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Why Cornish May Have Died: And How Bible Translation Might Bring It to Life Again

October 3, 2011

There’s this common lore that Cornish died because speakers and readers of the language never had their own Bible.  And so said a contributor to the wikipedia entry on “Christianity in Cornwall“:

In contrast to Wales, which produced Welsh Bibles, the churches of Cornwall never produced a translation of the Bible in the Cornish language, which may have contributed to that language’s demise.[citation needed].

And then today The Belfast Telegraph confirms a report from BBC Radio Cornwall:

One of the reasons we lost the language was because there was no Bible in Cornish. The Welsh had one (in Welsh) from the time of Elizabeth I, but the Cornish didn’t. As well as being the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures it is one of the defining books of our culture. Once you have the Bible you have created your literary heritage and I hope this book will be influential in the Cornish revival.

It’s Londoner N.J.A. Williams (aka Nicholas Williams) speaking.  He’s telling of his new and newly finished translation of the Bible into Cornish.   The story for Williams is this:  he taught himself the language as a schoolboy; and now, as a professor and translator of the Celtic languages and literature retired from his post at University College Dublin, Williams has tirelessly worked on the translation of the Cornish Bible.  He’s known for his Gerlyver Sawsnek-Kernowek (English-Cornish Dictionary) and for his controversial criticisms of varieties of Cornish (i.e., his essay, “‘Linguistically sound principles’: the case against Kernewek Kemmyn”, Cornish Studies, 4, (1997) and his collection of essays in his book, Writings on Revived Cornish).

To the BBC Radio Cornwall, Williams said he started on “boring bits first,” referring to Leviticus and the dietary law.  Nonetheless, he’d already finished the New Testament for its publication in 2002.  Williams’ entire An Beybel Sans: The Holy Bible in Cornish is available for purchase, and his very interesting introduction with notes on translation is available here online.  What may be the case is that Williams rushed his “Old Testament”: he actually translated it from “the English Standard Version of 2001, though the original Hebrew text was consulted in all places of difficulty.”  Was he hurrying it’s completion perhaps?

There is another ongoing translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Cornish language.  It’s the one by The Cornish Bible Project, which completed the New Testament in 2004.  The varieties of Cornish used were not the standard Williams promotes but are Common Cornish and Unified Cornish.  The work is called An Bibel Kernewek, is “based firmly on the Greek and Hebrew originals,” and is available online for free here.

Earlier attempts at translation of the Bible into Cornish are noted in the wikipedia entry on “Bible translations by language“:

Two chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel survive from the hand of William Rowe of Sancreed (fl. 1650-1690). Henry Jenner translated John 5:1-14 , which was published in 1918, and in 1936 A. S. D. Smith produced his own translation of St Mark’s gospel, a revised edition being published by Talek (E.G. Retallack Hooper) in 1960. St Matthew’s Gospel was translated by D. R. Evans, appearing in 1975 and a version of St John’s Gospel was translated by John Page, published in 1984. Ray Edwards published his translation of Revelation and of a number of epistles in 1986, and St Luke appeared in 1989. Furthermore the Cornish version of the order for Evensong contains a translation of I Corinthians 13 by R. M. Nance.

Given the late and lack of focus on the Hebrew, one wonders whether it’s only the language that has been lost from Cornwall. I’ve requested through interlibrary loan Helen P. Fry’s, The Lost Jews of Cornwall : from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, to see if she’s recorded any history of translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Cornish any earlier. Will Bible translation help to revive this language?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 11:29 am

    I was not aware that Cornish was dead, since one can easily buy textbooks in Cornish (e.g., this one). There are certainly many language groups in the Americas and in Papua New Guinea with fewer than the “2000 fluent speakers” reported by Wikipedia.

    I would be pretty surprised if you find information about a full translation of the Torah into Cornish — the focus on Jewish education has been on using translations merely as a stepping stone to understanding the original languages.

  2. October 4, 2011 1:40 pm

    There are reasons that linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum must dispute the claim “that Cornish had a continuous history in Cornwall even after Dolly Pentreath (legendarily the last native speaker) died in 1777.”

    But what’s fascinating is how linguists compare the Hebrew and Cornish revivals. For example, in their chapter on “Language Revival” (on page 134-35 of Exploring Language Change), Ishtla Singh and Mari Jones say the following:

    As the most famous example of language revival, the history of Hebrew is extremely well documented. The focus of this chapter, however, is a less well-known case of language revival, namely that of Cornish, a Celtic language spoken in the south-west of the British Isles. As we will see, Cornish died in 1777 but today is once more being spoken. Along with Manx (the last native speaker of which dies in 1974) it is one of two languages currently being revived in the British Isles. the case of Cornish is less well documented than that of Hebrew, but it is worthy of note since, according to Chaim Rabin, a former Professor of Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, ‘the revival of Cornish is the only real parallel to the Hebrew case’ (cited in Eliss and Mac a;Ghobhinn 1971:62).

    What do you know of The Cornwall Jewish Community – Kehillat Kernow? “Our title mixes Hebrew and Cornish. ‘Kehillat’ is understood as (Jewish) community and ‘Kernow’ is the ancient form for Cornwall – thus we arrive at the Jewish Community of Cornwall.” Here is the web page referencing Torah texts. Would you imagine they would embrace either the Williams or The Cornish Bible Project translations?

  3. October 4, 2011 4:09 pm

    I don’t know anything about the Cornish Jewish community except that their web page claims they were founded in 1999.

