Where Cornish was Spoken and When: a Provisional Synthesis

Where Cornish was Spoken and When: a Provisional Synthesis

By Matthew Spriggs

Cornish Studies, Vol. 11 (2003)

Introduction: Roman colonial rule in much of Britain from the mid-first century AD represented language contact as well as major changes to material culture and many other aspects of life. Latin, however, did not replace the Brittonic Celtic language of the Romanized area, although borrowings did occur. In contrast, Anglo-Saxon colonialism represented a massive and rapid case of language shift over much of England during the fifth to seventh centuries to what became Old English. Some would argue that Norman colonialism nearly represented another language shift to Norman French, but even though that did not in the end happen, Norman influence did cause significant contact-induced language change in English. One must not forget Viking settlement in the ninth and tenth centuries as another historical process having linguistic effects. This was much more localized, however, although certainly significant in affected areas.

It is interesting that only one of these colonial episodes led to complete language replacement, the language shift from a Brittonic Celtic language to Old English. This took place extremely rapidly over much of what is now England, with very few Brittonic words entering Old English at all. Although in local areas there may have been the slaughter sometimes boasted about in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, most authors now discount this as a general explanation of the situation.

The importance of the completeness of this shift from Brittonic to Old English has perhaps not been fully appreciated. It fits well, however, within the evidence of conformism seen in other aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture. Hines discusses how the use of material culture to symbolize group identity spread from its Saxon source on the continent to other Germanic-speaking areas such as those of the Angles and Jutes in about the mid-fifth century. While all these separate group identities were then carried over into Britain at that time,  he also points out that there is some evidence of hybridization with aspects of sub-Roman British material culture during the earliest period of migration, telling us something about relationships between natives and colonists.

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