Medieval Romantic or Language Visionary? Robert Morton Nance and the Cornish Language

Rod Lyon

This paper appeared in Setting Cornwall on its Feet: Robert Morton Nance 1873-1959 edited by Peter W. Thomas and Derek R. Williams.

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The name of Robert Morton Nance is synonymous with the Cornish language, but how was he viewed historically and how is he viewed today, with respect to his work on behalf of the language? In the eyes of some, Nance’s contribution has been outstanding. Without his input, say his supporters, the language would not have advanced beyond the basic revised standard introduced in Henry Jenner’s A Handbook of the Cornish Language, published in 1904. His opponents, however, say that the work carried out by Nance was greatly flawed, and that much of what he did should be ignored. There are arguments in support of both opinions, and these will be examined as this chapter progresses.

Firstly, the question must be asked, ‘Why did Nance take the Cornish language to heart?’ He himself states in Old Cornwall:

     My own interest in Cornish came, I expect, from my father’s comparison of Cornish with Welsh … I first learnt any Cornish that I knew from two books – Borlase’s Antiquities, with its Cornish Vocabulary full of strangely spelt words … and Sandy’s Specimens of Cornish Provincial Dialect, which gave me, as well as the dialect, two specimens of Cornish – the conversation from Andrew Borde’s Introduction to Knowledge and William Bodener’s Cornish letter, both of which I soon had by heart, misprints and all … It was actually my interest in nautical research which, after I had come to live in Cornwall, led me to go more deeply into Cornish studies.1

Nance came to Cornwall with his second wife Annie Maud (née Cawker) in 1906, and settled at Nancledra, between St Ives and Penzance. By this time, he had been studying Jenner’s Handbook, and although he stated in the same article in Old Cornwall that ‘[f]rom about 1885 to 1904, when Jenner’s Handbook came out, I may have picked up a very little more here and there, but even the Handbook did not get me to the stage of attempting to write or speak the language’, he goes on to say appreciatively of Jenner, ‘I first met Mr Jenner, and then began a friendship during which he literally told me all that he knew of Cornish, and set me finding out more for myself’. This initial meeting between the two was recorded by Nance in more detail exactly twenty years earlier:

     At that time I was very interested in Cornish dialect words, of which I found many that had never been recorded … Many of these words were not to be explained by English, neither was Williams’ Cornish Dictionary very often helpful, and it was when I was puzzling over them with such help as I could get from Breton and Welsh dictionaries in the Penzance [Morrab] Library that I first made acquaintance with Mr Jenner. He was at once interested in what I was doing …2

And, according to P.A.S. Pool: ‘At this time Nance’s main inrerest was the study of the dialect words used by Cornish fishermen for such things as parts of boats, pieces of equipment, fish and birds, and he enlisted the help of Jenner in working out the meaning of those words which were of Cornish origin.’3

Both Nance and Jenner worked together on the revival of Cornish over the coming years, but it was Nance who eventually took over the reins. His vision for the future of the language was different from that of Jenner, who could see no prospects for the language in real terms: ‘The reason,’ he wrote, ‘why a Cornishman should learn Cornish, the outward and audible sign of his separate nationality, is sentimental, and not in the least practical …’4 Although Nance ‘always had his head in medieval clouds’,5 he did consider the possibility and express the hope that Cornish might gain some official recognition. Writing in his paper ‘Cornish in 1951’ concerning the next hundred years, he predicts:

     By that time, although no-one wants compulsory Cornish, in school or out, we may find that those who are capable of teaching it may be given some sort of official recognition, and that to know Cornish may bring with it some advantage beyond the simple pleasure of having knowledge.6

Also, when he wrote ‘The Revival of Cornish’, he had obviously been thinking about the future of Cornish as a viable language, but his visions or hopes were still very much shrouded in pessimism: ‘If to “revive” Cornish,’ he wrote, ‘would be to make it live again as the vernacular of Cornwall, or as the official speech of the County Council [sic], and nothing less would do, then there has [not] been, and so far as one can see there never will be, a “revival” of Cornish. The word “revival” may be used, however, of the bringing into limited vogue by a limited number of people of a thing that has gone out of fashion …’7 Towards the end of his life he appeared a little more confident about the future, writing, ‘One generation has set Cornish on its feet; it is now for another to make it walk.’8

In the 1920s, Nance was running the first Cornish classes at St Ives, using Jenner’s Handbook as a starting point. Jenner had done his best to ‘pick up Cornish where it left off’, but this was far from successful, according to Nance, because ‘the available material for reconstructing the whole language as it existed in 1700 was far too scanty.’ Furthermore,

     Lhuyd could not always be found trustworthy, and contemporary Cornish spelling was chaotic, so in the end he [Jenner] had to go back to 15th-Century Middle Cornish for most of the grammar and syntax, respelling it all after a phonetic system that was based on Lhuyd’s, but unlike any that had ever been used before. This artificial Cornish had the drawback that it was no longer much like the Late Cornish that it had set out to be, while it still fell far short of the language in its finest form; and it did not greatly help its learners to read the old texts which form the best examples of how Cornish should be written, for to do this they had to learn different spellings of almost every word, and to accustom themselves to other ways of saying things.9

At the time that Nance was starting to get to grips with Cornish and finding from his St Ives classes that Jenner’s Handbook fell short of what was required, he was obviously considering taking steps to bring Cornish into line with his way of thinking – returning to the texts of the medieval period and basing his version of the revived language on them. In 1923 he prepared a short manuscript entitled ‘Gwary Abram hag Ysak’,10 which was taken from Gwreans an Bêand which, as the manuscript indicates, was written in two forms, Old and New. Underneath he wrote four years later: ‘Gwell yu an vaner goth, herwyth ow thybyans-vy’ [The old way is better, according to my thinking]. This preferred form was not yet ‘Unified’ as it is recognised today, and Nance does not say exactly what form it is. It appears to be loosely based on his vision of a ‘standardised’ medieval spelling. However, some seven years later, alongside each line he added a version using a form of ‘unified’ spelling. But this is still not his recognised ‘Unified’ system, as he uses dhemmo instead of dhymmo, len instead of lun, and dheso instead of dhyso. Nevertheless, the seed was now sown for Nance to embark upon his first grammar book, making use of his own ‘Unified’ spelling system.

