Lexicon brings ancient words back to life

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The Independent Online
A retired teacher has produced the first dictionary to present historically pure Cornish.

Richard Gendall's Practical Dictionary of Modern Cornish has dealt a blow to the notion that the Cornish language has been dead for centuries. Previous Cornish dictionaries have always incorporated Breton and Welsh.

In 15 years of research Mr Gendall has gathered 10,000 entries, starting from 1504, the date of the last great medieval Cornish epic. He believes they show that late or modern Cornish was the richest period of the language. Technological words were being added as recently as Victorian times, coping with the introduction of steam engines to the expansion of tin mining.

Dr Philip Payton, director of the Institute of Cornish Studies in Truro, said he thought Mr Gendall's dictionary was an "extremely important piece of work".

"Most of the work that has been done by Cornish scholars has focused on the medieval period. But this shows us that Cornish was a diverse and vibrant language in the late period."

What is more, Cornish still has some life left in it yet. Mr Gendall said that many words are still in everyday use. Among previously unrecorded words is goleity which he discovered last year in Sennen. It means lighthouse.

People living in Cornwall who still use local dialect terms "are the last Cornish speakers", he said yesterday. "Anyone who uses a dialect word is using live Cornish."

Mr Gendall, 73, from Liskeard, is an honorary research fellow at the Institute of Cornish Studies, which is part of Exeter University.

He began learning the language at the age of four, because his parents had a calendar of Cornish phrases behind the bathroom door.

With the resurgence of interest in Cornish nationalism, the language is also provoking much interest.

"Cornish people are losing houses, losing dialect, losing jobs," he said. "But there is nothing like the knowledge that you possess a distinctive language to make you feel you belong together."

About 42 per cent of people living in Cornwall nowadays can claim Cornish ancestry, he said. In some areas, such as Redruth, where the closure of Cornwall's last tin mine was announced this week, the figure is more than 60 per cent. But in other places there are almost no "real" Cornish people left.

5 Practical Dictionary of Modern Cornish. Available from selected bookshops, and from Teere ha Tavaz, Tregrill Vean, Menheniot, Liskeard, Cornwall PL14 3PL, for pounds 11.60 inc.

A beginner's guide

Melten da. Good morning.

Fatel era why a keel? How are you? (Literally, How are you doing?)

Benatewgana. Goodbye.

Durdaladawhy. Thank you. (Literally, God repay you.)

It's bram an gathe. That's nonsense. (Literally, That's the fart of the cat.)

Molatuendalaas. A general curse, literally, God's curse in your stomach.

Cornish versions of names-

Tamsin, Cornish for Thomasina. Jennifer, Cornish for Guinivere. Catterne, Cornish for Kate. Lowena, increasingly popular Cornish version of Joy.