Cornish Onomastics and Toponymy

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Cornish Onomastics is the study of onomastics (personal name data) and toponymics (place name data) in relation to Cornwall in the Early Medieval Period (350 CE to 1000 CE). These names are almost completely in the Cornish language (the Brittonic used in Cornwall and a relative of Welsh and Breton.

Cornish is one of the oldest indigenous languages of Britain, with its roots stretching back thousands of years and to the first settlements of Britain (believed to be the Late Neolithic, when farming was established).

This is a post graduate project, which looks at the earliest known names in Early Cornish and Southwest Britain and places them in their historical, cultural and geographic context.

What’s in a Name?

Image (c) University of Cambridge

Names are not simply ‘identifiers’, but have a particular value within literature and history. The names of actual persons carry additional information that relates to their referential context. This is what individuals and communities collectively believed about these individuals and the places that they were related to, perhaps linking to real events, folk traditions and community origins, therefore holding important cultural significance to those communities.

Practically and crucially, it is not always possible to unpick which names are proper names. For example: The titles Duke and Earl or the floral names Daisy and Heather are classematic nouns but may also be used as proper names: individual identifiers for persons. In order to make sense of literature, histories or records of events an approach to decoding and classifying different types of name category is thus required.

Notwithstanding the need to reconstruct the morphology and phonology of Late South-western British and Old Cornish, there is the question of the grammar of Cornish names and naming, identifying which are proper names, and from the context, which names refer to a specific individual that repeatedly occurs within a corpus of literature or historical documents.

Indexes of names exist for Brittonic names from the C3BC to C10CE, but a comprehensive and standardised approach to cataloguing personal names is yet to be established. This is one of the research goals of this project.

Historic or Replacement Names?

There are two types of toponymy: (i) synchronic toponymy, which relates to the standardisation of place names, deployed by governmental organisations in particular, and to some extent minority language enthusiasts, and (ii) diachronic or historic toponymy, which is the variety used by historians and language academics in order to trace the origins of place names, and the topic of this web site.

These two activities conflict with each other not only in terms of practice but also goals and values. The former is about replacing attested or traditional forms with normalised ones for reasons of standardisation, administrative convenience, perhaps for political reasons or for nation building, whilst the latter is about the rediscovery and preservation of earlier forms, stressing authenticity, history and local identity.

Most toponymists (and the most notable ones) are or were all users of diachronic methods and are therefore historical toponymists, including for example Ekwall and Gover.