How was this shift of Nance towards his ‘Unified’ system of spelling and a return to medieval Cornish taken by Jenner? In a letter to Francis Cargeeg, Nance wrote:

     All this is of course a fulfilment of what Henry Jenner hoped for, and worked for. In a way, “unified” Cornish upsets his own, but he was large-minded enough to see that a restored Middle Cornish was the only form of the language that could bring back the use of Cornish idioms, and that the old spelling unified was the only spelling that all could be got to accept as the best possible, and we have always been not only on friendly but on affectionate terms in all our work together.11

Nance was probably encouraged in his pioneering work originally by Richard Hall, one of the more fluent Cornish speakers of the time, who, in a letter dated 7 September 1922, says, ‘I was glad to learn of your interest in our dear old tongue and of your raking steps to preserve its traditions’.12 It is interesting to note that in this letter Hall advocates the use of the spelling dh to represent the sound of voiced ‘th’, as distinct from the unvoiced sound, to be spelt th. Then, in a further letter some five weeks later, he says that he has had to use ‘makeshifts’ in spelling Cornish and that we ought to have a proper phonetic alphabet. ‘Taking all the circumstances into consideration,’ he writes, ‘so as to preserve the identity of Cornish it might be advisable to keep to the old ways of spelling in the ancient manuscripts.’13 With these encouraging and supportive letters from Hall, Nance now pressed ahead with work on his first grammar book, initially entitled ‘Notes on Cornish Grammar, Spelling and Pronunciation’,14 but eventually cut down to the form his Cornish for All, which was to be published in 1929. As an introduction to the ‘Notes’, Nance stated that ‘this grammar should be a help and not a hindrance to the study of our language at its prime … [A] spelling has been adopted that is near the average of spelling of the Ordinalia …’ He goes on to say that he has adopted Lhuyd’s spelling dh for the soft sound of ‘th’, in preference to the used sometimes in Middle Cornish, chiefly because the latter had also been used for th, and z. He avers that the use of dh ‘as a final is lost in Cornish; following a general tendency to sharpen final consonants it became hard th. Lhuyd either failed to observe this or looked upon it as a corruption …’ Referring to the consonants and s, he says that the letter ‘as a final, is lightly sounded, tending to disappear (this especially in Meryasek) or to become a v. In the MSS, it is often written for even as initial, but this is not followed.’ With respect to s, he says, ‘Cornish, like Breton, has a mutation of to z, but this is not written …’

Having been disappointed generally with Jenner’s Handbook, which did not allow him or his students to read the medieval texts, Nance definitely turned away from anything connected with Late Cornish – or anything much after the Ordinalia, come to that – unless he was searching for a Cornish word which he could not find elsewhere. This avoidance of any later developments in the language, which Nance generally referred to as ‘corruption’, is exemplified in his ‘Notes’. He says, ‘[T]he verb gothvos has many contracted forms’ and goes on to give the following examples: go’vos (infinitive), gu’sta (for godhes-ta), goffo (for godhfo), guffan (for godhfen), and even wydhen, w’ya for wodhyen, wodhya as mutations of godhyen and godhya. Although these were customary contractions at the time, Nance refused to include them, as they were, in his opinion, ‘corrupt’. Likewise in dealing with the third person preterite ending -ys, he says that the later development -as should not be adopted. However, the truncated version of his ‘Notes on Cornish Grammar, Spelling and Pronunciation’ which became Cornish for All was published in 1929 by the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, priced 2/6d (12½p), and became the standard textbook for students of Cornish. Its subtitle boldly states that it is ‘a First Book, containing a Précis of Cornish Grammar; the Tale of John of Chyanhorth or the Three Maxims, and One Hundred Cornish Colloquies, in Unified Spelling, with Translations and Vocabulary’, and the October issue of Old Cornwall announced its arrival on the market.15 Nance’s ‘unified’ spelling system was not being introduced for all to use, although, as was noted above, its structure was seemingly not yet finalised. ‘Uniformity of spelling,’ wrote the author, ‘is not more found in such 15th-century Cornish than it is in English of the same period, but it is usually possible, if never very easy, to select one spelling of a word as being most worth perpetuating in the “unified” system of spelling which all our Cornish-writers have now agreed to adopt. [How this agreement was reached is not recorded!] The publication of a dictionary, when this becomes possible, will be the most effective means of fixing the spelling for all words; meanwhile Williams’ Dictionary serves, as far as it is complete, by giving most of the various spellings including usually the “unified” form or something very near it.’16 Cornish for All did at time appear to be a panacea for all the previous problems associated with Jenner’s Handbook, but in spite of a congratulatory letter from Roparz Hemon,17 the famed Breton philologist, the book was strewn with errors, there being no less than thiry-four noted in the Old Cornwall announcement. Further proof that ‘Unified’ spelling was not yet perfected came in the form of a short article by Nance himself in the following issue of Old Cornwall, where he wrote of suggested ‘improvements on the spelling and other details hitherto accepted for “unified Cornish”’.18 Then again, in the Summer 1933 number, Nance introduced further amendments and suggestions for improving his system and his revised form of Cornish generally.19 But in spite of these original errors and amendments, Nance had reached his first milestone. He had studied the medieval texts (rightly or wrongly bypassing later writings), pulled together the Cornish of that earlier period from various sources and, filling in any missing gaps in the paradigms of verbs, had produced his Cornish for All, which would be the foundation stone for Cornish students for some years to come. Now it was time for Nance to embark on his next venture, and that was to produce a dictionary which could be used alongside Cornish for All. But in this venture he was not to work alone.

