Saturday, July 25, 2009

Celtic Languages: Cornish

There are 300 fluent speakers of Cornish--the Celtic dialogue of Cornwall--left, and they're working hard to ensure the language doesn't die. So says Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times on July 25, 2009. He quotes a native speaker relaying a folktale:

"Y'n termyn eus passys, 'th era tregas yn Selevan den ha benyn yn tyller cries Chi an Hordh. . . . "

Which sounds a lot like "In termenus passeus thur trigus 'n sleven..." You can hear it on the
Times site--just go to the insert.

The Cornish language was saved from near-death in the early 20th century, when scholar Henry Jenner gave a speech before the Celtic Congress, which was dedicated to preserving Celtic Culture. They had not accepted Cornish as a Celtic language, but all assembled spoke either Welsh, Irish, or Breton--all indisputably Celtic tongues. Jenner gave the speech in Cornish, and everyone understood. Ta-da!

Since Cornwall is in the utter south of England, and just north of ancient Gaul (France), it makes sense that their language, like Irish and the others, would share common words--enough to be mutually comprehensible.

Scholars like Simon James and Peter Berresford Ellis are in agreement on this much, at least: that Celtic was an Indo-European language (as were Latin and Greek and Sanskrit) that broke into several separate languages. The "Gaulish" tongue is largely lost--we know only a few hundred words. The language of Celtic Iberia is likewise a mystery. But several places managed to hold onto their language, like Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and yes--Cornwall.

Parts of Brittany also hold onto a Celtic language: Breton. The history of that tongue is unique. Although Brittany was considered part of ancient Gaul around 2,000 years ago, the Roman conquest and subsequent Romanization of the area did it damage--how much is up for debate. Many folks fled to southern England when the Romans moved in, and took their language with them.

Five hundred years later, migration moved in the other direction. Invading Anglo Saxons drove a lot of folks from Cornwall back to Brittany, with their version of Celtic-speak. The Breton language to day is derived from that--from Cornish--and not from ancient Gaulish.


Anonymous said...

very good!

Anonymous said...


As a Gaelic speaker Ijust wanted to say hi. Re.: the language of the various tribes of ancient Iberia, there was no uniformity. Material evidence and writings of ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans indicated there were Celtic speakers, Punic speakers from Tyre and Carthage, and a tribe called the Iberii who became assimilated into a confederation of Celts while retaining distincitve aspects of their culture such as Punic script, and amazing art styles seen in the objects found by archaeologists. The language has been deciphered, it is a Q-Celtic variant, with neologisms presumably Iberian in nature. No purely Iberian writings are known now. If they are discovered, that will be interesting. There was another tribe whom the ancient Celts in Iberia fought in a centuries long war, known under two names: the Dani, or the Barchu.the ancestors of todays's Basques, who also became much mingled with Celtic bloodlines after some type of defeat was suffered by them and an armistice declared.
Genetic evidence supports the Q-Celtic language hypothesis for the northern areas from present day Galicia west to Cantabria, south to Braganca Portugal. Also areas like Rioja, Numantia, Segovia, etc. also were pretty much exclusively Q-Celtic. The process of migration, and in some cases, conquest, seems to have begun between 1000 BCE and 800 BCE, and peaked in the time when Rome was savaging ancient Celtic areas in Hungary, southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria--and Gaul. Gaul, as far as we know, was a P-Celtic area by that time. The dialect seems to have evolved there. Genetic markers on the Y chromosomes of the areas of Spain I mentioned are a 99.999% match to those of traditional Irish Gaels such as myself, and Manxmen, with confidence at the 100,000,000 limit. Maternal mitchondial DNA also is being analyzed. These genetic studies also have turned up strong matches in Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall, Switzerland, Bavaria, Bohemia, and some areas of central and Alpine France. The old western Spanish dialects spoken in Galicia, in Asturias, and Cantabria, are extremely similar to each other. Word lists from Galicia include several hundred terms of Celtic origin, many of these are cognate with everyday words for things and actions used in most dialects of Spanish. Cervesa, for example. Minho is the name of a popular Celtic dance in Galicia and the extreme north of Portugal. It is a dance with mincing waltz steps. In Gaelic, the word for 'tiny' for a thing or action is "mion." It is cognate with Latin 'mini-" or French 'miniature.' The words for bridge, door, door threshold, balcony, many names for fishes,river, trees, all are pretty much the same. Somehow, the Celtic word for deer became associated with the Iberian Black Pig, cervo vs cerdo. Also, the word for a cavalry horse, lance, carriage....the language spoken in the Goidelic areas of ancient Iberia according to linguists is likely identical to that written in the Tale of MacDatho's Pig, especially the interludes. It is about as close to primary Celtic as we can come, and the language pronunciation and argot is very difficult for most modern day Celtic speakers to understand by listening. Reading it may be a different story.

Slan leat

Le Sean O'hAodha

Vix said...

Le Sean, Thank you so much for your explanations and bringing us up to date on what the dna is revealing. That is all fascinating to me!