Cornish Ordinalia.

Trevor Joyce, who sent me the link, said it was fascinating but might be “too nerdy” for the blog. As I told him: “Too nerdy for LH? Surely you jest.” So herewith the Bodleian Libraries:

For #StPirans day, here is our fully digitized copy of the Cornish Ordinalia.

These plays, written in Middle Cornish, come with the earliest surviving stage directions in the world and diagrams of circular staging that predate Shakespeare by centuries.

The following tweet says “For some idea of how spectacular these particular plays would have been – and they were truly blockbuster stuff on an epic scale – you can still check out this 2015 episode of @BBCRadio4’s Making History.” Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Marjanović says

    *pretends being able to raise one eyebrow*


  2. J.W. Brewer says

    Now I’m curious whether scholars/enthusiasts with decent reading knowledge of Middle Welsh can bluff their way through a text in Middle Cornish without undue difficulty or if it requires significant additional learning possessed by an even smaller number of 21st-century humans.

  3. And now I’m curious too!

  4. ə de vivre says

    I have only a passing acquaintance with Middle Welsh (and a sadly atrophied knowledge of Modern Literary Welsh), but I bet a real scholar of Middle Welsh could read it. I’m pretty sure I recognize first-person past verb forms in God’s opening monologue, “ha hethyv” looks like Welsh, “a aethaf” (“that I went”) for example. Or maybe they’re non-past verbs, like I said, my Welsh is super rusty. I also think I recognize a lot of the relative clause markers that mark the fronting of various kinds of phrases in MW that don’t all make it to Modern Literary Welsh.

  5. Middle Cornish and Middle Breton were supposed to have complete mutual intelligibility, although their orthographies differed. Middle Welsh was more different. The main division in the Brittonic languages is between the Cornish/Breton side and the Welsh/Cumbric side. In the middle ages, these were really only two separate languages. The supposed “extinction” of Cumbric is really only the replacement of Welsh by Anglic and Goidelic in Strathclyde; there is ample evidence that the Cumbri and the Welsh ca. 1000 considered themselves to be a single ethnic group.

    In a little Googling to double-check my memory on this topic, I discovered that Cordwainer Smith’s name for the Daimoni were probably intended to be suggestive both of daemon and the mysterious Celtic Damnonii from Ptomely’s Geography, who were apparently a Brittonic Celtic group of otherwise unknown origin and not described in any other sources.

  6. Trond Engen says

    My Cornwelsh is well below middle, unfortunately, but my Breton is grand.

  7. Apropos of this, I just read Trudgill’s book Investigations in Sociohistorical Linguistics, a collection of his “detective story” articles with some supplements. Chapter 1 (not based on an article) is about the probability that Late British survived for 6-7 generations after the Anglo-Saxon invasion, plus the near-certainty that Old English changed its undershirt but not its shirt a long time before 1066 (to say nothing of Chaucer’s day) but the changes weren’t shown in writing, and therefore substrate effects from British-speakers switching to English aren’t as impossible as people have usually thought.

  8. Are the Latin stage directions transcribed somewhere?

  9. David Marjanović says

    my Breton is grand

    Is that a pun on Great Britain?

    the near-certainty that Old English changed its undershirt but not its shirt a long time before 1066 (to say nothing of Chaucer’s day) but the changes weren’t shown in writing, and therefore substrate effects from British-speakers switching to English aren’t as impossible as people have usually thought

    More recently, it’s been suggested that West Saxon had a Romance rather than a British substrate, so that British substrate effects only showed up in writing when Anglian writing became more common.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Is that a pun on Great Britain?

    Sadly, yes.

  11. David: A Romance substrate in West Saxon? Versus a Celtic (presumably Brythonic) substrate in Anglian? Okay, I am officially intrigued: do you have a reference?

    (“*Kwe! Nos gardenos in tempora vekla, de reyes de populo multa audivimos!”)

  12. David Marjanović says

    I’ll try to look for it once I find some time; might be on Schrijver’s page somewhere.