In 1933 Arthur Saxon Dennett Smith (Caradar), who was to do so much in reviving Cornish, came to live in Cornwall. Before his retirement Smith was a teacher at Blundell’s School, where he taught Cornish to the boys as an extra subject. Although he remained in Cornwall for only three years before returning to Sussex to look after his invalid mother, he became heavily involved with the language, striking up a life-long working association with Nance, which produced a wealth of Cornish material. It was this partnership which in 1934 resulted in the publication by the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies of the first English-Cornish dictionary in a ‘standardised’ spelling system. This dictionary, which was dedicated to Henry Jenner, consisted of approximately 12,000 headwords – a vast step forward in the revived language. However, in spite of amendments and improvements to his system – he even referred to it as ‘unified’ – Nance had still not arrived at his final ‘Unified’ system. In this dictionary, for example, he is still using a long which he unfortunately decided later to replace with a similarly accented o, thus losing the distinction between two quite different sounds. Typical words affected were his lus (grey), rus (net) and bus (food), which later became los, ros and bos respectively. Dout (doubt, fear) and fout (fault, lack) became dowt and fowt, just as keges (hemlock), egery (to open) and gorghery (to cover) became kegys, ygery and gorhery. (All these changes appeared in his Cornish-English Dictionary of 1938.) The English-Cornish Dictionary of 1934 was not reviewed in Old Cornwall, although there was a brief notice in the Summer 1934 issue, as well as a half-page advertisement stating that it was now ready and that ‘[c]ontaining the Cornish of nearly 12,000 English words, in pocket size, it will put the study of Cornish on a new footing, the lack of such a work having been hitherto a stumbling-block to those who wished to use the language in writing or speech’.20 Then in the Winter 1935 number of the journal, it was announced that ‘[e]arly in the New Year it is hoped that the Cornish-English Dictionary will be in the press, helping to make everything written in Cornish more easily understood’.21 This, unfortunately, did not materialise at that time, it being another two years before the famed dictionary of 1938 hit the market.

What was the reason for the delay? Well, according to Smith it was lucky that the printing ever got off the starting blocks. It would seem that in the preparation of his ‘life’s work’, Nance had not taken Smith into his confidence, as he had done with the 1934 English-Cornish Dictionary, and this led to some acrimonious and damning correspondence between Smith and Francis Cargeeg. The first record we have of dissatisfaction in the Smith camp appeared in his letter of 17 March 1937, when he wrote:

     I am disgusted by the delay for three reasons: it provides a ready excuse for slackers to do nothing: a year ago I unexpectedly met R.M.N. at Lanham’s, and he then told me he had just handed over the MSS to the printers: so it seems that it is only his fussiness over the accuracy of a few unimportant details that has induced him to take all this time to revise what was apparently ready for the printers a year ago: and lastly I am sorry because about five years ago I was going to issue a working vocabulary, Cor.-Eng., containing most of the main words, so that the movement might work more smoothly, when R.M.N. begged me not to do so on the grounds that he had been preparing a more serious dictionary for years past – his life’s work, he called it – and my issue would spoil any chance he might have of selling his book. His dictionary was ready five years ago, except that it needed revision before proceeding to the printers. It is just five months ago that R.M.N. wrote saying that he was starting a final revisal!22 

Perhaps Smith’s comments were to a certain extent justified in view of the time that Nance took to make his revision, but on the other hand were they made because Smith’s own Cornish-English vocabulary had not been produced? Perhaps also a factor in any breakdown in communication was the fact that Smith had returned to Sussex and so was working ‘apart’ from Nance in many respects. Smith had not cooled down very much by the following July, when he again wrote to Cargeeg:

     [N]yns-yu Mordon mes corsen ow-crenna y’n gwyns. Gwan yu y gnas – kepar ha benen goth kens es den – na ny-yller byth fydhya ynno, mar po whans a wul neppyth!23

     [Mordon is no more than a reed trembling in the wind. His nature is weak – more like an old woman than a man – nor can he ever be relied upon, if one wishes to do anything!]

Smith was obviously not very happy! Later in the same letter he castigated Nance for his approach to a keen Cornish student: ‘[A]n kensa lyther a-scryfas dhedhy ef a-n-scryfas yn Sawsnek!’ [The first letter he wrote to her he wrote in English!] Smith also criticised Nance on a number of other aspects of his work, condemning the use of diacritics, especially as they had been used by Edwin Chirgwen (Map Melyn) in his booklet Say it in Cornish. In the same paragraph Smith wrote: ‘Mes an pyth a-worras own y’m colon o an samplow a-welys a janjyans yn lytherenyeth re a’n geryow kemyn es usyes genen pub deth, drefen bos an re-na hep dout an formow a-wra mos y’n Gerlyver noweth’. [But what put fear in my heart was the examples I saw of change in the spelling of too many of {Ed. note – the sense is rather “some of”} the common words that we use every day, because those will be the forms that will doubtless go into the new Dictionary.] Smith himself switched to English later in this letter, and although initially praising Nance – ‘I hold Mordon to be the greatest Cornish scholar now living in so far as a knowledge of the old Texts is concerned’ – he soon became critical:

     And if he were content to give us a safe and sound dictionary reflecting the language as it actually was shown to be, I should not complain. But he is going far beyond that. He is attempting what is possible only to a trained philologist, namely a reconstruction. Unfortunately Mordon is no linguist, and has had no training in philology. The result is that some of his reconstructions are simply childish. I have not been allowed to see many, but quite enough to raise grave doubts in my own mind. When I cooperated with him four years ago in preparing the Eng.-Cor. part, I took it for granted that his spellings were traditional. But I have since found that this is not the case.

