CORNISH — ITS RAPID DECLINE — REASON THEREFOR — RELATION OF A LANGUAGE TO THE
MINDS OF THE SPEAKERS — IRISH — ITS DIFFICULTIES TO LEARNERS — IRISH LANGUAGE
SOCIETY — SCOTCH GAELIC.
A REVIEW of the decline of the ancient Cornish has -^ directly nothing to do
with "Wales and her Language," but it is introduced here, as
affording a sidelight on the position of the Welsh, and both to shew how far
the history of the two languages runs parallel, and how far important
differences exist, which must materially affect an estimate of the future of
Welsh, based on the history of the sister tongue.
Celtic scholars, who are well acquainted with the slender materials which
exist for such a digest as I am about to make, will, I am sure, excuse a
repetition, for the sake of the less well-informed. In rendering this, I
shall principally rely for assistance upon information given in Jago's "
Glossary of the Cornish Dialect."
We have already seen that in Wales, at the time of the accession of the first
Tudor Kings, there was a large amount of manuscript literature existing,
apparently more in proportion to the population than was the case in England,
and there is a probability the language was spoken both by feudal lords,
small freeholders, and serfs, over the whole of Wales (except portions where
alien colonies had settled,) and in parts of Herefordshire and Shropshire. At
the same period it is probable that Cornish was spoken a few miles over the
Devonshire border, (Devon-Cornish appears to have existed in Queen
Elizabeth's time), and that the whole country west of
366 WALES AND [HER LANGUAGE] CHAP. X.
the Tamar — the river dividing the counties- — was nearly solidly Cornish.
From the nature of the trade carried on by the inhabitants, there was
considerable intercourse with England in connection with fishing and mining
pursuits, and though there is no evidence that English was anywhere generally
spoken in the county before the art of Printing was introduced into England,
the vocabulary was gradually becoming less and less representative of a pure
Celtic tongue, something like the colloquial Monmouthshire Welsh of our day,
which is interlarded with English words.
However(,) this may be, no English was used in the old parish masshouses
before 1547, when the Vicar of Menheniot taught his parishioners the creed,
the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments in English.
Now, it is very remarkable that within the very short space of 60 years not
merely did it come to pass that English was generally spoken, but Carew, in
his "Survey of Cornwall," published in 1602 said, "Of the
inhabitants, most can speak no word of Cornish." About 1610, another
Cornish writer says: "It seemeth, however, that in a few years the
Cornish will be, by little and little, abandoned.” By 1640, Cornish appears
to have been excluded from all the parish meeting-houses but two, viz., Feock
Though such extreme rapidity at first astounds a person who has only been
accustomed to deal with the retrocession of the Welsh-speaking border, which
at one point — Oswestry — can scarcely be said to have moved three miles in a
century, on further consideration of the facts, the difficulties partially
In the first place, Cornwall is not known to have had a national literature.
There was no Iolo Goch or Glyn Cothi or Dafydd ap Gwilym; no Triads, no
Cyfreithiau Hywel Dda,
CHAP. X.] [WALES AND] HER LANGUAGE. 367
no Mabiniogion to be read in the halls of the country squires. In the next
place, there was no translation of the Bible, and no religious literature
beyond the so-called sacred dramas, which were meant to be performed rather
than read. In the third place it was disused as a medium of communication in
public worship, at first apparently, because the people could understand
English, rather than because they could not understand Cornish. As to the
real facts of the case — historians are at variance: Whitaker author of the
"ancient Cathedral of Cornwall," affirming that the tyranny of
England forced the language on the Cornish, by whom it was not desired: Borlase
on the contrary says, — "that when the liturgy was appointed instead of
the mass, the Cornish desired it to be in English."
Now the truth probably is that a small minority of the people, represented by
such as the Vicar of Menheniot, desired the change of language, and that a
certain amount of coercion was used to effect the purpose desired, which was
remarkably successful owing to the combined effect of banishment from the
Episcopal worship and the absence of printed literature, though a much longer
period was required than from 1540-1640 before the conversational use of the
language entirely ceased.
