Surnames and the Cornish language

Bynames and family names tell us a lot about the historical geography of the Cornish language. But first what’s the context? When did bynames, changing from one generation to the next, become stable surnames, passed down from generation to generation. In England there was a long transitional phase, from around 1250 to the 1400s, during which second names became fixed. This occurred first in the south east and in the wealthier sections of society and then spread later to the north and to the poor.

In the Cornish lay subsidy roll of 1327, 94% of those taxpayers who bore local placenames as their second names were living in the parish where that place was found. This strongly suggests that, even among the landowning class, in 1327 in Cornwall fixed surnames were rare. By the time the next relatively comprehensive list of names is available – in the early 1500s – virtually all families in England possessed hereditary surnames.

But not in Cornwall. In the 16th century second names in Cornwall could still be fluid, liable to change from father to son (and daughter). Charles Henderson discovered the example of the Thomas family at Carnsew, Mabe, who in the 1580s decided to call themselves Carnsew. A century later they’d moved to the neighbouring parish of Budock and the alias of Carnsew had become their family name. This practice of adopting new surnames when moving house was apparently not uncommon. From the Arundell estate papers, Oliver Padel cites the example of Walter John Jago in 1480, whose family name had became Trethowall by 1499. As late as the 1570s Pascow Kerne at Newlyn East changed his name to Pascoe Tresylyan. For Padel, this illustrates a ‘fondness for having as a surname the name of one’s residence’. Maybe, although we must also note that the proportion of families bearing such local names as their surnames in Cornwall was not exceptionally high, lower than in Yorkshire and Lancashire for instance.

Although some families had hereditary surnames by the later 1400s, in the 16th century many others still hadn’t. The reason why in Cornwall bynames did not become hereditary for many families until the 16th century was that Cornwall was a land of two tongues. In Wales in the 15th century Bruce Lenman notes a convoluted ethnic frontier, and significantly adds, ‘not to mention a lesser one of the same kind in Cornwall where a Celtic tongue was still widely spoken’.

It’s precisely because of the existence of two vernaculars that naming customs in parts of Cornwall differed from those in England. In Devon, it’s been estimated that hereditary surnames were the norm by 1350; in Wales this wasn’t the case until the 1600s. However, in Cornwall, both English and Welsh naming practices could be found. In the east of Cornwall there is little reason to assume that hereditary surnames were uncommon by 1400. Indeed, in Werrington, on the border, most families had hereditary surnames by the 1360s. But in the west, reflecting that ethnic frontier, an unknown percentage of second names were still unstable well into the 16th century and perhaps later, this proportion probably highest among the poorest.

If this was the case we might expect many people’s second names in the west in the early 16th century to have meant what they said. If someone was called Miller, they were a miller; if their name was White, they would have had a pale face or light coloured hair. And in parishes where Cornish was spoken their names may actually have been Melender or Angwin, miller and white in Cornish. Sometimes, not always, these names would have been written into the record in their original Cornish form.

Sure enough, in the 16th century lay subsidies we find a number of specifically Cornish names. Some were distinctive patronymics. Higow, Doggow, Daddow, Clemow and Sandow were the equivalent of Hicks, Dodge, Davies, Clements and Sanders, the suffix -ow indicating son of. Sometimes the suffix -a is found, as in Holla (son of Hal/Henry?), Matta, Tomma or Jacka, these names significantly being restricted to the west. Although the latter two at least could also be found in earlier centuries in English-speaking Devon and may either indicate a conservatism in naming practices or a tendency to add -a to borrowed English words.

Higow C16As an example, the distribution of Higow or Hicka, the Cornish for Richard, in the early 16th century shows a definite western emphasis. By 1641 however, instead of ramifying as most names did, the number of Higows had declined. Higgo could still be found, mainly in Helston and Gwennap, in the 18th century but by the 19th century it had disappeared. Some Higgoes may have become Hugo, and others would have transformed their names into the English Hicks. While Higow (and Doggow) became extinct, others such as Jacka or Gummow survived to become hereditary surnames.

Higgow 1641



A better guide to identifying where the Cornish language was spoken in the early 1500s may be provided by nicknames. In fact a rich set of Cornish nicknames circulated at this time.

