Locating Cornish in Indo-European Linguistics – Part 3 (The Relevance of Material Culture)

The distribution of material culture, even when represented by inscriptions in a given language does not guarantee the presence of a living spoken vernacular, the use of Latin for monumental purposes being an obvious example where the language of the vernacular differs from language in a specific literary context.

An initial search for methodologies that map the extent of material culture against language yielded no results, so on this basis the following quote would appear highly questionable if not the antithesis:

“It is generally agreed that language and culture are closely related” (Anonymous (Lexiophiles), 2010)

However, taking the counter and equally extreme position that there is no correlation between language and material culture as proposed by Simon James and John Collis seems absurd, particularly if used to embark on wholesale deconstruction of every notion of culture, for Celts or any other ethnographic group. The truth must lie somewhere between these two hopeless and unhelpful positions!

Wagner (2015) makes the argument that material culture a priori is a poor determinant of identity, which seems a more reasonable position given that the relationship between Celtic languages and Hallstatt or La Tène type designs is unclear at best, and most likely misleading.

Recently there has been significant interest in the link between language and the introduction of agriculture and trade. Notably, Cunliffe & Koch (2010, pp.1-8) have suggested elements of Celtic culture advancing from West to East along Atlantic trade routes rather than vice-versa, and a linguistic tradition spreading from the coast of Iberia, Northeast across Europe. However, these ideas are still very much open challenge (Sluis, 2014).

In summary, there may be several mechanisms for the dispersion and/or evolution of proto-Celtic and Brittonic, some involving material culture, others not. These processes operated over long distances and over a long period, and although the sequence and pace of change is unclear, it seems likely some form of proto-Celtic language is associated with early settlement.

The question of archaeological finds within a particular linguistic situation should remain an open one and more work with crossover studies in archaeology and linguistics. There is also the specific question of C10 Cornwall and the ‘Cornishness’ of settlements in Northeast Cornwall (Weatherhill, 2005, p.9), and at some point it may be possible to answer the question of whether Cornish place names were either:

  • Amended to a more anglicised form whilst leaving aspects of names in tact, or
  • Replaced altogether leaving no trace of previous names (Padel, 1985, xiii).

A solution to the co-origin of proto-Celtic peoples and proto-Celtic languages does substantively influence the validity of this study since equivalent material finds from a lengthy period in pre-history along the Atlantic Arc implies stability of settlement by the population, and the similarity of Cornish to other Brittonic languages and also to Gaulish locates the origin of the Cornish language in Northwest Europe, if not Britain far back in prehistory.

Locating Cornish in Indo-European Linguistics – Part 2 (Models of Early Settlement)

It is largely now accepted that Britain has been systematically farmed and settled since the Neolithic Era (Malone, 2001, p11). The implication is that a network of settlements and system of land organisation was in place by the end of that period, and it follows that any settlements and significant topographical features would have had names applied to them by then. It is not much of a stretch to suspect that at least some of these settlements had names relating to prominent individuals or deities and that some at least were transmitted orally down to later generations (Gardiner, 2012).

Bowen (1972, p.31) and Cunliffe (2013, p.171) both place Cornwall and the Cornish as an ethnographic group firmly at the centre of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age culture and trade based on archaeological and monumental evidence, and given the strong evidence for this hypothesis no one has hitherto seriously refuted it. However, there has been a lack of clarity regarding the origin of the Cornish as indeed all other insular Celtic peoples. Origin theories are still very much a topic for discussion, three of which will be touched on here in order to provide some necessary context.

Until the 1970s the so-called invasion hypothesis was popular as a mechanism for explaining the arrival of Celtic language(s). Dillon & Chadwick (1967, p.214) suggested that the arrival of Bronze Age culture was coincident with an invasion by the Beaker People.

Problematically, this hypothesis required separate events for:

  • Introduction of Celtic-languages by invasion from the East c.2,400 BC in Britain and Ireland and co-incident with the start of the Copper working, and,
  • Previous farming related invasion(s), which pre-dated Celtic-languages occurring c.5,000 BC.

It is no longer seriously contended that there was an ethnographic group of Beaker People, and instead the term Beaker Culture is used [Ref Pending: The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles; Their Nature and Legacy by Ronald Hutton, 1991].

Subsequently, Gimbutas, Skomal, & Polomé (1987, p.13) suggested several waves of cultural expansion (The Kurgan Hypothesis), where Indo-European languages spread from the Pontic Steppe c.6,000 BC, ultimately leading to a linguistically Indo-European Britain, supplanting the original post-Ice Age culture and language. These waves of expansion, by implication, were independent of the spread of agriculture.