    Of course, after being forbidden from holding property in 1269 (and again in 1271), the Jews were charged 6000 marks by Prince Edward; not having any resources, the Jews were mortgaged (for the second time) to the Earl of Cornwall.

    The Jews were expelled from 1290-1656. (Thus, regardless of literary and moral merits or demerits of the The Merchant of Venice, we can state with some certainty that the author never actually met a Jew.) Expecting a Jewish community in forced exile and poverty to maintain the Cornish language would be a bit much, don’t you think?

  4. October 4, 2011 4:55 pm

    Expecting a Jewish community in forced exile and poverty to maintain the Cornish language would be a bit much, don’t you think?

    Excellent point. And, yes, of course! And yet one has to admire the community for forming “within the body of Judaism itself” noting there that ” – ‘Difference does not diminish; it enlarges the sphere of human possibilities.’” It’s impressive that they look to “the establishment of ‘Dor Kemmyn’ (Common Ground)” and that they seek linguistically to mix Hebrew and Cornish when identifying themselves. Aren’t those good efforts (yes not necessarily efforts one might expect given the various persecutions you mention) towards maintaining the Cornish language? I wouldn’t be too surprised, then, if they begin finding uses for one or both of the new Cornish Bibles. Might these texts be beneficial in any way to (Hebrew) Tanakh studies for this community in Cornwall?

    I do understand your other earlier point about the general direction — towards Hebrew — that translations may need to take. It’s fascinating, nonetheless, that Professor Chaim Rabin sees “the revival of Cornish is the only real parallel to the Hebrew case” — and what must that mean for someone whose Jewish legacieS include both languages in revival?

  5. October 4, 2011 6:54 pm

    Regarding your question of whether a translation in a new language might stimulate Hebrew studies: of course, the possibilities exist. But it seems to me that such a translation would require either (a) that the translator had special insights not usually available in existing translations (e.g., a translation that delivered on Robert Alter’s blurb on Barnstone’s translation: “Barnstone’s new English version of the core texts of Christian scripture is almost startling in its freshness. Scraping away many centuries of stylistic fussiness and supersessionist distortion”); or (b) that the translation was important for historical reasons (perhaps as an early witness or because it was theologically important for a faith community, e.g., the Septuagint); or (c) that the intended audience was more familiar with the target language than the target language of major existing translations (e.g., Feng Xiang’s Chinese translation of the Torah, which was heavily influenced by Alter’s and Fox’s translations).

    But I don’t believe that the proposed translation of the Bible into Cornish would satisfy any of these conditions. Instead, it seems a bit of an oddity, like the Bible translated into Esperanto or Klingon or Scots. While it is possible that it might contain some jewels, it doesn’t seem very likely.

    Regarding your question of parallels to the revival of Hebrew, it seems that it is quite common for scholars to claim that various language revivals are parallels to Hebrew revival. Thus, Jack Fellman quotes Einar Haugen as reciting a list of parallels to Ben Yehuda, saying “names like Korais in Greece, Aasen in Norway, Stur in Slovakia, Mistral in Provence, Dobrovsky in Bohemia, Aavik in Estonia, and Jablonskis in Lithuania come to mind. These men were part linguists, part patriots.” Indeed, I have even heard some people claim (and this is a claim that is super-ironic on multiple levels) that the revival of Yiddish is a parallel to the revival of Hebrew.

  6. October 12, 2011 1:55 pm

    I’ve just now read Godfrey Simmons’, Keith Pearce’s, and Helen P. Fry’s tremendous piece of scholarship: The Lost Jews of Cornwall : from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (2000) Bristol: Redcliffe P. They’ve collaborated with ten other historians and documentarians, “Jews and non-Jews, differing greatly in their backgrounds and beliefs, but drawn together in a common purpose,” a 6-decade project, to recover as much as can be learned of the “Jews who lived in Cornwall in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.” By far, the most fascinating chapters are the ones by Simmons and Pearce entitled “The People”; the one by Evelyn Friedlander and Fry, “The Disappearing Heritage: the Synagogues and their Ritual Artifacts”; the chapter by Simmons, Pearce, Nicholas de Lange, Jennifer Speake, and Eric Dawkins, “The Jewish Cemeteries” — with photographs of headstones with Hebrew transcriptions, translated by Herman Zeffertt, and sometimes with English transcriptions as well; and Israel Solomon’s chapter: “Records of My Family – 1887 – 5647.” What readers come away with is a sense of a vibrant, economically diverse, but likely not-so-large-in-population Jewish communities in Cornwall through the nineteenth century (who constructed two synagogues that are still standing today). “The total size of the Jewish population in Cornwall at any one time is difficult to estimate . . . the cemeteries each contain about 60 graves, but no inference can be drawn from this because these numbers are cumulative over two centuries…. Taking the 1820s to the 1840s to represent what seems to have been the peak of the Jewish communities, then it is unlikely that there were more than a dozen families (50 to 60 individuals, adults and children) in each of Falmouth and Penzance, with a few Jews in other towns. From the mid-nineteenth century, these numbers declined steadily” (pages 196, 198). The researchers mention the languages used by the communities as being Hebrew, Yiddish, English, and Polish (with no mentions at all of Cornish). Hebrew Torah scrolls are documented with photos, as are two “Torah pointers,” one maker’s mark in Hebrew, the other “probably English” (page 302).

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