Orthography

by Dr Ken George

Nance based his Unified Cornish on the spelling of Middle Cornish, principally that of the Ordinalia. After carrying out research on the phonological history of Cornish, it became clear to me that the Unified spelling did not represent the sounds of Cornish sufficiently closely, and so I proposed an improved orthography, largely phonemic in nature, and laid out its specification in a book, The pronunciation and spelling of Revived Cornish (1986). The Cornish Language Board voted to adopt the new spelling, which became known as Kernewek Kemmyn, in July 1988. During the following fifteen years, Kernewek Kemmyn proved a great success. It was used in over a hundred books and the monthly magazine An Gannas.

Nicholas Williams criticized KK in his book Cornish Today (1995); Paul Dunbar and I answered the criticisms in our book Kernewek Kemmyn - Cornish for the twenty-first century. Williams devised a new orthography of his own, Unified Cornish Revised (UCR), which he employed in his English-Cornish dictionary (2000). This system was closer to Unified than is KK; its introduction had the effect of splitting the minority of speakers who still used Unified Cornish. The orthography of revived Cornish which used a Late base was continually changing.

In 2002, Cornish received recognition under Part II of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The various language organizations subsequently formed a partnership, This partnership has existed ever since, conducting its meetings in English (in marked contrast to the Cornish Language Board, which since the 1980s has conducted its business in Cornish). Although formed initially just to deal with any money which might be granted to the language movement, the partnership has concerned itself with language planning, which was formerly done mainly by the Language Board.

The minority of speakers who did not use Kernewek Kemmyn raised the question of orthography. It was time to emphasize the advantages of KK . The Cornish Language Board published The case for Kernewek Kemmyn, which included a fairly detailed specification . At a public meeting in 2006, a handout (not mine) was distributed giving ten reasons why KK should be recognized as the "official" orthography . My job was to present the case for KK in twenty minutes.

The partnership was chaired by Eric Brooke, a non-Cornish speaker who played a part and then disappeared from the scene. Two linguists from outside Cornwall, Ben Bruch (U.S.A.) and Albert Bock (Austria) produced Kernewek Dasunys, “a set of suggestions and recommendations for constructing a standard orthography for Cornish which users of Kernewek Kemmyn, Unified Cornish, Unified Cornish Revised, and Revived Late Cornish could adopt without having to alter their existing grammar or pronunciation. These suggestions need not be accepted or rejected as a package, and could form the basis for negotiation between the groups which comprise the current Cornish-speaking community.”

The detailed negotiations took place over a weekend in Treyarnon, on the north coast. I was not permitted to take part, but was told that the discussions were extremely difficult. The prevailing idea was that the various groups could make compromises which would result in a “single written form”; this proved impossible. Under the guidance of Trond Trosterud, a non-Cornish-speaking facilitator from Norway, the result was instead an orthography which had numerous variants; the aspirational epithet “single” was dropped, and the term “standard written form” (SWF) was used.

Thus the management of Cornish entered a new world, in which consensus politics sometimes take precedence over linguistic truth, and English rather than Cornish is the means of communication. Many regard this as a retrograde step. The Cornish Language Board continues to carry out language planning using Cornish as its medium.

Nicholas Williams apparently abandoned his UCR in favour of a new orthography, aspirationally called Kernowek Standard, and reflecting "traditional" graphs as well as (Williams' own interpretation of the) phonology. He has translated several books using KS. Since it contains diacritics, it appears difficult to write, but is easy enough to read, though it has an old-fashioned appearance.

It was intended that SWF, introduced in 2008, be subject to review after five years. Many Cornish speakers, including myself, lobbied for the replacement of the objectionable oo digraph by oe. Yet the review was not carried out on linguistic principles, but using the same kind of methodology as one would use to revise the municipal bus service in Truro. It was hobbled from the start by the strict injunction to change as little as possible.

A framework for revising the orthography

I find the following framework helpful when considering revisions to the orthography.

  1. The relationship between Middle and Late bases

    This question belongs to the metalinguistics of Cornish. It was evidently not possible in the heated atmosphere of Treyarnon to consider this dispassionately, but when one does so, interesting results emerge.

  2. Major changes

    By this I mean changes to the spelling of a phoneme, so that many words would be affected by the change; e.g.

  3. Minor changes These would affect only individual words, or very small groups of words. That does not mean that they are unimportant, however; e.g. Welsh oddi wrth and Breton diouzh show that the word for ‘from’ should be diworth or dhiworth, as it is in KK, yet SWF erroneously writes dhyworth. This needs correcting.

Changes to KK are subject to approval by the Cornish Language Board. A simple mechanism needs to be found for making changes to SWF.