Smith then gives examples of words which do not exist in Nance’s spellings, concluding, ‘If he would only give the traditional Cornish forms, without trying to be clever, he would be conferring a boon’. Another issue on which Smith attacks Nance is proofreading. ‘Also long ago,’ writes Smith, ‘I offered to read through his proof-sheets: a task for which M. is the least fitted of any man. I know: he simply cannot detect errors! But he was not very keen, so I let it drop. Mordon is not an easy man to offer to help: he has been the sole authority on Cornish in Cornwall since Jenner’s death, and in fact for some time previous, so that he may be pardoned for thinking that if he cannot solve a problem, then no-one else can!’ Further on in the same paragraph he continues, ‘[C]an you tell me why he chooses to shut me out of every problem in connection with his dictionary? It is beyond my comprehension’. Finally, after berating Nance about the Gorsedd, Smith signs off by writing, ‘But that Dictionary! I dread the many changes at the whim of one man: they are enough to kill all interest in Cornish: whatever one writes becomes obsolete as soon as printed!’ This letter alone would be enough to show that Smith was the most outspoken of Nance’s critics (in private at least), though, as seen above, even he was unstinting in his praise of Nance’s work in particular areas.

Despite Smith’s attack on Nance over the preparation of the new dictionary – whether Nance ever got to hear of or see Smith’s letters is not known – it appeared in 1938, in time for the Summer issue of Old Cornwall to say that it was ‘now ready’.24 There was a short piece about it in the same issue,25 though, like the 1934 English-Cornish Dictionary, it did ot get a review as such, despite the fact that Nance generally received a great deal of approbation from the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies. Smith, though, had still not finished! On 30 October 1938 he wrote to E.G. Retallack Hooper (Talek).26 From what he says in this letter, it appears that Nance might have had a change of heart, because he was proposing a supplement of additional words etc. to accompany the dictionary and had asked for help so that the list could be as complete as possible. Smith agreed to help and spent several weeks checking the word lists submitted, attaching additional words of his own and sending them back to Nance. ‘Yth-hevel nag-yu Mordon pes da a’n pyth a-ve gwres genef’ [It seems that Mordon isn’t pleased with what I did], wrote Smith in his letter. He had submitted 160 words which were not included in the main dictionary, and it would appear that these were ignored by Nance. Smith goes on to criticise further some of Nance’s decisions, and by the end of the letter was obviously near to exploding:

     Yth-hevel bos Mordon pes da a’n gologhas a-n-jeva dyworth ysyly Unyans C.K.G. Bytegens nyns-us kemmys hag onen anedha yn pup cans a-wor Kernewek da lour rak gweles an foutow y’n Gerlyver. Dhe’m tybyans-vy, ef yu yn-teffry an gwetha gerlyver re-welys yn ow dedhyow: ha my re-welas nyver bras lour anedha, Dew a-wor.

     [It seems that Mordon is well pleased with the praise he has had from members of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies. However there isn’t as many as one in a hundred of them who understands Cornish well enough to see the mistakes in the Dictionary. To my thinking, it’s truly the worst dictionary that I have seen in my life: and I have seen a large enough number of them, God knows.]

In spite of this and further attacks by Smith on Nance’s work generally in his letters to Hooper, the 1938 Dictionary became the standard work for future students until the arrival if the 1952 (English-Cornish) and 1955 (Cornish-English) dictionaries, and even then it was still a valued source of reference, as it gave many derivations and examples of Late Cornish developments and alternatives. The distinct impression left by Smith’s comments in letters to Cargeeg and Hooper is that he was consistently over-critical of Nance and would seem to have had some private axe to grind. Although it is not the intention in this chapter to delve into Smith’s character traits, it would appear that he could at times be a difficult man to get on with, particularly with resoect to matters relating to the Cornish language. In one of his fault-finding letters to Hooper he did, however, find another good word to say about Nance, when in January 1940 he conceded:

     Bytegens, ny-res dhyn-ny mos re bell ha dyspresya gerlyver Mordon hep ken. Yma ynno cansow a daclow yn-kever an tavas na-gefyr yn nep le aral, ha henna drefen bos Mordon ow-cothvos moy es denvyth bew a’n hynwyn tylleryow yn Kernow. Yma yn y erlyver mur a skyans usy grondyes warnedha.27

     [However, we mustn’t go too far and decry Mordon’s dictionary without cause. There are hundreds of things in it about the language that are not found anywhere else, and that’s because Mordon knows more than anyone living about the place-names in Cornwall. There is a good deal of knowledge in his dictionary which is founded on them.] 

But he still had to get in a dig at the end of the paragraph, writing: ‘… ha nyns-us dowt y’n bys bos an ober mur y les dhyn-ny, kyn nag-yu, martesen, an gwella ober a-alsa bos gwres, mara pya y scryfer paryssa de omgussulya ha kesobery gans tus erel a-gar Kernewek’ [… and there isn’t any doubt in the world that the work is of great interest to us, although it isn’t, perhaps, the best work that could have been done, if its writer had been more ready to consult and co-operate with other people who love Cornish]. Perhaps another piece of unwarranted criticism from Smith, though it does appear from earlier correspondence that Nance did tend to work on his own, without conferring with those ‘other people who love Cornish’.

