Saturday, July 25, 2009

Celtic Languages: Cornish

There are 300 fluent speakers of Cornish--the Celtic dialogue of Cornwall--left, and they're working hard to ensure the language doesn't die. So says Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times on July 25, 2009. He quotes a native speaker relaying a folktale:

"Y'n termyn eus passys, 'th era tregas yn Selevan den ha benyn yn tyller cries Chi an Hordh. . . . "

Which sounds a lot like "In termenus passeus thur trigus 'n sleven..." You can hear it on the
Times site--just go to the insert.

The Cornish language was saved from near-death in the early 20th century, when scholar Henry Jenner gave a speech before the Celtic Congress, which was dedicated to preserving Celtic Culture. They had not accepted Cornish as a Celtic language, but all assembled spoke either Welsh, Irish, or Breton--all indisputably Celtic tongues. Jenner gave the speech in Cornish, and everyone understood. Ta-da!

Since Cornwall is in the utter south of England, and just north of ancient Gaul (France), it makes sense that their language, like Irish and the others, would share common words--enough to be mutually comprehensible.

Scholars like Simon James and Peter Berresford Ellis are in agreement on this much, at least: that Celtic was an Indo-European language (as were Latin and Greek and Sanskrit) that broke into several separate languages. The "Gaulish" tongue is largely lost--we know only a few hundred words. The language of Celtic Iberia is likewise a mystery. But several places managed to hold onto their language, like Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and yes--Cornwall.

Parts of Brittany also hold onto a Celtic language: Breton. The history of that tongue is unique. Although Brittany was considered part of ancient Gaul around 2,000 years ago, the Roman conquest and subsequent Romanization of the area did it damage--how much is up for debate. Many folks fled to southern England when the Romans moved in, and took their language with them.

Five hundred years later, migration moved in the other direction. Invading Anglo Saxons drove a lot of folks from Cornwall back to Brittany, with their version of Celtic-speak. The Breton language to day is derived from that--from Cornish--and not from ancient Gaulish.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Spinning at the Ren Faire

Ha! I knew I had pictures of spinning somewhere! This is from the 2006 Renaissance Faire near Irwindale, CA. The lady--she seems too demure to be called a wench--is holding a spindle in her right hand.

In the first picture, she's wrapping the spun thread around it. The spindle is actually upside down; when she gives it a flick and lets it go (as described in the previous post), the weighted end will be down and the little hook--which appears to be at the bottom now--will be at the top.

In fact, that's exactly how the spindle is positioned in the second picture. The reason that I went with a different picture to begin with is that it just seemed very rude to chop the lady's head off when she really did not do anything deserving of such a fate.

In the second picture, you can also see the distaff tucked in her belt--or maybe pocket. This stick holds the prepared wool. In the 21st century renaissance, the wool is all even, sparkly white, and lovely. In Ye Real Olde Days, the clumps of wool were not so nice looking.

Why am I writing about spinning? Well, this is what women did in Gaul and in almost all European lands. Spindle weights are found all over Europe, as are weaving looms or the remnants of looms. And where there's looms, there's got to be thread, which implies spinning. Some of the looms are over 5,000 years old. The stone weights are a little harder to date, I think, because stones can only be dated in context with other goods found near them--they're not organic, so no radio-carbon dating.

If you're writing about a woman in Gaul, or in any pre-Renaissance setting, she probably spent her day spinning. Even the wealthy.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Spinning Thread

You've heard the Carl Sagan quote: "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."

Well. In the days before the Renaissance, say, 1400 A.D. and previous, in order to have a dress to wear, you must first domesticate sheep.

Then sheer them, clean and prepare the wool, and spin it into thread. Then gather a lot of thread together, fasten some of it to a loom, and weave the rest crosswise through it, until you had a length of cloth. Then and only then, could you think about fitting that cloth onto your body for warmth and modesty and decoration.

For thousands of years, women spun thread All Day Long. Every day. They spun thread while they watched the babies, talked with their friends, walked around, looked for food. They stopped spinning long enough to stir the stew or skin the rabbit for dinner, and maybe they stopped while they slept (but they still dreamt about spinning, I bet).

It must have been as natural as breathing, for thousands of years. If you didn't spin, you had no clothes. Simple as that.

This picture shows a Greek woman spinning thread, and it sits outside a display showing a dozen weights that fit onto the spindle. Those weights held the spindle down. (The spinning wheel didn't come along until the 14th century or so.) The long wooden stick with fuzzy wool is called a distaff. A woman tucked the distaff into her belt or someplace handy, and plucked clumps of fiber from it, twisting them in her fingers to make thread.

Periodically, she gave the spindle a flick, like you would a toy top. As it spun, the new thread spun. The weight kept the spindle from swinging erratically, and when it touched the ground--when you'd spun out a few feet of thread, iow--you wrapped the new thread around the spindle and flicked it again.

If you ever go to a Renaissance Faire or something similar you'll see it. Fingers get very clever, and the process goes quickly--especially if you have to do it day and night. Just keep grabbing and twisting those fibers together into thread, and the spindle with its weight will keep twirling and stretching the thread out just so.

I wonder if spinning was stress-relieving? and if a woman developed carpel tunnel syndrome or got arthritic...yowch. Let's hope someone else stepped in before she had to run around naked!