Monday, 23 May 2011

Fishy Tales

I swear you could smell Nigel's fish van before you saw it.  Monday was his day and it was a safe bet that the fish so artistically arranged in the back of the van had spent a warm weekend there.  Perhaps it wasn't the fish, but Nigel's coat, spattered with scales and blood, that announced his coming.

Or perhaps it was Nigel.  For Nigel was half-man, half-fish: a bucca from the village of Newlyn - one of Britain's biggest fishing ports, a mere three miles from our farmhouse at Castallack.  Health and Safety had passed Nigel by, or not reached him yet.  But I always bought fish from Nigel because he brought something else with him as well as the fish: Cornish dialect expressions.

Even though hardly anyone speaks Cornish any more, even as a second language, the Cornish have taken everyday English and made it little short of poetic.  When they are speaking quickly, there's no way an incomer can understand them, which is probably the point.  When they are speaking slowly, Cornish-English is a revelation.

We all know the word emmet (ant) used for holidaymakers.  Most of us have heard of dreckly, the Cornish version of manana.  Most of us know proper job, meaning good.  We soon get used to hearing dear of her whenever mention is made of a child or old person (it means Ah, bless!).  Almost every woman who has been to Cornwall will have been pleased to be called my handsome, my queen, my lover.  Or, in the case of a man, greeted with orright, boy?  Wasson, old cock?  You might not be so pleased to be described as a beauty, however, since she is a woman of ill repute.  Or, if you are a man, a tuss.  Same as cock, only ruder.

Many expressions reflect the close relationship with animals in a community that is very much about farming and fishing.  How dark was it, Nigel?  Black as a dog's gut. How rich was he Nigel?  More money than a oss got shit.  Someone scritched like a winnard - a winnard being a redwing.  A clumsy person behaved like a cow handling a musket.  You might be teasy as a' adder, or rough as rats.   She 'ad a mouth like a duck's fert is self-explanatory.

The Cornish dialect is rife with double negatives.  Instead of "Would you like to buy a donkey?" a Cornishman might ask don't spose you don't know nobody what don't want no donkey, do 'ee?  Where are you two going? translates into Where you two to?  Very is always some, as in she were some teasy (pretty annoyed).

Never mind if Nigel's fish sometime smeeched a bit - his fishy tales were always proper job.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The incomer's tale

When you finally get to the end of the railway line and find yourself in Penzance, you will step blinking into the sunshine of a different world.  There's a sign at the entrance to the station which says Pensans a'gas dynergh - which means Penzance welcomes you.  At this point you might start to worry that there's a whole new language for you to learn here, and in a sense there is.  But it won't be Cornish. Only a couple of hundred people speak Cornish (as a second language) and they tend to be academics - or members of the tourist industry. 

All they had to go on when they revived the language a century ago were some mediaeval mystery plays, so "Cornish" includes lots of words that are made up, and the few speakers there are tend to argue about which of the four versions of Cornish has the correct syntax.

Cornish is a dead language.  The last person to speak it as her mother tongue died in l777.  She lived close to where I live, in a village called Paul.  There's a memorial to her there.  She even has her own poem, written in Cornish by a certain Mr Thomson of Truro.  The English translation goes like this:

Old Dolly Pentreath 100 aged and 2
Deceased and buried in Paul Parish too.....

I will spare you the rest of it.

I am an incomer, and proud of it.  I came to live in West Penwith on the very edge of Britain 27 years ago.  In London I had been an advertising copywriter, but Cornwall allowed me the right amount of space and time to be a writer.
The differentness of Cornwall is what interests and inspires me, and I will be writing about my life here in this blog.

So welcome to my blog - or Blogas a'gas dynergh, as Dolly might have said.