The last Cornish sermon preached noticed in history, was preached in 1678. In
1701 E. Lhuyd noticed the language being retained in fourteen parishes, along
the sea shore from the Lands End to near the Lizard, by some of the
inhabitants only. E. Lhuyd managed to acquire sufficient knowledge of the
language to write a Cornish preface to his book. In 1746 a Cornishman was
found who could converse with Bretons. In 1758 the language had nearly ceased
in ordinary conversation. In 1788 Dolly Pentreath the last person whose
mother tongue was Cornish died, although there were others alive then who
could converse in it more or less.
We have just seen that there were surrounding conditions
368 WALES AND [HER LANGUAGE] [CHAP. X.
in the face of which no language could be expected to live; nor the
population speaking it, to partake of the civilization of modern Europe. In a
state of savagery, its preservation might have been possible; but Wales and
Cornwall have some 1600 years passed that stage of development. External
circumstances, then possibly accented by the policy of the Tudor governments,
starved Cornish to death.
Welsh still lives under differing external circumstances, and is likely to do
so for hundreds of years to come, as the starving process has only been
partially applied. It is one of the objects of this book to shew that such
circumstances may be so modified as to ensure it a natural, rather than an
artificial death; or else to indefinitely prolong its life.
The following is two verses of the First chapter of Genesis in old Cornish: —
Yn dalleth Dew a wriig nef ha'n nor.
Hag ydh ese an nor heb composter ha gwag; ha tew olgow ese war enep an
downder, ha Spyrys Dew rug gwaya war enep an dowrow.
The following is modern Cornish followed by the corresponding Welsh (see Arch
Brit p. 251) —
Bedhez guesgyz diueth ken gueskal enueth, rag hedna yu an guelha point a
Bydd drawedig ddwywaith cyn tare unwaith, canys honno yw 'r gamp synwyrolaf
Breton the remaining sister tongue is more akin to Cornish than to Welsh. I
have no precise date as to the population speaking it — probably 900,000
would be near the mark.
Many people talk about a language as though it was simply a matter of choice
with the people which they spoke. This is
* " Be struck twice before striking once, for that is the wisest
achievement of all." This occurs in a curious old story, containing the
adventures of a Cornishman, fished up by E. Lhuyd.
OHAP. X.] [WALES AND] HER LANGUAGE. 369
not SO altogether. The amount of the actual use of a language is m reality,
the resultant of several forces, the operations of which if they were capable
of being weighed and measured could be expressed by an exact mathematical
formula; as however, we can never reduce metaphysics into a branch of
physics, we will not make the attempt.
Though we can never arrive at an exact conclusion, we may still take into
consideration, the adaptability of the sounds and structure of a language to
the mental constitution of the people who speak it, in pther words how far a
given language is an adequate representation of the feelings, ideas and
mental powers of those who speak and write it.
The relation therefore which a language bears to the minds of those to whom
it is a mother tongue, is indicated by what may be called its statural or
substantial vitality. The effect produced by laws, custom and education
considered in themselves as exterior forces acting upon the use of the
language, may be called the artificial or accidental vitality.
The use of language is not a matter of choice with the generality of people,
simply because it is not an end, but only a means to an end. That end is to
express a wish, or communicate an impression to a fellow being with the least
possible trouble and leaving aside the action of the baser emotions, such as
pride, a person chooses that language to communicate in, of which the natural
vitality combined with the artificial vitality enables him most freely to
express his mind, and consequently produce the results aimed at, with the
least mental effort.
Suppose for instance a nation with a language which possesses a certain
correspondence with the expression of their own mental habits comes in
contact with another language possessing a less correspondence, we might say
that the natural vitality of the first language was greater than that of the
370 WALES AND [HER LANGUAGE] [CHAP. X.
and up to a certain point notwithstanding the concurrent use of the second,
the speakers fall most naturally back upon the first. It is possible however
that the use of the second may through external or artificial causes so
exclusively predominate, that it takes root like the graft of a tree, the
balance turns the other way, the firstoccupies a secondary place, or it
gradually dies and its natural vitality is then only expressed by a tendency
of mind, to what naturalists would call " reversion," which waits
sufficiently favourable circumstances to assert itself.
