09/22/16

Thursday Thought: How much did the ancient Celts influence English?

The first lecture in my new course to the OLLI group in Cincinnati stirred a fascinating discussion. OLLI is the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Cincinnati. (For a description of the course, click here.)  Were the Celts pushed to the fringes of Britain by the Anglo-Saxon invasion? Or did they remain and assimilate into Anglo-Saxon society? And what effect did they have on the development of the English language? — Contact me if you would like more details.

Message from Student (retired English teacher)

“I spoke to you yesterday about the hypothesis that Celtic influence on later English is more profound than many linguists admit.  John McWhorter has been an exception to this trend and has given solid bases to his premise that the Celts of pre-Anglo Saxon Britain were not pushed to the edges, as is often stated, but rather blended with the new populations and helped create a language far different from the other Germanic tongues that the invaders brought with them.
“Thank you for the course.  Tuesday’s class was fascinating.”

Response from a leader in Cornwall

“I think that the truth of what happened with the Celts when the Saxons (and others, including the Angles, who gave their tribal name to ‘England’) lies halfway between the ‘expunged to the fringes’ and the ‘stuck around and blended’ schools — I suspect that some stayed, and some went!

The survival of, and evolution into Cornish, Welsh (and Breton) ‘dialects’ of British, in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany clearly demonstrates that these places were predominantly colonised by Celts. The Patagonian colonisation also shows that there is an instinctual motivation in these Brythonic groups to protect their culture and its attritbutes by seeking a degree of insulation, and that ancient links and fraternities survive the passage of time. So, one can find in the exceptional diaries of Harold Nicolson (September 1941, from memory) a description of Nicolson being sent by the Ministry of Information to witness a speck in Kernewek, commissioned by the British government, to welcome and make feel at-home Breton refugees who took refuge in Cornwall after the scuttling of the French fleet. The irony is that Churchill found Kernewek an expedient in servicing wartime alliances (and brutally necessary acts) but his successors have only reluctantly acknowledged the existence of the language and remain cussed in their denial of resources to support its development. As I say, ancient resonances endure.

It is true to say that there is strong Celtic influence in the English language. We should never forget that monasteries were also seats of learning and that the beginnings of scholarship, writing and linguistic development happened here, and that monasteries were as much repositories of the ancient as they were developers of the new. So the blending may have had as much to do with monkish predilection as with the movement of peoples.

I would commend to your correspondent the career of John of Cornwall, widely credited as being one of the founding fathers of the English language. Irony abounds! A search of the net might throw up a second hand copy of Julian Holmes’ translation of John’s prophecies of Merlin. Nuts!

08/27/15

Thursday Thought: How 45 Minutes Took 5 Years

I was asked to contribute a guest blog for the prestigious Historical Novel Society. It is about how my novel came to be written.

Click here: http://awriterofhistory.com/2015/08/18/the-miner-the-viscount-by-richard-hoskin/

Although I did not realize it at the time, the birth of The Miner & The Viscount began when a professor friend asked me to contribute a Cornwall segment to his lecture series on aspects of the history and culture of Great Britain. I was recently retired and glad to embark on a new career as a lecturer, holding engrossed audiences in thrall.

“How many lectures would you like?” I asked. “Eight? Six?”

“Actually, one,” he replied, “and no more than 45 minutes including Q & A.”

Not quite what I had in mind but at least it would not take much effort, since I knew all about Cornwall having been born and bred there. I did some research to flesh out details, realising that stories from my childhood only skimmed the surface. The result was Cornwall: History, Mystery, Mansions and Mines. It proved a lot of effort for 45 minutes but at least I got them singing a rousing “Trelawney” at the end.

It seemed a pity to leave it at that. My New England wife suggested that since I loved Cornwall and enjoyed history, I should use the material to write an historical novel. She would help with editing. I was convinced. It would be a big project, imagined it would take at least a year. Moreover, I was passionate about telling the story of my Cornwall to a wider world.

