The Cornish Accent?

Lanyonquoit, Megalith, Cornwall

Wikimedia

Half of my last name is ‘Trawick,’ which is a Cornish surname.  Or rather, Anglicized Cornish–it apparently derives from ‘Traweek.’ I’ve seen a few competing ‘Trawick’ etymologies, but after some ancestral research, this seems the most plausible contender.  As such, I’ve developed an interest in the people and language of Cornwall, and have wondered, of course, if there is such a thing as a ‘Cornish accent.’

Cornwall, along with Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Scotland, is one of the five Celtic nations of the British Isles.  This second-smallest of the nations is unique, however, in that it remains part of mainland England.  Its native language has fared poorly when compared to Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, or even the Irish language: there were only a few hundred fluent speakers by 2000 (these numbers have increased since then, thanks to a language-revival campaign).

With this in mind, is there an identifiable Cornish accent?  Yes and no.  There is certainly an accent spoken in Cornwall (a few accents, actually).  Let’s take a listen to an example of such an accent, courtesy of former Cornish wrestler Gerry Trawley:

Trawley clearly speaks with an accent closely related to other accents in Western England (which are generally marked by their rhoticity, or r-fulness).  His accent does not strike me as divorced from others in Southern England.

This is clearly a different situation from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where English accents keep a connection (even if tenuous) to the Irish, Gaelic, Scots or Welsh languages. More importantly, the accents of those other nations are more strikingly noncontinuous with the accents of England (although there are exceptions).

None of this is particularly surprising. Monolingual Cornish speakers appear to have died out in the 17th-Century, while Irish was still a majority language in Galway and Donegal a good two hundred years later. The situation simply isn’t comparable, as the Cornish language hasn’t exerted any influence on English for a good 400 years or so.

This has resulted in a mishmash of local accents that are not very consistent throughout Cornwall. In particular, there seems (or at least seemed) something of a divide between the Western and Eastern halves of the county.  The data from the Survey of English Dialects in the 1960’s suggested that Eastern Cornwall is influenced by its proximity to Devon*.  But even further West, the accents seem to show features more typical of the larger region in England to which Cornwall belongs (for instance, voiceless fricatives like ‘f,’ and ‘s’ can sometimes be voiced, becoming ‘v’ and ‘z.’)

So is there a Cornish accent?  The answer is yes, but it isn’t as strikingly unique to Cornwall as many Irish accents are to Ireland or Scottish accents are to Scotland.

One last, slightly unrelated mystery.  I’ve never quite figured out the pronunciation of my last name, which in America is TRAY-wick.  How this evolved from ‘Traweek’ is beyond me!

*The phonetically inclined might note some data from the SED: Speakers from Western Cornwall pronounced ‘mouth’ with a vowel of the type [ɛʊ], while in the two towns of Eastern Cornwall a more ‘Devonian’ realization was found: [əʏ] or [ɐʏ].

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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21 Responses to The Cornish Accent?

  1. m.m. says:

    I just realized I’ve been saying your name ‘wrong’ as Tar-wick xD

    • trawicks says:

      No problem! I’ve heard all kinds of strange permutations (TRAW-wick being the most common).

      • dw says:

        I had tacitly assumed that your name had the THOUGHT vowel. In addition, I forgot that the “s” stood for “Smith” and I started thinking it was part of your name!

        There are many many Cornish placenames and personal names beginning with the prefix “Tre-” (usually unstressed) — examples include Trelawney and Trescothick, I wonder whether the “Tra” or “Trawick” is a form of this?

  2. Harry Campbell says:

    I’m honestly not trying to be pedantic, but I have to pick up on a couple of gross distortions, no doubt accidental, in what you’ve written.

    “[Cornwall’s] native language has fared poorly when compared to Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, or even the Irish language” — *even* Irish? As if Irish were some kind of top dog when it comes to vigour in Celtic languages? Er, not quite!

    As for “there were only a few hundred fluent speakers by 2000 (these numbers have increased since then, thanks to a language-revival campaign)” — that little word “by” strongly implies that Cornish survived into the 21st century, whereas in fact it was dead and gone over two centuries earlier. So completely so that not enough remained even to reconstruct the language; the few people that claim to speak Cornish today (more accurately referred to as Cornic) are speaking a language that has never been spoken for real, pieced together from fragments from different centuries. Good luck to them in their hobby, but please don’t confuse that situation with the genuinely surviving Celtic languages, still spoken as a native language by many thousands of people as part of their unselfconscious daily routine. There are people who can converse in Latin, perhaps more people than can converse in Cornish, but I doubt you would say “there were only a few hundred fluent Latin speakers by 2000”.