    Heh. 🙂 I’m sure, though, that this hƿæt isn’t a sentence of its own: “What have[n’t] we heard about the Spear-Danes…”

  13. Well, there are arguments on both sides.

  14. David: Is this where you read about a possible Romance substrate for West Saxon Old English?

  15. David Marjanović says

    Yes, thank you! 🙂

  16. David Marjanović says

    Speaking of Schrijver: Evidence that a Romance substrate explains, in detail, the partial implementation of the High German Consonant Shift in its geographic fringe areas. I largely agree with everything except Schrijver’s preference of his scenario (a) over his scenario (b); “aspirate till it breaks” doesn’t need an additional explanation – it’s being repeated right now around Liverp[ɸ]ool.

  17. David Marjanović says
  18. David Marjanović says

    That’s a fascinating little paper. Hattic has polysynthetic verbs with pre- and suffixes in similar amounts, verb-initial default word order, a prefix ḫa- that derives nouns whose meanings seem to change little from the base and sometimes causes syncope in the root, and a word zaril, zariu- meaning “person”. The “libation tablets” written in Linear A all start with a long word that seems to be a polysynthetic verb with pre- and suffixes in similar amounts, and administrative tablets in Linear A (which are largely understood because they contain so many identified logograms) reveal a word sarja which appears to have been a fairly generic word for “person”. Given this tentative evidence for a relationship between the languages and the lack of archeological evidence for any discontinuity in the history of Crete between the arrival of the first farmers and the arrival of the Greeks, Schrijver wonders if the languages of the Early European Farmers were related to Hattic and “Minoan”.

    That would explain a few things, like the European substrate words that appear either with a- and syncope or without both. An example is the “blackbird” word (*a-msl- in Germanic, *mesal- in Latin and Welsh; “peut-être hittite hanzana- « noir » < *ha-ms-ana-“); four others are given, one with reflexes in Basque (the only mention of that language in the whole paper) and Ancient Cretan Greek. “Une autre trace peut être la tendance dans la plupart des langues celtiques à développer un verbe complexe et polypersonnel qui prend la première place dans la phrase.” In other words, there’s no more need to postulate an Afro-Asiatic substrate language in the British Isles.

    A full-sized study is promised (and hopefully still ongoing, because the paper dates from 2011). Meanwhile, I’ll continue to hope for an understandable Pictish inscription to show up somewhere.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Annnnnd the Celtic language northern OE was in contact with was Goidelic rather than Brythonic, claims this paywalled paper by Schrijver from 7 years later. That’s an interesting thickening of the plot. Let’s see if I can get access…

  20. I just remember that Sherlock Holmes apparently believed that Cornish was a Semitic language. From “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot“:*

    On the land side our surroundings were as sombre as on the sea. It was a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-colored, with an occasional church tower to mark the site of some old-world village. In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as its sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife. The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor. The ancient Cornish language had also arrested his attention, and he had, I remember, conceived the idea that it was akin to the Chaldean, and had been largely derived from the Phoenician traders in tin. He had received a consignment of books upon philology and was settling down to develop this thesis when suddenly, to my sorrow and to his unfeigned delight, we found ourselves, even in that land of dreams, plunged into a problem at our very doors which was more intense, more engrossing, and infinitely more mysterious than any of those which had driven us from London.

    To me, this seems an odd constellation of things to know (about the Phoenician tin industry in ancient Cornwall) and not know (that Cornish is Celtic). However, maybe it was not such a peculiar juxtaposition In Conan-Doyle’s time. Or it might just be the author’s idiosyncrasy; Arthur Conan-Doyle was certainly not known for distinguishing realistic ideas from absurd ones.

    * The name of the fictional devil’s foot root in the story was probably inspired by “devil’s snare,” which is another name for jimson weed. (The name “jimson weed” itself is after Jamestown in Virginia, since a group of soldiers fighting Bacon’s rebellion in 1676 apparently ate it when they were short of food and suffered days of hallucinations as a result.)

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