Michael Adams, editor of the excellent collection From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (reviewed in this LH post), has a nice piece in Humanities on the subject, starting out with a long and interesting discussion of John Wallis (“all but forgotten except among historians and mathematicians”) and proceeding to Volapük and Esperanto, Francis Godwin’s 1638 The Man in the Moone, Frédéric Werst (discussed at LH here), and Joyce, among others. I was amused by this bit on Cornish:

Revitalized languages, like Cornish, can cause political strife within the heritage group. As Romaine summarizes in From Elvish to Klingon, “In 2004, the installation of a welcome mat in Cornish at the Camborne county offices in southwest Cornwall sparked a heated dispute over how to spell ‘welcome.’ Although the county government tried to defuse the tension by installing signs using all the different spellings (e.g., dynnargh on the welcome mat outside the county offices, but dynargh on another sign inside the building), this approach did not bring the community to consensus.” Paradoxically, then, inventing language in order to define, enact, and empower a community, can fracture said community in the course of its creation.

Thanks, Paul!


  1. The Cornish community was hopelessly fractured to begin with. It’s the Judaean People’s Front all over again, quite literally: Unified Cornish (1929), Common Cornish (1986), Revived Late Cornish aka Modern Cornish (about the same time), Unified Cornish Revised (1995), Standard Cornish (1st edition, 2007), the Standard Written Form (2008), Standard Cornish (2nd edition, 2012; defined as a variant of the Standard Written Form). Fortunately, all this basically only affects orthography, not the spoken language such as it is.

  2. Well, why do they care so much about the spelling? Is there much Cornish literature? They should use the IPA.

  3. What’s Cornish for “pasty”?

  4. AJP:
    The Cornish Mess is a complicated mix of scholarship, accessibility, and nationalism, plus the general tendency of Celts to engage in endless faction fights without or without reason. 🙂 Most of the literature we have is in Middle Cornish, which unfortunately is 1200-1600, so it’s stiff and archaic by the standards of modern cornophones (a word I just made up), somewhat as Chaucer is to modern anglophones. Late Cornish is sparse, as you’d expect for a language whose last monoglot speaker died in 1676. (It’s not well-defined who the last bilingual speaker was.)
    Now if you are a stone-hard nationalist, for whom Corns (another word I just made up) aren’t English and Cornish shouldn’t be either, then you want to work from Middle Cornish, with its relative lack of loanwords and its autonomous though Welshy orthography. If you care more about getting people who, after all, are 100% of them literate in English to use the language, you’ll want something more like Late Cornish with its heavy loanword population and English-y orthography (“Manx is essentially Scottish Gaelic written in English”, that sort of thing). In any case, you have to update the language to handle the 20th century, and in order to do that, you have to understand the system you are updating, despite the fact that our grasp on those systems is hardly better than fragmentary. How would a Cornish-speaker transplanted to today naturally talk about atomic bombs, jazzercise, microwave ovens, and the Internet?
    The Cornish for ‘pasty’ is pasti m., pl. pastow.

  5. “cornophones (a word I just made up), ”
    You just have no mercy, do you, John?
    It sounds like someone who like to listen to jazz.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Despite my name, I am not Cornish, at least, not since the 15th century, as Cornish is not a Cornish name but a Devonian name — the same applies to the Warre-Cornishes (despite AJP’s implication), who are (if there are still any around, otherwise were) distant relatives of mine.
    Anyway, enough of that. Some years ago I was in Chile at the time when a big row blew up between Microsoft and various opposing groups of Mapuche. I was in Valdivia, which is not right in the centre of Mapudungún speakers, but close enough for the matter to be well reported in the local newspaper. Microsoft is not a company I’m at all fond of, but in this instance they were the good guys. For reasons best known to themselves they decided the world needed a localized version of Windows in Mapudungún, but they found it impossible to get the Mapudungún speakers to agree on an orthography. Eventually they just went ahead and used what appeared to be the most widely used system. The majority probably were happy, but the minority were very vocal in their opposition, and I think they took Microsoft to court over it. Afterwards the world rather lost interest, so I don’t know what the final outcome was.
    Anyway, I think that if they ever try to produce an operating system for a language with only two speakers left they’ll find that the two will be bitterly opposed as to the “correct” way to do it.

  7. –i’ll buy it if they mention Lojban!
    PS when i first looked at a Cornish vocabulary, i felt a sudden chill of recognition. i’d been making up words that looked like these all my life…
    Cornish is to English as the Nag Hammadi scriptures are to the regular Bible, a kind of shadow.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    the general tendency of Celts to engage in endless faction fights

    “English and Scots! Welsh and Scots!! Scots and other Scots!!!”
    – Janitor Willie about the Scots and their traditional enemies.

    without or without reason. 🙂

    That was totally deliberate.

  9. Thank you, John, for your explanation.
    Athel, I may have mentioned I had Francis Warre-Cornish for a Latin master at school.

  10. The specific beef that certain Mapuche had with Microsoft was that the Mapuche owned their language (in the sense of intellectual property), that Microsoft needed their consent to use it, and that Microsoft had not received any such consent. This was only a small part of the orthography wars.
    I have not been able to find out what has happened to the court case.

  11. I have a great deal of sympathy for indigenous rights in general, but that specific claim is just stupid and I hope the courts reject it.

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    AJP: My 4th cousin twice removed — not a very close relation, therefore, and, of course, I never knew him.
    I have a suspicion you may have mentioned him before.

