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.

  15. cornophones (a word I just made up)

    I note that cornophones are a kind of brass instrument, intended to be intermediate in tone between the French horn and the tuba, and available in a number of pitch ranges, like saxophones. They weren’t very successful and are now mostly forgotten.

    I also note that the King uses “corns” in referring to the bounties of the Isle of Lewis, though the inhabitants were of course not Corns but Gaels.

    (Report on the collapse of a Celtic cross in an Irish graveyard: “The Gaels put it up, and the gales blew it down.” The report was accepted. That’s from Seamus Murphy’s wonderful book Stone Mad — why have we never even mentioned it here?)

  16. I note that cornophones are a kind of brass instrument, intended to be intermediate in tone between the French horn and the tuba, and available in a number of pitch ranges, like saxophones. They weren’t very successful and are now mostly forgotten.

    No entry in the OED, but it’s in one citation, s.v. pedal:

    pedal clarionet n. = pedal clarinet n.
    1891 Times 7 Dec. 9/6 Besson’s Pedal Clarionet (reed contrabass) and Cornophone Recital, 3.30 to 6 p.m.

  17. One wonders whether Corno di Bassetto reviewed that recital.

  18. There’s a whole chapter on the cornophone in this book.

  19. The problem with basset horns, bass clarinets, and pedal clarinets (and the problem gets worse as the instruments get lower) is that they do not sound especially clarinet-ish. With their metal bells and bends, these instruments end up losing at lot of the distinct timbre of the small clarinets. Combined with the fact straight clarinets actually have quite a broad pitch range, the basso versions are just not that necessary or appealing. Miniature clarinets, pitched higher than the usual, are (in my opinion) actually more useful for expanding the range of the “clarinet sound” than oversized bell clarinets; one was used to good effect in a composition by Alan Pierson that I once played.

    The Wikipedia page for the contrabass clarinet has the amusing note: “Arnold Schoenberg’s Fünf Orchesterstücke specifies a contrabass clarinet in A, but there is no evidence of such an instrument ever having existed.” That said—just because Wikipedia editors cannot find any evidence of something existing does not mean that it never did. Absurdly oversize novelty instruments have an illustrious (but poorly documented) history. For example, the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra had one ridiculously oversized contrabass sax, which they found and refurbished. Such instruments are not normally manufactured, although apparently an instrument of that size was part of the original 1846 saxophone patent.

  20. Annals of huge oddball instruments in literature:

    Before he left he stood in wonder before a monstrous piece of musical plumbing called an ophicleide which stood, dusty and majestic, in a corner. (While it might be easier on the reader to make this a French horn or a sousaphone—which would answer narrative purposes quite as well—we’re done telling lies here. MacLyle’s real name is concealed, his home town cloaked, and his occupation disguised, and dammit it really was a twelve-keyed, 1824-era, 50-inch, obsolete brass ophicleide.) The storekeeper explained how his great-grandfather had brought it over from the old country and nobody had played it for two generations except an itinerant tuba-player who had turned pale green on the first three notes and put it down as if it was full of percussion caps.

    And he was playing, or anyway practicing, the ophicleide, and on his shoulders was a little moss of spruce needles, a small shower of which descended from the tree every time he hit on or under the low B-flat. Only a mouse trapped inside a tuba during band practice can know precisely what it’s like to stand that close to an operating ophicleide.
    —Theodore Sturgeon, “And Now the News…”

    It would be less of a story without that ophicleide. And I love the emphatic commas of “a twelve-keyed, 1824-era, 50-inch, obsolete brass ophicleide”: it’s like not just hearing the author’s voice, but almost seeing his hands waving too.

  21. Indeed. That’s an unforgettable story; I first read it over half a century ago (well after it appeared in the December 1956 issue of F&SF, at which time I was only five, but certainly before I went to college in 1968), and it’s stuck in my head like a burr — I’ve been known to force it on other people who I thought needed it. And it’s certainly where I learned about the ophicleide.

  22. From the review of the MITSO season opening night: # The evening began with a deceptively good performance … #

    Of course “deceptively” is not the right word in that position, because “deceptively good” means it wasn’t, but only seemed to be – but the entire paragraph stints no praise for the performance.

    There is a similar-sounding word, but I can’t get at it. Or am I remembering the trite expression “deceptively simple” (which would apply to the music, not the performance) ? Or is “deceptively effortless performance” meant ? This kind of thing drives me crazy.

  23. This kind of thing drives me crazy.

    [Reference: Slade.]

  24. You mean Shakin’ Stevens, no ?

    Edit: ah, you mean “mama weer all crazy now!”

  25. You Drive Me Crazy? Hadn’t been familiar with it, but it’s very nice; thanks for the introduction!

    Edit: ah, you didn’t check the reference!

  26. Not only that, but you could probably strategically position yourself in space and time (given the necessary equipment) to hear Sturgeon imitate that ophicleide with his own voice. Heinlein once challenged him to imitate (I may have the details wrong) the sound of a chain saw warming up on a cold morning and then cutting through a log (the kind of wood may or may not have been specified) and hitting four knots in it. It took Sturgeon several minutes to do it, and Heinlein said he had nailed it exactly.