More recently an alternative Anatolian Hypothesis has been advanced by Colin Renfrew, in which Proto-Indo-European emerged alongside farming and spread from Anatolia much earlier (from 9,000 BC onwards). In this model Indo-European languages, and by extension Italo-Celtic and eventually proto-Celtic ‘diffused’ across Europe, with farming being the vehicle for language transmission and vice-versa. The Atlantic Seaboard was a principal gateway to Britain, with Cornwall and Brittany playing a major role in the transfer of material and non-material culture.

None of this greatly affects a model for proto-Celtic or proto-Brittonic or as far as this study is concerned, but it links the people and places in Cornwall with the people subsequently to become identified as Cornish, and places both in the context of Celtic Britain.

In summary, not only was Cornwall a recipient of cultural transfer between the insular and continental worlds but also was an instrument in it, and in laying down the foundations of proto-Brittonic in South-west Britain.

Locating Cornish in Indo-European Linguistics – Part 1 (Introduction)

For those unfamiliar with Cornish, it is classed as a p-Celtic member of the family of Celtic languages, which was once spoken across much of Europe, and is now restricted to the insular world and Brittany: only Cornish, Welsh and Breton (all p-Celtic), and Manx, Scots Gaelic and Irish (all q-Celtic) still extant. p-Celtic words such as peduar [W] (four) have q-Celtic equivalents cethar [Ir] (Russell, 1995, p.14)

The etymology, morphology, syntax and phonology of Cornish and the other Celtic languages ultimately derive from a putative proto-Indo European or proto-Celtic language or family of languages spoken in Britain in pre-history (ibid, p.2). In order to make sense of what Late South-western British (Primitive Cornish) and Old Cornish names were like and then reconstruct them, Cornish needs to be placed within the Celtic family tree and similarities with its relatives identified.

Over the decades several models of language evolution have been proposed and studies are in progress to determine the etymology of early Celtic names, particularly those of Gaulish and Hispano-Celtic origin. There has been significant recent work relating to the provenance of possible Continental Celtic languages and peoples, and in particular identifying differences in syntax and phonology. This has included studies in Lepontic, (246 hits on Academia.edu [AE]) Tartesian (74 results), and Gallaecian (62 mentions). Most pertinently are recent studies in proto-Brittonic (15 AE papers), which has a direct bearing on Cornish, and demonstrating that morphological reconstruction for Late South-western British is most definitely worthwhile.

Not withstanding that proto-Celtic and proto-Brittonic are reconstructions or models (and thus ultimately unverifiable) they may still be used to inform the morphology and phonology of Late South-western British and Old Cornish, and constrain morphological reconstructions to their most probable forms, an essential pre-requisite when analysing archaic anthroponyms.

For any reconstruction of Late South-western British names to be acceptable, it is reasonable to ask whether it was truly the primary language of the peninsula for a sustained period, without interference from other languages and therefore relevant to place name study. The accepted method of reconstruction is called comparative historical linguistics. This requires comparison of a language against its siblings and looking for both similarities and differences, which also enables normalisation of those names into a form suitable for subsequent geo-spatial processing, a comprehensive description of which is provided in staple textbooks such as Campbell (2004).

The majority of archaic names are from monumental inscriptions, but they do not provide enough material to reconstruct an entire language. Until recently the job of ‘joining the dots’ between these forms and modern Celtic languages, and then producing a full description of their morphology, phonology and grammar has been the preserve of philologists. C19 and C20 philologists have laid the foundations for modern linguists, so a review of their work is essential, but before reviewing philology, manuscript transcription and translation, a digression is necessary to establish the credentials of Cornwall, the Cornish language and continuous settlement by the people called the Cornish. (See Part 2!!)

The Chicken and Egg Problem: Which came first, the translation or language reconstruction?

When reconstructing a language it is necessary to have a corpus of literature, but how can literature be translated in the first place without a reconstructed grammar and lexicon?

Reconstruction is considered to be a serial process comprising (i) transcription, (ii) translation, (iii) analysis, and (iv) modelling; although to some extent this process is iterative and it is often necessary to return to earlier steps to complete the process.

The problem of the reconstruction of Brittonic is central to providing accurate translations of Early Cornish literature and epigraphs since there is no remaining native body of speakers. Documents and monuments are the raw stuff of reconstruction, but without an accurate and consistent model of Brittonic translation quality will be poor or incomplete, and most likely based on assumptions depending on the language skills of the translator (who may be primarily concerned with Latin, Welsh, Breton or less likely, Cornish).

However, reconstruction activities depend on the quality of transcription of originals, and transcription usually involves some knowledge of the source language, so it is not an activity truly independent of translation. To perform a correct translation, translators need enough of the text, in un-garbled form that makes grammatical sense. They also need some knowledge of the language concerned, not in its present form, but from the period being studied.

This is the chicken-and-egg problem.