The science of language has of late years received considerable additions —
the history of languages, their growth and decay, have been laid open to
dissection as never before, but the philosophy of language, the reason why
one man in some cases uses a different word to express the same idea as his
neighbour, and in other cases uses the same word, but sounds it so
differently that it is scarcely recognizable, the reason why the collocation
of ideas in the form of a sentence is so different in the mouths of one
nation compared with that of another, is still involved in obscurity.
For instance, what were the causes which induced the old Greeks long ages ago
to adopt v-d-r, the Saxons v-t-r, the Cymry d-v-r, as their base for water?
Why are the English so afraid of the guttural ch sound that they pronounce
night as nite, and Vaughan ( W= Vychan) as vawn? And why have the Cymry a
dislike to either the flat or sharp j sound, so that Johnny becomes ShOni,
while their brethren, the later Cornish adopted it and hir (long) became
cheer, a cliff now called the " Chair ladder " in reality yr hir
lethr. How is it that we say nothing but Edward for a man's name, but a
person speaking with a Strong "Welshy" accent utters a quite
appreciable approximation to the French Edouard, only with a sharp t sounded
at the end?
Comparative Philology has brought to light many important
CHAP. X.] [WALES AND] HER LANGUAGE. 371
facts, it has taught us much of the relations of sounds, has traced obscure
relationships in the words themselves, and has classified diiferences under
the operation of laws, but it has a vanishing point. Just as biology under
the guidance and appliances of modern science can deal with the most abstruse
phenomena of life, but it can never fathom their well spring, so before the
student of philology as well as that of biology there is always a cm-tain
drawn, which he cannot lift; in other words he is still in the field of
secondary phenomena not in that of origins.
Applying this to the matter in hand, we may have a key to the great vitality
of the Welsh language, and shall be justified in at least being cautious
before endeavouring to compass its artificial extinction, assuredly the
time-honoured methods of the schools and colleges are artificial.
It is reported of Tiior the Scandinavian mythological hero, that he set out
fi'om Asgard'" for Joteuheim, the home of giants, the weird land of
frost and snow: in the course of his wanderings he arrived at Utgard, wliere
he was introduced into an immense banqueting hall; there around the table on
stone thrones were gravely seated giants who were determined on taking the
self-conceit out of him, and making light of his prowess, proposed that his
capacities should be tested. At one of the experiments whereby this was done,
he was handed a cup full of liquor which he was requested to empty; after
twice attempting to drain it by moderate draughts, Thor was surprised and
vexed to find that scarcely any impression was made on the surface; fiercely
applying himself a third time he just succeeded in reducing the liquor a
little below the rim.
Now a student entering on the study of Irish if he thinks to
* The home of the reputed gods.
372 WALES AND [HER LANGUAGE] [CHAP. X.
master it by the same means, and with no more trouble than he would pick up most
other European languages, would be very likely to share such feelings as the
Scandinavian folk attributed to Thor after his capacious draughts out of the
drinking cup, albeit, they apologize for him by saying, that the bottom of it
reached the ocean, and the ebbing and flowing of the tides are the visible
signs left of his mighty draughts.
The initial difficulty in Irish is caused by the great discrepancy between
the spelling and the pronunciation; I defy anyone to acquire an approximately
correct Irish pronunciation from such grammars as are at present published. A
mastery too of the constructions, and the use of the particles is by no means
child's play even to a person tolerably familiar with Welsh. Speaking of
difficulties, a friend of the author's may be mentioned, whose business took
him into every district in Ireland; being an intelligent man he wished to
acquire the language, but was obliged to desist from the attempt, and I have
heard him enunciate a theory that the superfluous consonants which constitute
a worse bugbsar than the initial mutations in Welsh, were inserted by the
Monks in order to keep the people in ignorance, this is ingenious, but
certainly unsupported by evidence.
We have already seen the disadvantages under which Welsh education has
laboured, on account of the exclusion of the language from the course of
elementary instruction. Up to within 1877 or thereabouts, the position of the
Irish language in the course of government education was almost precisely
similar to that of Welsh; there was however this important difference in the
status of the two languages; for many generations Irish had been going down;
it existed it is true, as a fireside tongue in the homes of the people,-but
it possessed no modern literature to speak of, and was rapidly becoming less
and less used.
