5 April 2011

It is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage: William Caxton, 1490

Let me begin with William Caxton’s story about eggs. He tells it in the preface to his book Eneydos written at the end of the fifteenth century.

Their boat becalmed in the Thames, some English merchants landed in Kent to buy supplies. One them “axyd after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wolde have hadde egges and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde have eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understod hym wel.”

Caxton went on to lament: “Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage”.

I was reminded of Caxton’s eggs (and the 500-years-old English of his account) when I heard that the whole bible, both old and new testaments, has recently been translated into reconstructed and revived Cornish (KS version). Other translations of various parts of the bible into Cornish have also been made, mainly in the KK version of Cornish as far as I can see.

This Cornish bible translation is a massive achievement and the writer and publisher deserve praise. There are some predictable ripples. As you know there are fifty seven varieties of the reconstructed/revived language though it is used fluently by very few people among the half a million people of Cornwall; we’re talking handfuls not battalions. No, I’m not going through that again: read the earlier posts (links at the bottom of this one) if you really wish to know.

Apparently even the Cornish word for “bible” is disputed.

For the present reconstructed/revived Cornish is going to have to live with its fifty seven. It will have to live with Caxton’s eggs. If it survives, in time a broad consensus of language, embracing some degree of variety, should be established among users but Caxton’s bugbears, change and diversity in all aspects of language, though more slowly and less exuberantly in spelling, are inherent in living languages.

Whether the contents of the bible – “Their infants shall be dashed in pieces and their women with child shall be ripped up” – are wholly worth translating into any language, including English, is a different question. I’m afraid I think it’s like a natural history of troubled unicorns in sixty six volumes.

The bible translation is the third piece of good news about language recently. There has been an update of the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the master work of English lexicography, and accessible for free on line with many library cards, including the Cornwall one; and at Iklaina, Greece they have found a clay tablet with writing on dating from 1450-1350 BCE/BC, the oldest writing yet known in Europe. This is before there was what we should call either a recognisably Cornish or an English language.

Earlier posts about the Cornish language

Kernewek mashup 15 February 2008

K7 25 October 2007

Their infants shall be dashed… Hosea 13.