Early Modern Times – Cornish past-ese

Early Modern Times - Cornish past-ese

Dear readers,

The title of today’s post refers not to those tasty meat-and-veggie filled pastries available throughout Britain and the Commonwealth (though perhaps not so great in excess for the ‘common health’), but to the ancient Celtic language of Cornwall in SW England (pictured above in a late eighteenth-century painting of Launceston Castle by Hendrik Frans de Cort). As this article on the ‘rebirth of Britain’s “lost” languages’ explains, 1777 saw the death of the very last Cornish monoglot (a term which refers both to speaking and understanding one language, and to specially designated areas of common-land to park and graze a ‘monog’, an obscure and highly impractical goat-drawn wheelbarrow). The most violent suppression of the Cornish language occurred in the ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ of 1549, in which some 4,000 Cornishmen perished in a revolt against the imposition of the English language in the C of E (which had only just broken from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534). Gwenno Saunders, a Welsh singer who has just released an album in Cornish, points out that the language should not be taken as a symbol of British separateness given its resemblance to the Celtic languages of Brittany in addition to Wales. She may not be aware, however, that an ‘ur’ form of the language was spoken widely across Cornwall and is considered the ‘father’ of the Celtic language of Cornwall: Pop-Cornish (often in different ‘flavoured’ dialects, with the richest and stickiest form known as Caramel Pop-Cornish).

Although Cornish may be witnessing a revival of interest, the same cannot be said for other forgotten languages with early modern associations. Readers may recall the discovery of an animalistic speech used by feral children to communicate with their bestial parents: Waif-ish. Furthermore, the author of Utopia is known not only for constructing an imaginary Utopian language resembling Greek, but also a very pleasant artificial language leaving British speakers wanting to continue its usage: More-ish. Louis XIV, not to be outdone by his less refined neighbours across the Channel, commissioned a special form of speech suited to French Baroque celebrations and aiming to glorify his red high-heeled footwear (which became a European fashion craze): Shoe Fête-ish (shinily imitated by the nobility in Warsaw in the form of Shoe Pole-ish). Enlightenment thinkers, however, seeking fundamental root-and-branch changes in society, constructed an anti-aristocratic and anticlerical language with vegetarian etymology to accompany the ‘grainy’ texture of Corn-ish while recalling the rationalist society of the Houyhnhnms in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: Horse Rad-ish. Voltaire, excited by these developments, even invented a private language in his infamous 1759 novel as the eponymous character discovers the ‘delectable sweets’ of sober, rational learning: Candide-ish. But Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as expected, rejected the decadence of Voltaire’s rhetoric with his own sentimental and nostalgic language of regret (though marginalised by mainstream society): Sighed-ish.

Finally, let us raise a Cornish toast (which doubtless resembles Welsh rarebit–melted cheese on toast–a particular childhood fave of mine) to forgotten languages: Kober, sten ha pesk (copper, tin and fish)!

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Studies Program

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