  27. January First-of-May says

    Theodore Sturgeon’s last name ended up rendered as Старджон in Russian, leading me to occasionally wonder who that Starjohn fellow was.

    I didn’t find out that this supposed “Starjohn” was the same person whom I already knew of by the name “Sturgeon” until literally last week – that I could remember, anyway.

  28. The buzzsaw story is in Heinlein’s foreword to Sturgeon’s posthumous Godbody, which is a must-have for the foreword alone if either Sturgeon or Heinlein matters to you. Almost the last thing Heinlein published, and the best he’d written in quite some time.

    Everyone knows that “And Now the News…” was written by Sturgeon from Heinlein’s plot suggestion (hence the character name MacLyle) and that Sturgeon’s autobiographical character Robin English was an influence on Valentine Michael Smith; but I just now learned here that Sturgeon wrote a book review column for National Review throughout the 1960s, where he often promoted Heinlein to the readers.

    ISFDB lists only three stories and a postscript by Теодор Старджон, and they’re not even major stories, surely not enough to establish a reputation in Russian. Is that list incomplete?

  29. What about Fine Young Cannibals?

  30. John Cowan says

    ktschwarz: Yes, of course, thanks. I must say that Godbody itself was a disappointment, though. Probably my favorite long-form Sturgeon is To Marry Medusa (one case where an editorial title was a huge improvement). “Lousy bastits.”

  31. cornophone … No entry in the OED, but it’s in one citation, s.v. pedal

    How did we live before searchable text?!

    That’s a good example of what The Life of Words called a ghost hapax, but I think a better name would be “buried word”, buried within the OED itself waiting to be dug up. John Simpson’s world was rocked in the early 1990s when the OED became searchable:

    We soon discovered that the mass of historical text in the dictionary itself made it a remarkable research resource when we were searching for material on the history of words. To our amazement, we found hundreds of new first uses there, hidden away in other entries, and unlockable before digitalisation. Just one example: we found our first reference to militia as a locally organised fighting force of civilians (not professional soldiers) tucked away in a quotation for folkmoot (a local general assembly of the people): “Commanders of the Militia in every County were elected … in a full Falkmoth” (1642).

    (Can’t help noticing: “unlockable before digitalisation” is a “still unpacked”, and I would argue passionately for “unlockable only now with digitalisation” or “unretrievable before digitalisation”. But, well, he’s the OED Chief Editor emeritus and I’m not.)

  32. “unlockable before digitalisation” is a “still unpacked”

    Man, those things are sneaky — I hadn’t even noticed that when I read it!

  33. I noticed it, but I figured I had somehow missed the intended metaphor. I didn’t realize it was just a misnegation until it was pointed out

  34. David Marjanović says

    So a moot is a meeting?

  35. Exactly.

  36. David: My only encounter with “Moot” with the meaning “meeting” involved the compound “Entmoot” in Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS (In the books, not the movies, although I am increasingly aware that for the younger generation being a Tolkien fan means being a fan of the movies rather than of the books), and I suspect that for many a native English speaker this was their first, and possibly only, contact with the word (can any Hattic L1 anglophones confirm or deny this?)

  37. I can’t say I remember, but I didn’t read Tolkien until high school, and I suspect I read about “Anglo-Saxon moots” before that in the antiquated history textbooks we used.

  38. The noun moot is close to obsolete, I think, at least in America. I don’t know that I have ever encountered it except in discussions of pre-Norman British history or (more commonly) in references to or emulation of Tolkien. Note that while the Entmoot is more important, Tolkien also mentions the shire-moot in the introductory material for The Fellowship of the Ring. Pippin’s father, as thane, was responsible for overseeing the shire-moot and shire-muster, although a muster had not been held in living hobbit memory, and maybe not a moot either.

    I don’t know if I was familiar with the noun before I read The Lord of the Rings, but I did know the related adjective and verb forms. The adjective moot, meaning “having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic,” (per the OED) is commonplace, especially in North America, as is the related transitive verb. However, the older, opposing adjectival sense: “open to argument, debatable; uncertain, doubtful; unable to be firmly resolved,” is also familiar, along with the corresponding verb “raise or bring forward (a point, question, subject, etc.) for discussion; to propose, to suggest.” All these usages were well known to be by the time I started The Fellowship of the RIng.

    The OED does have four twentieth-century cites for the oldest meaning of the noun moot, but none of them are from North American sources, and the only one since 1973 is from Pakistan. Moreover, the 1891 example from William Morris’s News From Nowhere already treats it as an archaic term: “At the next ordinary meeting of the neighbours, or Mote, as we call it, according to the ancient tongue of the times before bureaucracy.”

  39. The noun moot is close to obsolete, I think, at least in America. I don’t know that I have ever encountered it except in discussions of pre-Norman British history

    I should have mentioned that the antiquated history textbooks we used in Tokyo (at St. Mary’s International) were largely British.

  40. A subset of English speakers (at least comprising lawyers in England) will be familiar with moot as in “moot court”, i.e. a mock trial for training purposes – see e.g. – while ‘mooting’ is in the URL, the noun moot appears alone (without ‘court’) on the page as well.

  41. I think that’s widely known, but I hadn’t realized it was the same word: the progression of senses is ‘meeting’ > ‘discussion; argument’ > ‘litigation’ > ‘discussion of a hypothetical case.’

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