Literature in Dialect 1660-1790
From the Historical Texts

The Cornish Language: an Kernowek or an Kernewek.


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The literature in the dialect of Penwith and Kerrier is found in the period from about 1660 to 1790. It begins with the only original story written in Cornish prose. This is called 'Chei a Horr', 'The House of the Ram'. It is only a short story 46 stanzas in length. Edward Lhuyd, the first Celticist, tells us that it was written about 40 years before he wrote his book, Archaeologia Britannica. This was published in 1707 but written in the years preceding that, so Chei a Horr must have been written in the 1660s. Of course, it may be an older story than that, merely written down at that date, because the story is a traditional one which has several analogues in Irish.

Chei a Horr tells of a young farm labourer and his wife who lived in a house called 'the house of the ram' and who fell on hard times. The young man, Jooan, the Cornish version of John, had to leave his wife to go in search of work which was scarce in the district. She herself was able to get enough work to maintain herself.

Jooan went far to the east and found work with a farmer. They bargained together and Jooan agreed to work for three pounds a year, a satisfactory amount of money in the 16th century.

After the first year, the farmer handed him his wages and offered him some advice in return for the money. Jooan agreed and gave back the three pounds upon which the farmer told him not to take the new road but to stick to the old one.

Jooan agreed to work for another year for the same wage. At the end of this year the same thing happened, but the advice that the farmer gave him this time was not to stay in a house where a young woman was married to an old man. Jooan agreed to work for a third year and at the end of this year the farmer gave him the advice, in exchange for the three pounds, that he should be struck twice before striking once.

Jooan would not work for another year but wanted to go home to his wife. The farmer's wife baked a cake for him to take home and she and the farmer put the nine pounds in the cake.

Jooan set off and on the way he met three merchants of his parish coming home from the fair at Exeter. They set off homewards, the merchants taking the new road but Jooan keeping to the old road. Almost immediately the merchants were attacked by thieves and cried out. Jooan heard them and cried out loudly too. 'Thieves! Thieves!' he cried. Hearing this, the thieves fled leaving the merchants unharmed.

The merchants and Jooan met again at Marazion and went to lodge at an inn. When Jooan found out that the hostess was young, he asked to see the host. When he discovered that the host was an old man, he went to stay next door. Later that night, Jooan was disturbed by a light shining through a hole in the wall and through it saw the young hostess and her lover, a monk, murder the old man. The monk saw the hole and put his back against it to prevent anyone in the next house seeing the crime being done. Jooan swiftly cut off a round piece of the monk's gown with his knife.

The next day, the young woman started a hue and cry that her husband had been murdered so the three merchants, the only other people in the house, were taken to be hanged. Jooan arrived on the scene and when he found out what was happening, he called for the proceedings to stop and told the story of what had happened and showed the round piece from the monk's gown as evidence. So the merchants were freed and the young woman and the monk were taken and hanged.

The merchants and Jooan proceeded on their way home together. Eventually they came to a fork in the road where they had to part. They pressed him to continue with them, but Jooan wanted to go home to his wife. On the way, he delayed a little so that he might find out whether his wife had been faithful to him or not.

Eventually night fell and Jooan arrived home. He definitely heard another person in bed with his wife and went for his dagger to murder them both. But he thought he might check twice before striking once. So he went out again and knocked at the front door. His wife asked who it was and Jooan answered, 'It's me.' She cried out in surprise and told him to come in. She lit a light and Jooan told her that he thought he had heard another person in bed. At this, his wife told him that when he had left in search of work, she had been pregnant and now they had a little son and that was the other person in the bed.

So then they had a celebration. They broke the cake, found the nine pounds and ate the cake. And they lived happily ever after. That is the end of the story about this young couple.

The story itself is written in a lively, terse style with continuous action. The following sentences follow the spelling of the dialect in this period (stanzas 30-31):

Ha Jooan meth angye ma kalliz luck tha nye: Ma agen ost nye destriez newher ha nye dale krege ragta.

