Irish Language Blog

Logainmneacha Ceilteacha agus Náisiúntachtaí a Sé: Celtic Place Names and Nationalities 6 – Cornwall and the Cornish Posted by on May 22, 2009 in Irish Language

We’ve recently discussed the place names Albain, Éire, An Bhreatain Bheag, Oileán Mhanann, and An Bhriotáin.  Today we’ll turn to Cornwall.  Below you’ll find some examples of how to use the place name and how to indicate that a person or thing is Cornish.  Cornwall is called “Corn na Breataine” (horn of Britain) or sometimes “An Corn” in Irish. 


Cornach, a Cornishman or person.  Like the terms “Éireannach,” “Albanach,” “Breatnach,” “Manannach,” and “Briotánach,” it can be made feminine, “Cornach mná,” but, as I’ve previously mentioned, this form is rarely used.  The feminine form basically means “a woman Cornishman.” 


an Cornach, the Cornishman.  Cornach is also the adjective form.


 Some phrases with the place name “Corn na Breataine” include:


i gCorn na Breataine: in Cornwall


go Corn na Breataine: to Cornwall


muintir Chorn na Breataine: the residents of Cornwall


 In an interesting twist, the mineral cornwallite is “cornuaillít” in Irish, adapting the “-wall” suffix into Irish spelling. 


In a further interesting twist, the two main plant names that in English are designated as pertaining to Cornwall, Cornish heath and Cornish moneywort, lose the Cornish element in their Irish names, which are, respectively, “fraoch gallda” (lit. foreign heather – remember, the perspective is Irish here) and “pingin Dhuibhneach” (lit. penny from Corca Dhuibhne, a region in Co. Kerry).  I’ll let the Cornaigh and the Duibhnigh hash out the plant’s true origins among themselves – our concern here is terminology!


“Cornish hen,” the term I thought would be a “shoo-in” to exemplify Cornishness in popular culture and the lenition of feminine singular adjectives in Irish grammar, turns out to be a “shoo-out.”  The situation’s not straightforward at all.  One might think we’d simply use “cearc” (hen) plus “Chornach” (the feminine form of the adjective).  Mícheart (incorrect)!  First of all, this cearc goes by at least four other names (Cornish game hen, poussin, Rock Cornish hen, and Rock Cornish), thickening the plot considerably.  Secondly, it may refer to a specially bred chicken, slaughtered young and designed for one serving.  It isn’t a game bird and can be male or female, so isn’t always a “hen.”  Furthermore, the French word “poussin,” sometimes equated with “Cornish hen,” has two meanings in English, being the “Cornish game hen” in U.S. English and referring to an even smaller and younger bird in U.K. English.  So aside, from noting that the “Rock” element refers to Plymouth Rock, highlighting Cornish Rock’s American origin, I will respectfully bail out of this attempt to Gaelicize Cornish hens.  One might think that the Cornish hen was an indigenous breed, small in size to adapt to the rugged terrain in which it lived, like Kerry and Dexter cattle or Shetland ponies, ach ní mar sin atá sé (that’s not how it is).  Fascinating in their own right, those animals will be featured i mblag éigin eile. 


So what’s left to exemplify the adjective “Cornach” in context?  Our last place name feature added the tasty element of crêpes, the Breton specialty.  Although I don’t know of any North American bialanna (restaurants) specializing in Cornwall’s famous culinary creation, the Cornish pasty, we can at least offer the Irish name for it, pastae Cornach.  These pastries were stuffed with meat, potatoes and other vegetables.  They have a folded-over crust and were thus distinguished from pióga feola (meat pies).  Their shape supposedly made it safe for miners to eat their lunch, since they couldn’t always clean the coal dust, which might contain arsenic, off their hands.  According to tradition, the miners discarded the corner of the pastry, which they had touched with their fingers, saying it was for the “knockers.”  


 Yes, those are the same supernatural beings who loosely provided the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers.  They would warn miners of possible disasters, at least, one presumes, if you kept them well fed with pasty crusts.  One of these days, I’ll have to check King’s novel, to see if he feeds them properly!


And if you are in North America and want to sample pastaetha Cornacha (that’s the plural), you can find them at special events such as the Pasty Fest in Calumet, Michigan, and special church suppers in Cornish-settled parts of Pennsylvania, such as Bangor and Pen Argyl. 


 This finishes the series of Celtic place names and identities, at least for the modern period.  One of these days we’ll practice saying, “I am an ancient Gaul,” but for the immediate future, it will probably be more practical to work on phrases such as “Gael-Mheiriceánach” (Irish-American) or Gael-Cheanadach (Irish-Canadian) and to introduce such basics as “American” and “Canadian” in their unlenited forms.  Stay tuned!  — Bhur mblagálaí, Róislín

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