In less than one week is St. Piran’s Day, the national day of Cornwall and the date which I aimed to get good in Cornish by. In an interesting twist of fate, March 5th is also the Jewish holiday of Purim this year.
While on that topic, it should be noted that Yiddish and Cornish have one nagging characteristic in common…well, two. Make that three. Well-(1) publicized revivals, (2) a wealth of literature from throughout history, as well as (3) the fact that, historically, there have been multiple spelling systems for the language.
I say “historically” because YIVO (an organization which, back in pre-war Lithuania, raised Yiddish to the status of a scholarly language, rather than the language of “women and the uneducated”) now has a spelling system that is consistently used among many students and teachers of the Yiddish Language nowadays, but obviously there was a time before that system came into being.
My Cornish book tells me that I should either speak about the spelling systems of the Cornish Language with caution or, better yet, not speak about it at all.
Rather than throwing around a lot of terms that you’re probably going to forget when you’re done procrastinating by reading this blog, I’ll say this: there are different spelling systems of the language, based on snapshots from the life of Cornish as taken from the corpus of Cornish Language texts throughout the ages.
If you browse Cornish Wikipedia long enough, you’ll notice that the authors who edit the articles can’t agree on a spelling system. Notes saying that “this article was written in Modern Cornish” (or one of the other systems) are not uncommon.
Here’s the thing, though: the spoken language is the same, regardless of what spelling is used for it. This does allow for a significant amount of headaches (figuratively).
So, where is my project now?
Right now I am in serious danger of not meeting my goal. And that might be okay, as long as I can reflect on where I went wrong rather than blaming the fact that my book got lost in the mail. There’s always St. Piran’s Day 2016, as well as five more days.
My goal is to feel that I am conversational in spoken Cornish and can get a good, or at least okay, grasp of reading the salad of written Cornishes that exist.
- Celtic Languages are well-known for having prepositions that have pronoun-endings. In Irish, we have “liom” meaning “with me”, but “le” means just “with”. The Cornish equivalent would be “genev” (with me) and “gans” (with).
And there are more prepositions as well. This system is actually quite similar to what is found in Hebrew. Just because I’ve done it multiple times doesn’t make it easier.
- There are some pronunciation quagmires. One phrase that I heard on some introductory podcasts…so often that if you say this phrase to me, I might be tempted to scream…is…
“Yth esof vy ow tesky Kernewek” (I am Learning Cornish)
Pronounced more accurately as “there of ee a tesk ee kernuwek”…don’t ask me why that “s” is pronounced as a rolled “r”. I honestly don’t know and, at some point when you become experienced at learning languages, you stop asking “why?” completely.
Luckily there is plenty of spoken material with Cornish Language Podcasts and the like, as well as the fact that my book (which is written in German) gives very helpful pronunciation guides. I would say that it was probably slightly easier than Faroese’s to learn…
- Mutation. Ugh. The insane cruelty that is to be found in the Celtic Languages. If you look up the word “to learn” in the English-Cornish dictionary, you’ll get “desky”. Now look at that sentence above. What do you see? If you see a changed consonant, you’re right.
What Irish does is add a letter to a consonant for it to mutate. This is logical, but it gives you no idea of how it would be pronounced.
Is maith liom (I like. Literally, “it is good with me”. Pronounced “Is ma liom”)
Oiche mhaith! (Good night! “ee heh wah”)
The pronunciation of “m” goes to “v”.
Cornish (as well as Welsh and Breton) does something else: mutates them phonetically. In other words:
The “vy” in the sentence ““Yth esof vy ow tesky Kernewek” is actually “my” (I) without mutation. But when it mutates, you can see how it is pronounced logically! And “desky” changes to “tesky” as well.
The mutation zoo of the Celtic Languages is for another post. Or for a discussion in the comments. End of this discussion.
- There are quite a lot of English words to be found in the revived Cornish (very unsurprising!). The English language itself is referred to as “Sowsnek” (“Saxon”) and England is Pow Sows (“Saxon Country”). But what is also interesting to note is that some aspects of Celtic grammar found their way into “Saxon”, including the verb “to do” existing in phrases like “I did not know that”.
- Because of the revival, learners can be very comforted by the fact that the majority of people who speak this language do so as a second language (as is actually the case with…English…). Being in the company of fellow learners, even virtually, is a good thing.
- Radyo an Gernewegva (the Cornish Radio Service) offers weekly podcasts in Cornish. You can find virtually every Christmas song you can name covered in a Cornish version, as well as well-known pop-classics, including yes, the Beatles, as well as the fact that the most recent one as of the time of writing included…a Cornish cover of scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (!!!) (You can find it on Episode #212 at around 22:00)
The unpredictability of the program as well as the fact that there have been more than a few earworms from independent musicians is…well…intriguing. I like it. It is an experiment of human creativity.
- A lot of vocabulary is oddly similar to what can be found in the Romance Languages. With Breton, this makes sense (with French influence), but with the other Celtic Languages, Cornish included, it is due to the fact that the Celtic Languages and the Romance Languages are actually…adjacent sub-families, believe it or not!
- Welsh, Breton and Cornish are from the Brythonic branch of the Celtic Languages, which means that they share many features (even though they are not mutually intelligible!). Speakers of these languages often get asked if they can understand a Gaelic Language or if they are similar.
The Gaelic Languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx) make up the other branch of the Celtic Languages. So while there are similarities (like the preposition system mentioned above), don’t count on too many between the two branches.
- Enough with talk. More music. Enjoy!