Following the publication of the 1938 dictionary, Nance’s work in the field of the language was to a certain extent curtailed by events of World War II. He still wrote many articles – both in Cornish and about Cornish – in Old Cornwall, which continued apace when peace returned in 1945. Perhaps his next major linguistic preoccupation (one that, again, eventually involved Smith) came about through the Rev John Mackechnie of Glasgow, a well-known Celtic scholar who knew Cornish as well as Gaelic. In 1949 he was proposing to edit a hitherto unpublished Cornish manuscript and wanted Nance’s co-operation in the project. Apparently, Mackechnie was the only scholar who had noticed the manuscript catalogued in a recent report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission. It has been found amongst papers preserved by the Puleston family of Emral and Worthenbury in Flintshire, and had been in the care of the British Museum since 1947. The manuscript was of course The Tregear Homilies, written around 1555. On receiving the manuscript, Nance studied it and noted that its discovery was a valuable find, the text being in a prose piece of considerable length and over a century older than any other surviving Cornish that was not written in verse. He does however bemoan the fact that the subject matter was not more pleasing, writing: ‘If we could have had our choice of a subject for so long a run of the language it might have pleased us to find in it Arthurian romances, a local account of the Cornish risings or traditions of the Cornish saints, or we might have welcomed something about Cornish industries and trade. We are not choosers, however, but must take what time has spared us’.28 He is critical of the Cornish written, at times justifiably so, and elaborates on the over-use of English words in places where the Cornish equivalents would have been known to John Tregear, who, however, was probably writing with a particular readership or audience in mind, for whom English loan-words might well have been better understood, particularly in those parts of Cornwall where the language was in the steepest decline. Smith wrote to Nance actually agreeing with him, saying that ‘the subject-matter is deadly dull, but the language redeems it and makes it a worthy study’.29 Despite his reservations, Nance gave a paper on the subject to the Royal Institution of Cornwall30 and wrote two articles for Old Cornwall. The first appeared in the Summer 1950 issue, introducing the manuscript and including a version of part of one of the Homilies and a vocabulary.31 He followed this up in the Summer 1951 number, in which he goes into more detail regarding the language used by Tregear. He is somewhat critical of Tregear’s translation of Bishop Edmund Bonner’s original, mainly because of the unnecessary retention of English words within it. ‘Even here we meet with some disappointment’, he writes, and he goes on to suggest that Tregear left some English words untranslated ‘partly perhaps because he feared to tamper with the exact sense of the English, partly perhaps as falling in with the view of his congregation that high subjects needed loftier and less understandable language than popular Cornish, but chiefly I am afraid out of sheet slackness’.32 He admits, however, that the Homilies had enabled additions and adjustments to be made to current knowledge of Cornish vocabulary and grammar, going on to write in support of Tregear’s work ‘… and besides giving us a most welcome specimen of the language of their times it helps us to add several words to the dictionary and to remove a qualifying asterisk from some others which hitherto could only be presumed as likely Cornish because they exist in both Welsh and Breton. Besides this he has given us the means of correcting some makeshift plurals, genders and infinitive endings for which there had been no Cornish authority.’33 In spite of his criticisms, Nance was pleased at having seen the document, not only because it gave him an insight into the language as it had developed by 1555 but, more importantly perhaps, because it proved him correct in some of his ‘reconstruction’ work and supported some of the assumptions which had been a bone of contention amongst his peers, not least A.S.D. Smith.

With the excitement of the discovery of The Tregear Homilies behind him, Nance would now look forward to the publication of his next dictionary, an English-Cornish volume that doubtless came about as a result of the new words, confirmations and correctons derived from the Tregear manuscript. This new dictionary was an update of the English-Cornish Dictionary of 1934, but now with the benefit of his final ‘Unified’ spelling system; and, of course, it included new headwords, from both Tregear and further Welsh and Breton borrowings. This new dictionary was published in 1952, two years after the death of Nance’s biggest critic, A.S.D. Smith, and included this dedication to him: ‘Dhe gof CARADAR, ow hesoberor skentyl ha dywysyk dres lyes bledhen ow-whylas dry golow a-berth yn tylleryow tewl an Yeth Kernow’ [To the memory of CARADAR, my learned and zealous co-worker over many years in seeking to bring light into the dark places of the Language of Cornwall].34 Even though Smith had died prior to the publication of this latest dictionary, criticism still flowed in from Celtic linguists, in particular J.E. Caerwyn Williams, whose assessment appeared in the press on 1 July 1953. The main criticism, in this instance, related to the inclusion of ‘borrowed’ words from Welsh and Breton, some of which had been acknowledged as borrowings in the 1934 dictionary but were not specified as such in this revision. Caerwyn Williams sums up by saying, ‘The Celtic scholar will use it with the utmost caution or not at all, and it is my belief that he would gladly do without it to have a standard Cornish-English Dictionary, the sole purpose of which would be the inclusion of all Cornish words recorded in manuscript or printed text’.35 Nance has written in the margin of his copy of the review, ‘This is rather what we would expect from this type of Welsh critic. He is not at all interested in what this dictionary was trying to do’. Again one has to stand up in defence of Nance. Caerwyn Williams was obviously expecting the dictionary to be of a truly historical nature, produced solely for philologists and other academic students, whereas Nance was thinking otherwise, as his marginal note makes clear. He was not concerned so much about any historical aspect of Cornish, but wished to provide a working dictionary to enable twentieth-century students to get to grips with the language as a modern and viable means of communication.

Although Nance was now in his 80th year, he had still not finished his work, and there was another dictionary to come. This was to be an updated Cornish-English edition, really a ‘reversal’ of the English-Cornish Dictionary of 1952, but without the source references, Late Cornish examples, paradigms of verbs etc. and the useful section on prefixes and suffixed which had been included in the 1938 version. This dictionary – Nance’s last – came out in 1955, just four years before his death. Unlike the first two dictionaries, which had at least some coverage in Old Cornwall, this latter pair, apart from the critical comments by Caerwyn Williams relating to the 1952 volume, almost slipped out unnoticed. Nance’s output, though much reduced during the last decade of his life, continued right up until the end, with publications such as his Guide to Cornish Place-Names (1951) and articles for Old Cornwall. It must be said here that, although A.S.D. Smith gave Nance a very rough ride with respect to many aspects of the language – in particular the latter’s approach to the ‘reconstructing’ of Cornish – they did work together in producing extracts from the Cornish texts, such as An Tyr Marya, St Meryasek in Cornwall, Abram hag Ysak, Sylvester ha’n Dhragon etc. These were published mainly through the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, and reprinted in part during the 1970s by the Cornish Language Board.