The timeframe I settled on was the late 18th century. Widespread change was emerging: the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the invention of the steam engine, social unrest and the rise of Methodism, popular education and the influence of women, political corruption at home and expansion of empire overseas, the beginnings of the Enlightenment.

I assembled sources. Steven Watson, my tutor at Oxford, published The Reign of George III. My brother-in-law, Dr. J.R. Ravensdale had written the volume onCornwall for the National Trust. Lewis Namier devoted an entire chapter to the machination of the 44 Cornish MPs in his breakthrough work The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III. There were biographies of William Pitt the Elder (whose grandfather bought Boconnoc), the journals of John Wesley, books on mining, scores of articles to be woven into a coherent pattern. And then there was John Allen’s History of the Borough of Liskeard published in 1856 by John Philp, founder of The Cornish Times.

But above all were my personal experiences of growing up in Liskeard, living in those beautiful places, knowing those sturdily independent people, absorbing their legends and their story. This is what got my imagination surging.

Following expert advice, I planned to begin with an outline. I decided to build my story around Cornish gentry in great houses and miners and farm labourers in tiny cottages. I picked famous historical figures to mingle with my fictitious characters. I thought up a title, The Miner & the Viscount. I picked a start date, 1760. I typed the title and “Outline” on a fresh document. Then I got stuck.

The only outline I ever created was one summarising what I had already written, to keep things straight. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, my good man.” “But my lord, you already had me flogged in Chapter Six.”

I just started writing drafts. Fortunately, as I got into it the characters magically took over. Their loves, their hates, partnerships, rivalries, joys, sufferings, doings: their story became my story. I would finish a chapter and stare at my computer. What ever would happen next? And Willy Bunt would come into my mind. “Us just ’as to get on with it, zir, Oi’ll tell ’e what Oi’d do if Oi were ye.”

Location Research

Location Research

After three years and six rewrites I had a finished manuscript. A research trip to Cornwall would enable me to fill in a few details, add a little local colour. We visited Liskeard, Port Eliot, Boconnoc, Lanhydrock, Bodmin Moor, the tin and copper mines down west, absorbed the countryside, heard more stories about the people who lived there in the 18th century. We met Maureen Fuller, Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedh and she agreed to translate some dialogue into the ancient Cornish language, adding so much authenticity.

Back in Kentucky an experienced member of my writers’ group offered to burnish the final version, a little tweak here and there. After three more rewrites, 25,000 more words, and two more years we sent the manuscript to the publisher.

The story of Cornwall was finally mine to tell. Well, perhaps with a little help from Willy Bunt.

04/30/15

Thursday Thoughts: Cornish Language Comeback

From “The Miner & the Viscount” Chapter 1

“He prayed, without a book for sustenance and forgiveness. Ro dhyn ni hedhyw agan bara pub-dydhyek; ha gav dhyn agan kendonow kepar dell evyn ni ynwedh dh’agan kendonoryon. They resented the English church that was whittling away at their own language. A hundred years ago their forebears had rebelled against the new prayer book of the established church that made them say it differently: Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Readers have asked about the strange looking dialog that they see in my book from time to time, such as this prayer from Preacher Perry at Gwennap Pit. The language is Kernewek, the ancient Celtic tongue that once was the community language in Cornwall. The last “monolingual” speaker was Dolly Pentreath, a fish seller in Mousehole, who died in 1777.

Cornish has enjoyed a revival sparked largely by the Cornish Gorsedh, and especially since Europe last spring recognized the Cornish as a distinct ethnic group. In 1967 the Gorsedh joined with the Federation Old Cornwall Societies to create the Cornish Language Board, Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek, charged with encouraging teaching and publishing in the language. They stressed developing a standard system of spelling and pronunciation, Kernewek Kemmen.

Grand Bard Maureen Fuller leading Gorsedh procession

Grand Bard Maureen Fuller leading Gorsedh procession

Maureen Fuller, Grand Bard of Cornwall and a board member of Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek, was kind enough to provide the translations for my book. They added greatly to the colorfulness and authenticity of the dialog.

www.gorsethkernow.org.uk

http://www.kesva.org