There was it is true, and is now, a professor of Irish at
CHAP. X.] [WALES AND] HER LANGUAGE. 373
Dublin University, and perhaps a little might be read there of the extensive
Mediaeval literature of the past, but the persons up and down the country who
could read the language were but few and far between.
Under these circumstances a society was brought into existence, called the
"society for the preservation of the Irish language," the reader
should bear in mind that its promoters were not afraid of the word
preservation. This society held a congress in Dublin, in 1882, in which a
considerable number of facts were elicited, which helped to throw up in
relief the question of bilingual education in Welsh schools, in some matters
there is a striking parallel between Wales and Ireland, in others quite as
striking a contrast: I may also observe-that this society does not timidly
confine its aims to Irish-speaking children, but also that teaching the
language may be extended to English-speaking children in Ireland. What have
they done? They have sold 100,495 books,* among which are the first, second
and third Irish books giving elementary instructioii in that langiiage, and
6,225 copybooks, with headings in Irish. The following table shows the
progress made in the national schools: —
No OP PcrPILS WHO PASSED IN IMSH. 1881 1882 1883 1884 1885 1886 1887 1888
1889 1890 1891 12 17 25 93 161 321 S71 443 512 531 515
i For 1891, the returns were made up seventeen days before
the expiration of a full twelve months.
The passes in Irish, in the Intermediate programme rise from43' in 1883, to
244 in 1891. These figures are taken from the
last annual report. These reports usually contain interesting
selections from correspondence with teachers and others, an
example which the Welsh society inight well follow.
* of these 53,951 were the first Irish book.
374 WALES AND [HER LANGUAGE] [CHAP. X.
Some of the reports from national school teachers, point to exactly the
difficulty with parents that has been experienced in Wales, e.g. Parents of
the boys disincline to allow their children to learn, in some instances are
found to have warned them against speaking Irish, or admitting that they
could, (Ennis); children regard the language ashamedly, encouraged to do so
by their parents (Sligo). The difficulty of securing qualified teachers has
also hampered the work of this society. The total number of persons speaking
Irish in 1881, in Ireland, was given by the census as 949,937, but in 1731
the Irish-speaking population was 1,340,808, in 1851 1,524,286; whether or no
the efforts of this society will ever lead to a recovery of the figures of
1851, we may not venture to say.
Since the end of last century, we see then, that the Welsh-speaking
population has increased, the Irish decreased.
At the 1882 meeting, Marcus J. Ward, of Belfast, said —
I value the national language, while it lives, because it is the key which
alone can furnish a means of knowing completely the Celtic genius of our
countrymen. It is the only way to the hearts and minds of our Irish-speaking
population, in whom we may trace unerringly what are the characteristics, the
bent, and the tendency of the nationality to which we belong, and on what
stock have been grafted the successive immigrations to this our land.
A very singular monument to the religious zeal of the ancient Irish, before
the fangs of popery were fully closed on the Island is to be found at this
day in Vienna, in Die Schottische strasse, the Irishmen's street, so-called
from its connection with the Scoto-Irish missionaries of the early middle
ages. These very missionaries left manuscript remains to which it may be said
we are indebted for that monument of German industry and difficult research,
the " Grammatica Celtica " of I. C. Zeuss, which has been for
several years the chief authority among scholars on Celtic grammar.
CHAP. X.] [WALES AND] HER LANGUAGE. 375
Although Irish Gaelic possesses scarcely any modern literature in the usual
acceptation of the term, the Scotch Gaelic is rather differently situated.
Mary Macpherson, a professional nurse, seventy years old, is a recent
poetess, whose works have attracted some attention, yet strange to say, she
can read, but cannot write her own compositions, of which a volume containing
between eight and nine thousand lines taken down from her own recitation, was
published at Inverness, in 1891, for five shillings.
The Gaelic speaking population of Scotland, is about 400,000 that of the Isle
of Man, whose dialect by the way, appears far easier to master than Irish, my
own small experience may be trusted, perhaps does not exceed a few score.