Whye oll? meera why an Iutiziow (a meth Jooan) gyrtero an theez, rag rima na reeg an bad ober.

Oh Jooan, they said. We have some devilish luck: Our host has last night been murdered and we must hang for it.

You three? Look, you judges! (cried Jooan) Wait, you people! Because these ones did not do the crime.

Other Literature in Dialect from This Period


There is some other literature from the period slightly later than this, around the turn of the century (1700). There is a short piece of prose called Nebbaz gerriau dro tho Carnoack, 'Some words about Cornish'. It speaks of the state of the language and discusses some issues about the language.

The rest of the literature is composed of small pieces: short poems on various subjects, short letters, epitaphs, translations of chapters of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and a hymn.

One epitaph is about James Jenkins, apparently an expert on Cornish in this period. The feeling about the state of the language at this time is shown clearly:

Dadn an Mean, ma deskes brose dean
En tavaz Kernooak Gelles.
Termen vedn toaz, Rag an Corf the thoras
Boz Tavaz Coth Kernow kelles.

Under the Rock, there is a great learned man
In the Cornish tongue Gone.
A time will come, For the Body to rise
But the Old Language of Cornwall has been lost.

The last piece of Cornish ever written by a traditional speaker was the few sentences penned in 1776 by William Bodener in a letter to Daines Barrington, an English antiquarian who had earlier in that same year published an article claiming that Dolly Pentreath was the last speaker of Cornish. Here are the sentences, and the translation, also apparently by Bodener, follows each line:
Bluth vee eue try egence a pemp
My age is three score and five

theatra (sic) vee dean Boadjack an poscas
I am a poor fisher man

me rig deskey Cornoack termen me vee mawe
I learnt Cornish when I was a boy

me ve de mor gen cara vee a pemp dean moy en cock
I have been to sea with my father and five other men in the boat

me rig scantlower clowes eden ger sowsnack cowes en cock
and have not heard one word of English spoke in the boat

rag sythen warebar
for a week together

no rig a vee biscath gwellas lever Cornoack
I never saw a Cornish book

me deskey Cornoack mous da more gen tees coath
I learned Cornish going to sea with old men

na ges moye vel pager pe pemp en dreau nye
there is not more then (sic) four or five in our town

ell clappia Cornish leben
can talk Cornish now

poble coath pager egance blouth
old people four score years old

Cornoack ewe all nakeaves gen poble younk
Cornish is all forgot with young people
In 1790, a book on the Cornish language was published by William Pryce based on materials gathered by Cornish speakers early in the century. This contains a short section on conversational sentences, poems, rhymes, aphorisms and some numerals. Here is an amusing aphorism:
Kensa blethan, byrla a'baye;
Nessa blethan, lull a'laye:
Tridgya blethan, comero ha doga;
Peswarra blethan, mollath Dew
war ef reeg dry hy uppa.

First year, hug and kiss;
Next year, lull a bye:
Third year, take and fetch;
Fourth year, the curse of God
on him who brought her here.

Finally, here is a short poem:

Why ladar gweader,
Lavarro guz pader,
Ha ro man do higa an lath:
Gra owna guz furu,
Hithow, po avorou,
Ha why ell boz dean dah whath.

You thievish weaver,
Say your prayer,
And give up cheating the yard:
Mend your ways,
Today, or tomorrow,
And you can be a good man yet.

The last traditional writer of Cornish seems to have been William Bodener in his letter of 1776, but a certain John Nancarrow 'of Market Jew' mentioned by Daines Barrington seems to have been the last recorded fluent speaker of traditional Cornish. He was about 40 years of age in 1776 when Bodener was 65 and was reputed to be able to converse in Cornish, having learned it from the country people when he was young. William Bodener died in 1789, but John Nancarrow may have lived until the early years of the nineteenth century.

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