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The Cornish Bible

November 13, 2011

While parts of the Bible have been translated into Cornish over the centuries, the complete Bible in Cornish has only been published in August, 2011. It is translated by Nicholas Williams and edited by Michael Everson. Here is a description,

This is the first translation of the entire Bible to be published in Cornish. The translator of the Cornish Bible is Professor Nicholas Williams, the foremost present-day translator into the language. The first draft of his translation was based on the original languages together with a collation of several other versions. Next the translation was reviewed by a number of competent Cornish speakers, whose comments helped improve the readability of the work. Thereafter the translator searched the Middle and Late Cornish texts — miracle plays, homilies, and portions of scripture, to find all those passages where native Cornish renderings could be used in the translation. Such passages by speakers of traditional Cornish have been incorporated throughout the Cornish Bible, and add to its authenticity. Wherever possible, personal and geographical names are those attested in traditional Cornish. The volume contains ten maps, in which all the place-names appear in Cornish form. An Beybel Sans is written in Standard Cornish.

This translation in a language that has not been spoken as a mother tongue for 2oo years, raises an important question: to what extent can a Bible translation contribute to language maintenance? Nicholas Williams told 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.”

Here is another reaction,

But a lecturer in Cornish studies, Dr Bernard Deacon, believes there are more relevant ways to attract new Cornish speakers.

He said: “There could be an argument that the time might have been better spent translating Harry Potter perhaps. Having a bible in Cornish is an interesting feat but whether it will do much for spoken Cornish, one is left in doubt.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2011 1:47 am

    I’m not sure if you saw Kurk’s earlier post on this.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 13, 2011 4:50 am

    I must have missed it. Thanks.

  3. November 13, 2011 8:25 am

    This is a corny pun, but I wonder if we can’t have too much Cornish in our BLT? Glad to see we all think the newest and full Bible translation is important to blog about. For all interested, I highly recommend 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. Although the Nicholas Williams translation has nothing to do with the Jewish populations of Cornwall, it’s important to read his work in comparison to the very present (if occasionally lost by historians) work in the Synagoges there.

  4. November 13, 2011 10:21 am

    Michael Everson? The Buddhist expert on writing systems, for whom “the Unicode “Bulldog” Award” was very appropriately named? What’s he doing involved in Bible translation? Or was he just paid to typeset it? Well, he did help me once on script issues for another language into which the Bible is being translated, and for which that translation may well “contribute to language maintenance”. So perhaps this is a genuine interest of his.

  5. November 13, 2011 10:48 am

    Kurk, if one considers all the peoples that are in diaspora, and all the places that house those wanderers, one has a great many books indeed. What was it about the story of the Jews in Cornwall that caused it to rise above the ordinary tales of diaspora?

  6. November 13, 2011 11:48 am

    Let’s have all of the books, please. In general, recovery of lost history is one of the most important work to be done for anyone, anywhere, at any time. For the Jews in Cornwall, in particular, I think the claims of recovery of not just lost history but also of language is the fascinating thing. The comparisons of the resurrections of Hebrew and of Cornish — and the question about whether the Bible in either language has a role — are why I’m interested in the Jewish community in Cornwall.

    But didn’t you yourself give an answer to your question you raise here, when you said the following in an earlier comment after my post? You wrote:

    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?

    I think I agreed. But then Helen P. Fry and her colleagues show some the linguistic maintenance (not so much in Cornish but in Hebrew and in English) work of the past community there. And the current Cornwall Jewish Community – Kehillat Kernow — intentionally “mixes Hebrew and Cornish” as if that legacy is important.

  7. November 13, 2011 11:54 am

    If you look at little closer at the work of Nicholas Williams, it might be fair to ask, “What’s he doing involved in Bible translation?” But what qualifies a Buddhist or an English professor or a non-Cornish-Jew-or-non-Cornish-Christian of any sort to be involved with Bible translation from Hebraic languages (even Hebraic Hellene) into Cornish?

  8. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 13, 2011 3:51 pm


    I’m sorry I missed your post. I was away from the internet for a bit in October. I see that you have linked to two Bibles in Cornish. The first one, An Bibel Kernewek, is here,

    Bible is spelled “bibel” and new is spelled “nowydh”. This Bible is under the archbishop of Canterbury.

    The second Cornish Bible, the one I linked to is called An Beybel Sans: The Holy Bible in Cornish and here is the explanation for the difference in spelling,

    “Bybel (Bîbel) as the word for ‘Bible’ is a borrowing of Breton Bibl which is itself a borrowing from French Bible. If the word ‘Bible’ had been taken into Cornish from Middle English, however, it would have appeared as *Bybla, *Bibla (pronounced [ˈbiːblə]. In the Middle Cornish texts the scriptures are exclusively described as an scryptour(s) or an lyvrow ‘the books’. It is not very likely that the word ‘Bible’ was used widely in Cornish before the Reformation, when many vernacular translations of the Bible were first made. The word ‘Bible’ is not likely therefore to have been borrowed from English into Cornish until the sixteenth century, by which time the stressed vowel in English ‘Bible’ had become a diphthong (Early Modern English [ˈbəɪbəl]). It is for this reason that the present work is not called An *Bîbel Sans, but rather An Beybel Sans; cf. Welsh Y Beibl Sanctaidd (though Bibl is also well attested in Welsh).”

    The New Testament is called the Testament Noweth.

    So the differences in orthography are Kernewek/Kernowek, Bibel/Beybel, Nowydh/Noweth.

    From a cursory glance, the one is under the Church of England, uses a traditional orthography, and claims to be translated from the Greek and Hebrew. The other is a private publication, with a revised orthography, and is translated from the ESV.


  1. Biblical Studies Carnival 69 (November 2011) | Remnant of Giants

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