Mind Your Language


Basics

In St. Ives Cornish (which is, of course, the correct version as handed down personally by God), the noun is placed before the adjective and the 'the' if there is one goes in the middle.

Hence, Chy An Sort Glas; 'chy' being 'house', 'an' being 'the', 'sort' being 'hedgehog' and 'glas' being 'blue'.

Thus, Chy An Sort Glas, 'The House of the Blue Hedgehog'.

Cornish does not go in for a lot of prepositions so names often have to be interpreted in relation to their presumed physical location. For example:-

Chy An Parc - The House In The Field

Chy An Enys - The House On The Island

Chy An Eglos - The House By The Church

Also, many place names are compound words made up of several elements. For example:-

Tremenheere (tre-men-hyr) - Long Stone Farm

Balleswidden (bal-lys-widden) - Mine of the White Mud

Some place names are compounds of a word for a physical place (home, farm, field, hill, etc.) and a name of a person. For example:-

Lanhydrock - Hidroc's Enclosure

Trevarthen - Arthien's Farm

Finally, just to really confuse things, some names are compounds of Cornish and English words. For example:-

Wheal Dream - Dream Mine

Interpretation

Many place names have been interpreted retrospectively and there are several potential problems with this. In particular, when interpreting compound words splitting the name into its (presumed) elements often assumes that the name is spelled correctly in the first place.

However, Cornish is a Celtic language but most written records were made by English speakers, many of whom seem to have fallen back on the 'spell it like it sounds' technique. In English 'standardised' spelling and grammar is a relatively recent invention, a couple of centuries ago even the most educated people often did not even sign their own names with a consistent spelling!

As a consequence of this, if you pick up any half-decent Cornish dictionary or phrase book you will find all sorts of variations in the spelling of even the most basic words, i.e. glas/glaze, nans/nance, hayl/hel.

This inconsistency manifests itself in official records. For instance, you would have not thought that spelling St. Ives would be that much of a challenge but between 1283 and 1579 it is referred to as St. Ya, St. Hye, St. Eye, St. Ies, St. Ia, St. Yes, St. Yees and St. Yves. So, you can imagine how much variation there is in the spelling of much longer place names.

This problem has been compounded by the fact that Cornish effectively died out as a spoken language over a couple of centuries ago. This meant that for lack of a current reference point some would-be interpreters of Cornish place names fell back on using similar Celtic languages, such as Welsh, as their templates. A quick rifle through their books will reveal not only some impressive leaps of philological faith but also quite a few admissions of 'no idea what this means'.

Pronunciation

I am not even going to attempt to explanation the pronunciation of the Cornish language, if you're that interested go get a proper book on the subject. Suffice it so say that in my personal experience within this very town pronunciation seems to vary considerably depending on:-

Whether you are from St. Ives or a 'foreigner'
Whether you are from Uplong or Downlong in St. Ives
How many pints of Doom Bar you have had!

What Does It All Mean?

Well, I've given it my best shot, aided by the St. Ives Museum and St. Ives Trust, to try to get you some basic info on St. Ives names.

I'm sure it won't be completely right but, on the plus side, it can't be as horribly wrong as some of the things I've read!

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