What’s in a name?

By Kensa Broadhurst
Institute of Cornish Studies / Fondyans Studhyansow Kernewek, Exeter University

Many people are drawn to learning the Cornish language through a desire to understand the place names they see on signs all around them. A knowledge of place names forms part of the Cornish language exams offered by the Cornish Language Board. 

Lies den yw tennys dyski an yeth Kernewek awos hwans konvedhes an henwyn-tyller a welons war arwodhyow oll a-dro dhedha. Skians henwyn-tyller yw rann a’n apposyansow Kernewek profyes gans Kesva an Taves Kernewek.

Once understood, Cornish place names unlock a new way of seeing our ancestors’ interactions with the landscapes around them and bring insights into some of their historical activities. With the introduction of bilingual street names and other signage around Cornwall, we are able once more to reclaim our heritage and foreground it in our everyday lives.

Hag i konvedhys, henywn-tyller Kernewek a dhialhwedh fordh nowydh dhe weles ynterwriansow agan hendasow gans an tirwedhow a-dro dhedha ha dri manylyon a’ga aktivitys istorek. Gans an komendyans henwyn fordh diwyethek hag arwodhyow erel a-dro Kernow, y hyllyn ni unweyth arta daslavasos agan ertach ni hag y worra yn kres agan bewnansow pubdedhyek.

The Place Names Panel of the Akademi Kernewek works to provide the information for bilingual signage across Cornwall, an important means of raising the profile of both the language and Cornish heritage. The panel is comprised of Cornish language experts who provide recommended standardised Cornish language forms of place names and street names. They work within the parameters of a policy and guidance document which balances historic integrity with current usage.

Sunset at Lansallos, by Jane Stevenson

An Panel Henwyn-Tyller a’n Akademi Kernewek a ober rag provia an kedhlow rag arwodhyow diwyethek dres Kernow, mayn posek ynkressya profil an yeth hag ertach Kernow an dhew. An panel yw gwrys a gonygyon a’n yeth Kernewek neb a gomend furvow savonek Kernewek a henwyn-tyller ha henwyn fordh. I a ober a-ji dhe’n gidys a skrif polici ha gidyans, an pyth a omberth ewnhynseth istorek gans usadow a-lemmyn.

It is possible to track the development of Cornish place names, the incursion of English into Cornwall, and changes in the Cornish language itself through the place names. Many place names which include the name of a Celtic saint date from the 5th and 6th centuries. We also see many topographical names, or names linked to landowners, before the Medieval period brought an incursion of English names from the east, with many anglicised place names in East Cornwall dating from this period. Indeed, through tracking the changes in the Cornish spelling of place names, we can track the westward retreat of the Cornish language. 

Possybyl yw helerghi displegyans ha henwyn-tyller Kernewek ha lesans Sowsnek yn Kernow an dhew, ha chanjyow y’n yeth Kernewek hy honan dres an henwyn-tyller. Lies hanow-tyller a gomprehend hanow sans Keltek a dhedh dhyworth an pympes ha hweghves kansvledhynnyow. Ni a wel ynwedh lies hanow tirwedhiethek, po henwyn junyes gans perghennow an tir, kyns an oos kresosel a welas lesans henwyn Sowsnek dhyworth an howldrehevel, gans lies hanow-tyller sowsnekhes yn Kernow est ow tedhya dhyworth an termyn ma. Yn hwir, dres helerghi an chanjyow y’n lytherennans Kernewek a henwyn-tyller y hyllyn ni helerghi an argel war tu ha’n howlsedhes a’n yeth Kernewek.

Most Cornish place names usually include two elements. These comprise a word which describes what a place is like, often a feature such as a headland, farm, or valley, followed by a second word giving more detail, such as an adjective describing the location: large, small, black, white, or a person’s name, usually a landowner or tenant. Topographical names have been traced from the 4th century AD. Names with the prefix Tre (farmstead/ estate/ hamlet) can be found all over Cornwall, as can Bos/ Bod/ Bot/ Bo/ Be (dwelling/ farmhouse). This is often linked to a personal name.

An brassa rann a henwyn-tyller Kernewek a gomprehend diw elven. An elvennow ma a syns ger rag deskrifa studh an tyller, yn fenowgh nas: kepar ha penn tir, bargen tir po nans, holyes gans ger nessa ow ri manylyon moy , kepar ha hanow gwann ow teskrifa an tyller: bras, byghan, du, gwynn, po hanow den, perghen tir po gobrenor dell yw usys. Henwyn tirwedhiethek re beu helerghys dhyworth an peswara kansvledhen. Y hyllir kavos henwyn gans an ragelven Tre oll a-dro Kernow, ha Bos/ Bod/ Bot/ Bo/ Be ynwedh. Yn fenowgh hemm yw junyes gans hanow personel.

St Non’s Well, Yearle’s Wood, by Jane Stevenson

Changes to the spelling of Cornish have occurred over many centuries. This often happens in a spoken language when harder consonants are softened. In Cornwall, softer consonants were found in the west where the language continued to be spoken, and harder consonants in the east, where the language had “fossilised” after English was widely taken up at a far earlier time. These consonants are usually at the end of the name. Some examples include the change from Bod (dwelling) in the east to Bos in the west, and Nant (valley) to Nans

Chanjyow orth lytherennans Kernewek re hwarvos dres lies kansvledhen. Hemm a hwer yn fenowgh yn yeth kewsys pan yw medhelhes kessonennow kales. Yn Kernow, kessonennow moy medhel a veu kevys y’n howlsedhes yn py le y pesys kewsel an yeth, ha kessonennow kalessa y’n howldrehevel, yn py le an yeth re venhasa wosa Sowsnek a veu adoptys yn ledan orth termyn pell a-varra. Dell yw usys, yma an kessonennow ma orth penn an hanow. Nebes ensamplys a gomprehend an chanj dhyworth Bod y’n howldrehevel dhe Bos y’n howlsedhes, ha nant dhe nans. 

In the far west of Cornwall we also find place names derived from Late Cornish, the form of the language used in the 17th and 18th centuries. Examples of this include penn (head/ top/ end) becoming pedn. In complete contrast, some settlement names on the Cornwall-Devon border are entirely English in form, and many others include English elements. That these names became so established in their English form is evidence of the retreat of the Cornish language. 

View to the sea from Gunwalloe Church, by Roger Thorp

Y’n howlsedhes pell a Gernow ni a gyv ynwedh henwyn-tyller gwaynys dhyworth Kernewek Dhiwedhes, furv a’n yeth usyes y’n seytegves hag etegves kansbledhynnyow. Ensamplys a henna a gomprehend penn ow tos ha bos pedn. Yn gorthwedh dhien, nebes henwyn trevesigeth war an amal Kernow-Dewnans yw a furv Sowsnek yn tien, ha lies aral a gomprehend elvennow Sowsnek. Ha’n henywn ma a dheuth ha bos mar fastyas y’ga furv Sowsnek yw dustuni argel a’n yeth Kernewek.

A basic understanding of the meanings of even just a few elements of Cornish place names opens out a whole world of historical and geographical understanding of the landscape around us. Our place names are unique, form part of our culture and heritage, and are something to be celebrated. 

Konvedhes elvennek styryow nebes elvennow henwyn-tyller Kernewek hogen a yger bys yn tien konvedhes istorek ha doroniethel a’n dirwedh a-dro dhyn. Agan henwyn-tyller yw heb parow, i a wra rann agan gonisogeth hag ertach, ha neppeth dhe solempnya yns.

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