’t agree with his opinions, surely
he deserves some modicum of respect for that.

And I can’t help wondering, do I belong in this category? I’m a foreigner,
my spoken Cornish is decidedly limited and clumsy at this point in my life,
though it was better once, I am certainly academic by inclination even
though I do not work in academia as a profession, and I have not exactly
been reticent about expressing my opinions regarding the pronunciation of
the Cornish speakers I’ve encountered or the relationships and/or
discrepancies between various orthographical systems and pronunciations
actually employed by speakers. I have been on the receiving end of many a
brusque comment in the past in Cornish language discussions online. Anyway,
I would respectfully suggest that such ad-hominem remarks are not
constructive and ought to be held in check. Not to say that people
shouldn’t feel what they feel, of course, just let’s disagree without
insulting each other.

I realize my email is very long, but if anyone’s read all the way through,
I thank you and look forward to your replies.

Oll an gwella,
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