  13. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I have a great deal of sympathy for indigenous rights in general, but that specific claim is just stupid and I hope the courts reject it.
    I’m pretty sure they did. The journalist who wrote about it in El Diario Austral de Valdivia thought the same as you, as far as I remember, as did the people I was staying with. None of them were Mapuche, however.

  14. Damn them indeed. Consider this:

    In June 1598, the Privy Council at Edinburgh ratified a contract between the King [James VI, soon to be James I of England as well] and twelve Lowland nobles authorising them “to plant policy and civilisation in the hitherto most barbarous Isle of Lewis……and to develop the extraordinary rich resources of the same for the public good and the King’s profit.” These nobles, thus armed with a licence to commit legalised robbery, deportations and murder, are better known to history as the Fife Adventurers.
    In the contract the King emphasises the difficulties experienced in reducing the Island to obedience ‘by reason of the evil disposition and barbarity of the inhabitants who, from time to time, have directly opposed the introduction of any policy or civility among them’.
    He further gives assurances that he ‘perfectly understands that the lands are by special providence and the blessing of God enriched with an incredible fertility of corns and store of fishings and other necessities surpassing by far the plenty of any part of the inland’.
    ‘And yet, nevertheless, the same are possessed by inhabitants who are void of any knowledge of God or His religion, and naturally abhorring all kind of civility, who have given themselves over to all kinds of barbarity and inhumanity, occupying in the meantime and violently possessing His Highness’s proper lands without payment of dues’.
    For their part, the Adventurers, agree to “advance and set forward the Glory of God, build four parish churches on Lewis, honour of their native country and His Majesty’s service, pay the necessary duties diligently.” No land was to be fued [enfeoffed, granted] or otherwise given to any but Lowlanders. They were given full powers and authority over the Islanders, to use them or abuse them in whatever way they saw fit. All the requirements necessary to establish a borough was covered and planned for. They were to teach the Lewismen religion and humanity by deporting to the mainland or exterminating them. They had an army of 600 mercenaries at their disposal to ensure their safety from attack and enforce their will. They insisted on and received assurance that they would not be held to account for any action taken against the Lewismen.
    Papers were drawn up to disinherit the Island Chiefs. They were ordered to destroy their boats and build no more so as not to be a threat on the seas. A commission of Lieutenancy was given to the Duke of Lennox empowering him to issue proclamations all over the North for assistance if the natives of the Isles put up any resistance against the Fifers.
    By December 1598 the Fifers were ready to go and under the overall command of the Duke of Lennox the twelve Adventurers, accompanied by other prospectors, various trades-people and the detachment of 500/600 mercenaries set off.
    A defence of the Island was put up but as the two Macleod brothers, who were Chiefs of Lewis at the time, were not on good terms themselves, so the Fifers managed to take Stornoway and its Castle. One of the brothers, Murdoch, said to have been distrustful of his followers, left the Island.
    Inclement weather, shortage of supplies, constant raids on their livestock and stores by the Macleods, all served to make life difficult for the Fifers. They sent a ship under the command of the Laird of Balcomie back to the mainland for more supplies. This ship was attacked and taken by Murdoch and some of his followers. Balcomie and several others were taken and held for ransom and most of the crew were killed. He was released on payment of the ransom but died of a fever on his way back to Fife.
    Other Highland Chiefs, including Mackenzie of Kintail who had designs on Lewis for himself, were not as supportive of the Fife Adventurers as the King would have wished. It was even suggested that they were actively involved in efforts to ensure that the venture failed. After all, they surmised, if the venture succeeded, their lands could be next for ‘planting’ by Lowland land-grabbers.
    On hearing of their ship being taken the Fifers in Stornoway sent a stronger force back for the supplies that Balcomie failed to procure. This left them in a weaker position which Neil Macleod exploited. Raids were stepped up and many were killed, more livestock was taken and the work that had been done thus far was wrecked.
    The King went ballistic. The Marquis of Huntly along with the Duke of Lennox was granted a commission of lieutenancy with the Earl of Errol, the Earl Marischal, Lord Forbes and others to assist. A full indemnity is given for any “slaughter, mutilation, fire-raising or other inconveniences” which Lennox’s forces might commit in the execution of their duties. The Act of commission was full of the usual derogatory language referring to “the frequent villainies and barbarous cruelties of the wicked and rebellious inhabitants of the Isles who are void of all fear or knowledge of God, destitute of reverence for prince, law or justice, and guilty of treason, murders, and intolerable actions, very often every one of them batheing themselves in the blood of others.” Things calmed down for a while.
    Murdoch Macleod was seized, taken to Aberdeen, tried, found guilty and hung, drawn and quartered.
    The Parliament of 1600 ratified the holding of the Fife Adventurers, ensuring that the usual niceties accusing the Islanders of, “the most detestable, damnable, and odious murders, firings, ravishings of women, witchcraft and depredations made amongst themselves, extended most mercilessly to all sorts of persons, without any pity or mercy for either young or old.” The document also sets out how the settlers had conquered the land and that they had set an example that others would do well to emulate. More honours were heaped on them, and more grants of land.

    In short, to him that hath shall be given, and to him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Or as the Englishman William Wordsworth reflected at Rob Roy’s grave:

    For why? — because the good old rule
    Sufficeth them, the simple plan,
    That they should take, who have the power,
    And they should keep who can.

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