So far this has been a broadly chronological account of the major works undertaken by Nance in Cornish, from his first involvement with the language through to the publication of his last dictionary in 1955. But what about the man himself? There is no doubt that Nance was a stalwart where the language revival movement was concerned. From the time that his interest in Cornish was aroused by his study of Jenner’s Handbook of the Cornish Language and his meeting with the author himself in the Morrab Library, through to his dying day, the amount of research which he carried out and the quantity of Cornish materials which he wrote and published were prodigious. For Old Cornwall alone he wrote no fewer than sixty articles in Cornish and over forty on his findings concerning Cornish, in addition to all the other material relating to Cornish customs, pastimes, habits etc. All this was in addition to the work involved in preparing his Cornish for All and the four dictionaries. It must be remembered, too, that the preparation of these dictionaries for publication was not the relatively simple process it is today, when alphabetical arrangement can be achieved by the touch of a key on the computer. In Nance’s time each word had to be sorted manually into alphabetical order, either by means of a card-index or by painstakingly numbering all the entries in the order on which they were to be set up by the printer. It was not all plain sailing for Nance, and there were times when his spirits seemed to be low; and, of course, he received a lot of criticism – privately and publicly – for his ideas and work in promoting his ‘Unified’ Cornish. He had already shown signs of despondency or disappointment about the small number of those wishing to study Cornish (even among the membership of the Old Cornwall Societies), when he wrote to Cargeeg towards the end of 1936: ‘As you know, most readers of O.C. [Old Cornwall] have no use at all for the Cornish pages, and some of them refuse to buy it at all if it seems “full of Cornish”’.36 The following year, a letter to Smith quotes Nance as writing that ‘the Service in Cornish has not led to a single fresh Cornish student, while one hears of it annoying people who hate “foreign” languages in Church.’37 Later, in 1941, Nance was also quite disaffected by the Royal Institution of Cornwall, as a pencil note on his manuscript ‘Notes on Cornish Miracle-Play Manuscripts’ shows: ‘Since Doble there has been no-one on the Council of the R. Inst. Cor. who takes any interest at all in Cornish, though there are a few if the ordinary members who do’.38 And following the Gorsedd at Trevethy, St Cleer, in 1952, a very down-hearted Nance said to G. Pawley White (Gunwyn), who was a junior marshall at the time, that he did not see any future for Cornish at all, because people were not speaking it.39 Those moments of despondency must have been short-lived, however, because it seems that he never stopped working on the language.

His main aim in life with respect to the language was to introduce and gain acceptance for his ‘unified reconstructed Cornish’. As noted above, in trying to utilise Jenner’s Handbook to read and teach from the medieval manuscripts, Nance became so frustrated that he very soon decided that the only way forward for the language was to go back to these earlier manuscripts and ‘reconstruct’ Cornish for present-day use. This meant not only standardising the spelling, but also advancing his ideas on the ‘reconstruction’ of the language itself, something which led to considerable criticism. Possibly because Nance was so disenchanted with Jenner’s Handbook, he would appear to have become quite averse to the use of any Cornish writings after the date of the last of these medieval manuscripts. In his studies of the writings of Tonkin, Jenkins and other writers of Late Cornish, they were always ‘wrong’ or ‘miscopied’. He also referred to the later development in Cornish of inserting (under certain circumstances) a and respectively before and as constituting ‘alterations due to the wear and tear of time, or corruptions’.40 And in a letter to a Mr King of the Oxford Cornish Society he states, ‘In the late texts one has to deal with a language artificially made to serve a literary purpose, but lacking all but the barest colloquial forms’.41 In looking for ‘new’ Cornish words for his ‘reconstruction work’, Nance was also very selective, writing in one essay: ‘I have now cut out words from English that were in use in Cornish, some even since the time of the Cottonian MS. Vocabulary, words from English or French that are used in Welsh and Breton also, and all words that seem to have gone out of use before 1800’.42 Similarly, he commented on sixty or so words in Lhuyd’s vocabularies ‘which I have found to be new’, altering the original spelling to suit his ‘unified’ spellings and thus losing some of the original pronunciation noted down from speakers. Admittedly, this was done to bring these words into line with Middle Cornish, but he chose to ignore the later development of the language and the way in which words were actually pronounced in the 18th century. Smith frequently castigated Nance’s ideal of a pseudo-perfect Cornish based on the medieval works because of his refusal to accept anything that, in his judgment, ought not to have appeared in Cornish writing at that early period. Referring to Nance’s work on The Creation of the World, Smith wrote: “I think the original version should be reproduced exactly as it stands, only in unified spelling … Another question is whether to preserve certain characteristics peculiar to a late text like CW or to bring its Cornish completely into line with that of the Ordinalia. You tend towards the latter, but I can’t help thinking you go too far’. ‘[D]eth, be, cows, na fell, changed to duth, bu, kews, nep pell,’ he continues, ‘seems to me to be putting the clock back too far. Likewisem mara, cos’ta, woffya, woffes, kyn na m boma, y vosa, etc., these are all good colloquial forms warranted from the oldest texts, and are a feature of CW. I have shown in my notes that there is nothing wrong with them.’43 (In fact, these notes by Smith run to thirty-eight pages in all!) It should be said in Nance’s defence that although he did not favour any late forms of Cornish, he had already stated in a letter to Cargeeg, ‘Dygheth yu Caradar dhe vos hep godhvos a Gernewek Dewedhes’44[It is a pity that Caradar lacks a knowledge of Late Cornish]. Paradoxically, Smith made a similar comment about Nance: ‘I believe his knowledge of Cornish was restricted to Classical Cornish, as some words in later Cornish he did not seem to be able to understand’.45 This is a most unfair statement, as Nance was unparalleled in unravelling place-names and a host of apparently jumbled scraps of Late Cornish. Smith was, indeed, very much a medievalist himself, but he did appreciate the fact that one cannot change a language just to suit one’s own ideals. Such criticism of Nance is further exemplified by his ‘Celtic Bird-Names of Cornwall’.46 Here there is considerable evidence of traditionally used names being twisted to comply with Middle Cornish/Unified spellings and words. For example, the traditional mola (blackbird) is written molgh, and the word kelligrew (chough) is disregarded, being substituted by palores. In addition, some bird names included in the dictionary were ‘devised’ by Nance, following comparison with Welsh and Breton. He notes that there are some which seem peculiar to Cornwall, but as they fo not seem to be ‘Celtic’ they are not included in his vocabularies or dictionaries!