    • 456 says:

      Given there are children being brought up now who speak Cornish (or “Cornic”, as you prefer) as their first language, I’d compare it more to Hebrew than to Latin, though obviously the revival is on a much smaller scale.

    • trawicks says:

      Still not quite sure what’s been ‘distorted’ here. My use of ‘even’ is not meant to suggest that Irish is ‘top dog’ in any respect: quite the opposite!

      Regarding the semantic problem of describing ‘fluent’ speakers of a dead language, I see your point. Even so, it seems notable to me that there were only a few hundred fluent speakers of Cornish at ALL, even including those who learned as a hobby or for academic reasons.

      A caveat though: the numbers of ‘fluent’ Cornish speakers cited vary TREMENDOUSLY from source to source, from a few hundred to several thousand. It seems there are conflicting reports about just how successful this revival has been!

      • Danny Ryan says:

        Dear 456,
        I would consider myself to be part of the Cornish language revival and a Cornish speaker, and let me stress that the term “Cornic” is very much frowned upon within the Revival. It was Glanville Price who coined this term, basing it on French “Cornique”, but after he realized that the term caused offense within the Revival he appears to have abandoned this term.
        Of course the revived language is not a direct continuation of the traditional language, but it is downright wrong to claim that not enough remains to reconstruct it. Quite the opposite. There is an Old Cornish to Latin and English glossary from the late 12th century, a 14th century poem, several 15th to 17th century mystery plays, a long text of 16th century Homilies, an 17th century folk tale and further short texts and letters from the 17th an 18th centuries, early 18th century phonetic transcriptions done by the Welsh philologist Edward Lhuyd. There are also survivals of prayers, a song, numbers and a few phrases throughout the 19th century and even some that survived into the early 20th century.
        The language has a large enough traditional vocabulary that can handle life until the early industrial revolution and modern terms have since been coined to cope with modern concepts, either using attested roots or borrowing from welsh and Breton, just as is done in the case of other smaller and/or minority languages. And the attested grammar allows you to express anything you like.
        Cornish has nowadays become more than a hobby, but a way of life for the few hundreds who speak it in their families and their network of Cornish speaking friends. It is estimated that there are about 250 fluent speakers, among them a few neo-native speakers who were brought up bilingually in Cornish and English, and a good 2 – 3000 people are taking an active interest in the language and are in the various stages of language acquisition.
        Trawicks is quite correct in saying that the situation, though not in scale, is more similar to modern Hebrew, though there are linguists (such as Prof. Nicholas Williams) who have claimed that Revived Cornish is historically more accurate and closer to traditional Cornish than modern Hebrew is to traditional Hebrew. I’m proud to know and speak the language and take great joy in it. It even has two “dialects” – one based on the phonology reconstructed from the mediaeval texts and another based on the better known phonology of the 17th and 18th centuries. I speak the latter variety.

  3. Angus-Michel says:

    Just a minor point: Scots is not a Celtic language, but rather the Germanic language most closely related to English (and existing on a continuum with Scottish Standard English as the acrolect and Broad Scots as the basilect). The six Celtic languages are Welsh, Breton, and Cornish on the Brythonic side of things, and Scottish Gaelic, Irish, and Manx on the Gaelic.

    • Jonathan says:

      To be fair, he didn’t actually say it was a Celtic language.

    • trawicks says:

      What Jonathan said. I include Scots here because it is a minority language in Britain, and more importantly, because it has arguably has a symbiotic relationship with the dialects of Standard English spoken in Scotland.

  4. Rob says:

    Interesting blog, I think though you underestimate the impact of the Cornish language upon contemporary dialect. For example there are a number of Cornish words that still are spoken today in dialect, e.g stank from stankya: to walk purposefully, teazy from tesek: annoyed or angry, to name but two. There are also many examples of the rules of Cornish grammar being used on Anglo-Cornish. There are even tell tale signs in the stresses of syllables typically in Kernewek the stress is on the penultimate syllable.

