Never no one without Cornish

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Wikipedia's article on the Cornish language (the Brythonic Celtic language once spoken in the county of Cornwall, England) quotes this sentence (twice, in fact) from Henry Jenner, author of Handbook of the Cornish Language (1904):

There has never been a time when there has been no person in Cornwall without a knowledge of the Cornish language.

Oh, what a mess we do create when first we practice to negate! Let's just think that sentence through, counting up the negations carefully.

A person "without a knowledge of the Cornish language" is a person who does not know Cornish.

To say there is "no person in Cornwall" with this property contributes a second negation: to say there is no one in the county who does not know Cornish is logically equivalent to saying that everyone in the county knows Cornish.

And to say that "there has never been a time" when this latter held adds a third negation, and thus amounts to the claim that it is not true for any time in the past that everyone in Cornwall know Cornish back then.

But that is not what Jenner wanted to say. The sentence lost in its own triple negation and says something quite distinct from what was meant. Jenner's view was that there had never been a time when there was no person in Cornwall with a knowledge of the Cornish language. To express it with no negations at all, he is saying that throughout history there have always been people in Cornwall who knew Cornish.

I have not been able to track the sentence all the way back to Jenner. It has been claimed to appear on the back cover of an edition of A Handbook of the Cornish Language. The person who makes that claim is a sociologist of language policy and the Celtic languages, Kenneth MacKinnon, in his article "Development of Cornish language and literature", which appears in Rebuilding the Celtic Languages: Reversing Language Shift in the Celtic Countries ed. by Diarmuid Ó Néill (Talybont, Ceredigion: Y Lolfa Cyf., 2005), p. 222. Wikipedia took the sentence from that article. I checked with MacKinnon, and he told me that he took down the sentence from a copy of an edition of Jenner's Handbook which is no longer accessible to him, but he remembers it had a cardboard cover with a blurb on the back. The only copy of Jenner's book accessible to me is the University of Edinburgh's copy of the first edition (once the property of one Colonel Malcolm of Poltalloch, the ex libris sticker tells me), and it has a plain gray cloth hardback binding with gold-embossed shield on the front and nothing on the back.

Jenner may have written the sentence in the form quoted above; or his publisher may have written it for the back of a a cheap card-bound subsequent edition of the 1904 book and not checked it with Jenner; or MacKinnon may have made the error by mistranscribing what the book cover said. We don't know. Could be a composition slip in 1904, could be a transcription error a hundred years later.

What we do know is that (1) MacKinnon didn't notice that it cannot mean what it says, and (2) the editor Diarmuid Ó Néill didn't notice, and (3) none of the Wikipedians who worked on the Cornish article noticed.

The reason we can be sure that Jenner cannot have meant to say what the quoted sentence actually says is simple: it would been utterly irrelevant (or even deleterious) to his mission, about which we know quite a lot. Jenner was a Celtic enthusiast. His focus was on a claimed continuity that connected the shreds of Cornish he had picked up in the late 19th century all the way back to the language that was in use among native speaker communities at the beginning of the 18th. His line was that Cornish had a continuous history in Cornwall even after Dolly Pentreath (legendarily the last native speaker) died in 1777. He believed the language survived in private use in families in a few villages, even on into the 19th century, in the "remote western coastal parishes between St Ives and Penzance" that MacKinnon mentions (p. 220), to be preserved for a few decades by "semi-speakers" who knew the language a little when they were young, and then through the survival of odd phrases in families, in the use of Cornish names (e.g. of places, numbers, and fish), in snatches of Cornish such as the Creed and the Lord's Prayer in church services, and through the efforts of scholars working on the language.

There are tales (which even Jenner finds "not easy to believe") of a schoolmaster named John Davy (some spell it Davey) who recalled enough traditional Cornish to be able to speak a little even as late as 1890. Some say he kept his knowledge alive by speaking Cornish to his cat. To the maximum extent possible, Jenner wanted to believe such things. Here is a particular clear example of the line Jenner took regarding the fate of the Cornish language:

[Cornish] has been continuously preserved, for there has never been a time when there were not some Cornishmen who knew some Cornish; and… the preservation has mainly been the work of the Cornish themselves.

Those are Jenner's words as reproduced on page 63 of Derek Williams (ed.), Henry and Katherine Jenner: A Celebration of Cornwall’s Culture, Language and Identity (London: Francis Boutle, 2004; ISBN 1903427193).

Jenner was not above theatrics in the service of the cause of reviving Cornish, it would seem: MacKinnon reports (2005, pp. 222-223) that Jenner went to the Caernarfon Celtic Congress (in North Wales) in 1904, gave a paper entitled "Cornwall — A Celtic Nation", and brandished not only his new Handbook, but also a congratulatory telegram written in Cornish that he had arranged to have sent to him by another Cornish enthusiast, Joseph Hambley Rowe, as definitive proof that Cornish had a place in the modern technological society of the 20th century. (A hundred years later he might have started a Facebook page for Cornish and encouraged people to "like" it.)

The literal meaning of the quoted sentence is that Cornwall has never had a population that consisted wholly of Cornish speakers. That might actually be true. It depends whether we allow the term "Cornish" to be used for the Brythonic language as spoken by Celts in Cornwall before the first intrusion of the Angles and Saxons, and on whether Cornwall was at that time completely monolingual, with not a single shipwrecked Portuguese fisherman or marooned Spanish explorer living in the entire peninsula. But what is plain as a pikestaff is that if true, the claim would have been irrelevant to Jenner's revival plan, and might even have been interpreted as weakening it. Jenner wasn't interested in whether there was an early time when everybody in Cornwall knew Cornish. He wanted to claim that during two thousand years the knowledge of Cornish had never fully died out.

I have to tell you, incidentally, though this won't make me popular in Cornwall, that I think Jenner was not telling the truth. I don't even think he believed what he was saying (he may have wanted it to be true, but that's very different). Jenner had been impressed in 1875 when the Reverend W. S. Lach-Szyrma introduced him to some people in Mousehole who could utter snatches of Cornish (some of the low-value numerals, and a few words and phrases). This and other experiences helped to inspire him undertake an attempt to revive the language. He didn't want to delude himself, yet he longed to believe that Cornish had never really died, it was only sleeping, and he could be the one to wake it up. Speaking of the Rev. Lach-Szyrma, Dr Frederick W. P. Jago, and himself, Jenner said:

Thus it may be said that so long as any of these three are alive, a faint flicker of living Cornish remains, even if there is no verity in the weird legends of the survival of more as an esoteric language among the peasantry and the mining and fishing folk of the West.

There's some real vacillation to be seen in Jenner's pronouncements.

Anyway, we know the continuous-heritage line he wanted to push, and we know that someone messed up and overnegated when trying to state it. We just don't know who. But we nearly all make occasional misnegation mistakes. A list of Language Log posts on overnegation and misnegation can be found here — and there have been more since then, this post being just the latest of them.


[Comments are closed in case of threats and abuse from Cornish language revivalists. You have no idea how fierce the enthusiasts for resurrection of the Celtic languages can get, now that it is almost certainly too late to save them from extinction (Cornish died in the 18th century, and Manx in the 20th). I'm interested in the situation — like almost any linguist I would love to see the Celtic languages flourish and increase their number of speakers — but it is not my main topic here. I'm merely documenting an overnegation, with a rather excessive quantity of side remarks. We bloggers can do that: we can write at length stating views that are not worth the paper they are not written on. Even this endnote is too long.]


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