Many of the problems with Nance’s working practices were perhaps caused by his tendency to stubbornness and his consequent alienation of those who were prepared to help and advise him. It is easy to receive the impression that Smith was continually finding things to criticise in Nance, but after all, as he told Cargeeg, ‘I have this advantage over him that I know several languages fluently, including Welsh, and have had a fairly good training in philology, seeing that I took a first in classics at Cambridge.’47 Perhaps a more flexible attitude to Smith’s input might have been the better option for the language. Former Grand Bard Hugh Miners was of much the same opinion as Smith, saying: ‘Nance was domineering and always wanted things to go his way …’48 These criticisms of Nance of course stand out boldly when quoted in isolation, but one must ask the question, ‘Where would Cornish be today without him?’ There are many who learnt Cornish up to at least the 1960s who would probably never have bothered without his direct or indirect help, resulting in far fewer speakers than there currently are. Although it has been stated on a number of occasions that Nance refused to acknowledge the use of Late Cornish, sometimes, strangely, he is quite appreciative of this stage in the development of the language and those who spoke it. In support of the Cornish used by Dolly Pentreath and William Bodener, he states that the language ‘remained very little corrupted by admixture with English, and … the grotesque changes in some Cornish words as used in the dialect are not due to decay in the language itself, but simply in their long use by people who did not speak it’.49 Although not condemning Late Cornish per se, in the same paper he bemoans lost opportunities:

     It maddens one to think of these learned, laborious Cornishmen, misprinting earlier collectors, misreading ancient manuscripts, jumbling their own few Celtic, or West Country English, words with an indiscriminatory hurling together of Cornish, Welsh, Breton, and Irish from Lhuyd’s Archaeologia Britannica, compiling dictionaries, in fact, before learning the language and making cryptograms for Cornish students that take ten times as long to unravel as they did to write, while all the time the language itself was being spoken by the poor old “backjowster” bringing fish rounf to the back-door, or even by the bent old gardener, mowing the grass in front of the library window, from whom – alas! – it would be infra dig. to learn.”50

So, on reflection, it would appear that Nance’s disregard for Late Cornish was really based on the fact that the Cornish handed down and to which he had access was not the true Cornish of the time, but a form corrupted by those who were not indigenous speakers of the lanhuage and who had cobbled together something from what little they knew of it, bolstered up with extraneous bits and pieces. However, this should not have led him to disregard truly idiomatic Cornish in such writings as The Creation of the World. Another facet of Nance’s ‘Unified’ Cornish which drew criticism (particularly from Smith) has not yet been mentioned – his over-use of hyphens. Smith wrote to Hooper of the amount of work he had to do ‘in getting Mordon to see my points, e.g. to omit hyphens (except to join up enclitics, e.g. ny allaf-vy, etc)’,51 and in a later letter, he refers to ‘seeing Cornish uglified by a superabundance of hyphens.’52 It is unfortunate that Nance received so much criticism, but then in any pioneetring work criticism does thick and fast.

What else can be said about Nance? That he worked assiduously for the language cannot be denied, but what were his aspirations? Undoubtedly to see Cornish succeed – who would not, having put so much time and effort into it? – but, it has to be conceded, mainly as a concise medieval written medium. He did mention at times the conversational use of Cornish, but from what has been said by others, he did not himself speak it a lot. Smith says in a letter that while robing in St John’s Hall, Penzance, prior to attending the Gorsedd at the Merry Maidens in 1932, ‘Mordon a-wruk pysy warnan na-wrellyn kewsel Kernewek y’n Orseth, ha henna rak own an ruth a dus dhe sevel ha gul tros’53[Mordon begged us not to speak Cornish at the Gorsedd, just in case a crowd of people should stand up and make a fuss]. In another letter Smith wrote: ‘Cows Kernewek yu moy y vern ages cows adro dhe’n Kernewek, del wra Mordon’54[Talking Cornish is more important than talking about Cornish, as Mordon does]. G. Pawley White also noted that when Nance stated at the 1952 Gorsedd that he was downhearted because he did not see any future in Cornish when nobody was speaking it, he said it in English.55 But, of course, Nance did not always receive criticism – there was also praise. It has already been noted, for example, that Roparz Hemon congratulated Nance on Cornish for All. He also earned praise from Richard Hall for tackling the complexities of Cornish spelling in the 1920s, and in a footnote to a letter from Smith, Hooper wrote: ‘Nyns oma sur ny dhe wul justys lowr dhe Vordon rak an ober bras a wrug-e gul. Gwyr yu bos cansow a fowtow y’n gerlyver, bytegens yma ynno cansow a eryow da re be cuntellys gans Mordon y honen’ [I am not sure that we do Mordon sufficient justice for the great work he did. It’s true that there are hundreds of mistakes in the dictionary; however, there are hundreds of good words in it which Mordon collected himself]. These words and thoughts have been echoed in more recent times, when it has been said that without Nance there would be a far smaller number of fluent speakers today.56 As previously noted, even Smith had good words to say about him, writing on one occasion: ‘Mordon a-wor moy a Gernow ha Kernewek ages dyscajoryon Kembry oll warbarth: nyns-yns mes fleghes orto-ef’57 [Mordon knows more of Cornwall and Cornish than all Welsh teachers put together: they are mere children compared to him]. And again, in a letter to Cargeeg he wrote: ‘He is the only man alive who is capable of grasping problems which have arisen in connection with the language, and I should certainly not know as much as I do now but for the fact that there was one man who had the time and inclination to go thoroughly into these matters, especially problems connected with the Texts’.58 Praise indeed from a man who over the years had been so critical.