    As to Kernewek itself (I’ve learnt the language for over ten years not once heard it called Cornic ) I think you meant the 18the century rather than the 17th. Records from the civil war attest that Cornish was widely spoken west of Truro in the mid 17th century. Although it didn’t fare well after that, it’s a little inaccurate to see it’s influence severely waining with the likes of Dolly Pentreath and William Bodinar, for example in the 1940s Newlyn fishermen still counted in Cornish. It had less influence in the last 400 years but it was far from being uninfluential. I hope this clarifies some points and again I enjoyed the read.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, Rob! Just to clarify, I only mention the 17th century in relation to monolingual speakers. I strongly doubt that one could pinpoint when Cornish monolingualism ended. What I’d deduce from the (possibly apocryphal) claim that Chesten Marchant was the last monolingual speaker was that monolingualism was, if not extinct, exceedingly rare by the 1700s. But again, there’s no way anyone could say for sure.

      One other point: I’m mostly talking about accents (pronunciation), rather than dialects. Cornish words, on the other hand, are no doubt an important part of the local dialect of Cornwall.

      • Danny Ryan says:

        You are absolutely correct, Trawicks. The accent of the West of Cornwall is distinctly different from the East, which in terms of dialect, at least the traditional dialects, is a continuation of the dialects spoken in Devon. The West of Cornwall has fewer dialectal forms and is grammatically closer to the standard English of the 18th century, which was when Cornish was finally replaced by English.

    • Danny Ryan says:

      Lowen o’vy dhe weles Kernoweger aral obma! Gwres e’ta Rob!

  5. Rob says:

    Definitely true Trawicks there are claims and counter claims to the last mongolot speaker. But like you say without a time machine and months to scour Cornwall of the past, we’ll never know.
    On the subject of dialect then, surely most vowel pronunciation is different in Cornwall. Consider in South West England the lengthy pronunciation if the letter a, almost with an r sound. Whereas in Cornwall especially further west a is a very short clean sound…

  6. boynamedsue says:

    The Cornish survival question is interesting. Some Cornish language enthusiasts claim that Cornish survived into the 20th century, and use this as a political point in favour of continuity and therefore increased minority language status and state support.

    I personally would be surprised if there was nobody with enough traditional Cornish to converse at a basic level in that language in 1845, but I doubt anybody knew anything other than a few phrases and (quite a lot of vocab) in 1880.

    In any case, the early revivalist movement didn’t have access to Cornish speakers, and is not based on the last popular forms of the language, so I’d say it’s pretty fair to call the two languages by different names.

    • Danny Ryan says:

      It is up to the Cornish speakers in Cornwall to decide what they want to call their language, and they call it Cornish, or Kernowek (historically more correct that the reconstructed “Kernewek” frequently used). The term “Cornic” has been utterly rejected by the Revival. Others refer to the modern variety as Revived Cornish or Neo-Cornish setting it against Traditional Cornish of the past.
      Henry Jenner, the so-called father of the Revival, did interview several semi-speakers who remembered the odd phrases from their youth, but as a community language and medium of conversation Cornish expired around 1800. Survivals after that are fragmentary though there are claims that it was retained as a family language and certain individuals could recite Cornish phrases for minutes as late as the 1880s.
      Henry Jenner’s Cornish was intended to pick up the language in the late developmental stage of the 17th and 18th centuries, but his student, Morton Nance went all mediaeval on him and based the standard written language on the 15th century miracle plays, giving it a more archaic feel. This was after all the age of romantic nationalism and Celtophilia.

      • boynamedsue says:

        I agree that Corinsh/Cornic speakers have the right to use whatever term they choose for their language, but they don’t have the right to impose that choice on others. In any case, Cornish seems to be winning out in all contexts except certain sections of academia, so it’s a moot point anyway.

  7. Jereme Simmons (Fitz dropped upon reaching Virginia in the USA) says:

    My family lore centers around my great, great grandfather who came to the United States around the turn of the 20th century. According to legend he was a miner and a labor instigator who was wanted by the crown for stirring up trouble, and known as a ‘Cornish patriot’. Does anyone know if this is even probable or more likely a bunch of malarkey passed down in a bad game of telephone. This is all hearsay and cannot be verified, obviously, but lore says his accent and vocabulary were so thickly ‘Cornish’ that he could barely be understood by American English speakers at all. Then again, he ended up mining in Kentucky where the accent was absolutely geographically unique to anywhere else in the English speaking diaspora. Just trying to see if there is even a kernel of truth to those old wives’ tales… thanks.

    • DfNZ says:

      If you go to the Sounds section of the British Library website it has some recordings of Cornish accents of those born in the late 19th century. A miner who was born some years earlier and who spoke with a smattering of distinctly Cornish words may have been almost incomprehensible to some Americans.