So that was Robert Morton Nance. There is so much more one could say about him. There are those who rate him highly, there are those who decry his work. He has been condemned for living with his head in medieval clouds, severely criticised for his ‘reconstruction’ work and castigated for his ‘Unified’ spelling system. But whatever is said about him, it cannot be denied that he contributed a huge amount to the knowledge and spread of Cornish. If he had not been with us, where would the Cornish language be today? Would it have died away into insignificance, even perhaps into oblivion, or would the torch have been carried by someone else – perhaps W.C.D. Watson (Tirvab) or R. St Vincent Allin-Collins (Hal Wyn) – and been carried down a much different path? Who knows?


1     R. Morton Nance (1958) ‘Cornish Beginnings’ in Old Cornwall, vol. 5, no. 9, 1958, p. 369.

2     R. Morton Nance (1938) ‘Wales & the Cornish Language & Gorsedd’ (paper read to the Royal Institution of South Wales, Swansea, 24 February 1938), Nance Collection, Courtney Library, Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro.

3     P.A.S. Pool (1967) ‘The Cornish Language’ in The Cornish Review, no. 4, New Year 1967, pp. 9-10.

4     Henry Jenner (1904) A Handbook of the Cornish Language, London, David Nutt, p. xii.

5     Statement by R.R.M. Gendall in a personal conversation with the author.

6     R. Morton Nance ‘Cornish in 1951’, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

7     R. Morton Nance ‘The Revival of Cornish’, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

8     Cited in Pool (1967), p. 12. In his Cornish for Beginners (3rd revised edition, 1970), Pool dates this question to 1955.

9     Nance (1938).

10     R. Morton Nance ‘Gwary Abram hag Ysak’, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

11     R. Morton Nance, Letter to F.B. Cargeeg, 8 May 1934 (private hands).

12     R. Hall, Letter to R. Morton Nance, 7 September 1922, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

13     R. Hall, Letter to R. Morton Nance, 14 October 1922, ibid.

14     Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

15     R. Morton Nance (1929) ‘Cornish for All’ in Old Cornwall, vol. 1, no.10, October 1929, pp. 36-38.

16     Ibid., p. 37.

17     Roparz Hemon, Letter to R. Morton Nance, 9 November 1929, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

18     R. Morton Nance (1930) ‘Cornish for All’ in Old Cornwall, vol. 1, no. 11, Summer 1930, p. 19.

19     R. Morton Nance (1933) ‘Cornish for All’ in Old Cornwall, vol. 2, no. 5, Summer 1933, pp. 27-28.

20     Old Cornwall, vol. 2, no. 7, Summer 1934, p. 35 & inside front cover.

21     ‘Cornish Language’ in Old Cornwall, vol. 2, no. 10, Winter 1935, p. 43.

22     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to F.B. Cargeeg, 17 March 1937 (private hands).

23     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to F.B. Cargeeg, 4 July 1937 (private hands).

24     Old Cornwall, vol. 3, no. 3, Summer 1938, following p. 132.

25     ‘New Cornish Dictionary’, ibid., p. 116.

26     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to E.G.R. Hooper, 30 October 1938, Talek Papers, Cornish Gorsedd Archives.

27     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to E.G.R. Hooper, 22 January 1940, Talek Papers, Cornish Gorsedd Archives.

28     R. Morton Nance, Notes on the Tregear Manuscript, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

29     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to R. Morton Nance, 1 March 1950, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

30     The paper was delivered on 20 December 1949, and the text appeared as ‘Something new in Cornish’ in Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, New series, vol. 1, part 2, 1952, pp. 119-121.

31     R. Morton Nance (1950) ‘The Tregear Manuscript’ in Old Cornwall, vol. 4, no. 11, Summer 1950, pp. 429-434.

32     R. Morton Nace (1951) ‘More about the Tregear Manuscript’ in Old Cornwall, vol. 5, no. 1, Summer 1951, p. 23.

33     Ibid., p. 24.

34     R. Morton Nance (1952) An English-Cornish Dictionary: Marazion: Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, p. [v].

35     Cutting in Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

36     R. Morton Nance, Letter to F.B. Cargeeg, 12 December 1936 (private hands).

37     Charles Taylor (?), Letter to A.S.D. Smith, 12 July 1937, Talek Papers, Cornish Gorsedd Archives.

38     R. Morton Nance ‘Notes on Cornish Miracle-Play Manuscripts’, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

39     Interview with Gunwyn … 26th July 2000 [by W.E. Chapman], Falmouth Tower Films.

40     Nance (1938).

41     R. Morton Nance, Letter to Mr King, 29 January 1931, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

42     R. Morton Nance (1922) ‘Celtic Words in Cornish Dialect. II’ in The eighty-eight Annual Report of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, New series, vol. 4, part 4, 1921-1922, p.71.

43     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to R. Morton Nance, 10 February 1941, Cornish Gorsedd Archives.

44     R. Morton Nance, Letter to F.B. Cargeeg, 18 June 1934 (private hands).

45     Note, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

46     R. Morton Nance, ‘The Celtic Bird-Names of Cornwall’, Nance Collection, Courtney Library.

47     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to F.B. Cargeeg, 4 July 1937 (private hands).

48     Personal conversation with the author, Penzance, 1 March 2006.

49     Nance (1922), p. 78.

50     Ibid., p. 72.

51     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to E.G.R. Hooper, 12 October 1949, Talek Papers, Cornish Gorsedd Archives.

52     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to E.G.R. Hooper, 6 May 1950, ibid.

53     A.S.D. Smith, Letter probably to E.G.R. Hooper, 1939 or 1944, ibid. (photocopy of p. 2 only).

54     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to E.G.R. Hooper, 29 December 1945, ibid.

55     Interview with Gunwyn … 26th July 2000.

56     Personal conversation between the author and, in particular, P.A.S. Pool, Audrey Randle Pool and Ann Trevenen Jenkin.

57     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to E.G.R. Hooper, 14 January 1940, Talek Papers, Cornish Gorsedd Archives.

58     A.S.D. Smith, Letter to F.B. Cargeeg, 25 December 1947 (private hands).