Some Cornish nicknames in the 1500s

Abas (Abbot) Envelyn (yellow) Mana (Monk)
Anglasse (Green) Enwore (Gold) Marrack (Knight)
Angwin (White) Epscop (Bishop) Melonek (yellowish)
Anhere (Long) Ergudyn (snowlock) Scovarn (ear)
Coynt (strange) Gotha (elder/senior) Sise (English)
Cunnack (Wise) Gothewer (evening) Taborer (drummer)
Duwyn (Grey?) Gwaryack (playful) Tegaw (Toy)
Endean (Mann) Hegar (friendly) Tege (beautiful)
Endeves (Mutton) Kembra (Welsh) Vean (junior)

marrack C16Most of these were only borne by a handful of families and did not become hereditary, and have therefore unfortunately been lost. A few, like Marrack, survived. Some doubts have been expressed about the Cornish origins of this name. However, its distribution in 1861 suggests a West Penwith focus, while in the 16th century we can see that it was more widely encountered but only west of Truro. Overall, nicknames were in general in the early 16th century more likely to be found in Penwith and Kerrier, with some finding their way into east Cornwall.

Occupational names are an even better guide to the geography of the Cornish language at this time. Of the following occupational names only Angove (the most common) and Trehar (Trahair) survived to become hereditary surnames. That reinforces the conclusion that such bynames in the early 16th century meant what they said and were not yet hereditary surnames. No doubt, as the transition to fixed surnames was made in parallel with the spread of English, names like Trehar would tend to be translated into their English equivalents.

Some Cornish occupational names in the 1500s

Angoffe (Smith) Mablean (Clark) Trehar (Tailor)
Dreveler (Mason) Melender (Miller) Trockyer (Fuller)
Gweader (Weaver) Meneger (Glover) Tyar (Thatcher)
Kegoer (Butcher) Pebar (Baker)

angove and smith early C16The distribution of Engoff/Angoff and Smith in the early 16th century might suggest where Cornish was likely to be the language of choice. Note however that Smith was hardly unknown in mid and west Cornwall. To some extent, this is to be expected, as those who wrote down the record would have been literate in English and only rarely in Cornish and may have, wittingly or unwittingly, translated the spoken Cornish Engoff into its higher status English version when writing it down. Given the inferior status of Cornish it’s hardly surprising that English occupational names were also widely found in Cornish-speaking areas. This does not necessarily mean that their bearers were English-speakers however.

If we combine together all Cornish language names of all types we get this map.

total Cornish names 1520s

This suggests the Cornish language was spoken up to Rumford, the area west of Bodmin and Tywardreath, with an ambiguous zone between the Camel and the Fowey. The division reflects a long-lasting linguistic frontier which was in place probably from the early 14th century to the 17th century and which moulded the history of Cornwall, even leaving its traces in the modern cultural landscape.

This conclusion is supported by other evidence. Oliver Padel has noted the presence of two-part surnames. Someone called Richard John Tomkin for instance might have a son, who would then be called Uryn Richard John, an echo of Welsh naming practices. Sometimes the final part of the name was a placename, as in the case of Jenkin Tom Hellas (Helston), who lived at Penryn in 1543. If two-part surnames in the early 1500s are mapped, we see something very similar to the map of Cornish language names.

two part surnames C16

As bynames became surnames relatively late in the west, there was a tendency for a high proportion to be patronymic. This explains the frequency of patronymic surnames in Cornwall, as in Wales. Indeed, a map of the three most common Cornish surnames in 1861 – Williams, Thomas and Richards – can be viewed as a ghost of the geography of Cornish in the 1500s and 1600s. (The relatively high proportion in the Liskeard and Calstock districts was the result of the migration of miners eastwards.) As Robert Morton Nance put it ‘Cornish [locative] surnames may record only the loot, by a Norman, of the estate of a Saxon, who dispossessed the heir of a Cornishman, who founded it and gave it his own name with Tre- before it; while the Cornish founder’s heirs may still walk among us bearing perhaps, like so many Celts in Wales, some name such as Williams, Thomas or Richards.’

wms rds thos 1861

Cornish language locative surnames are therefore not a good guide to the geography of the Cornish language. This is because placenames were formed many centuries before surnames became hereditary and are as likely to be Cornish in the east as in the west (with the exception of the far north beyond the River Ottery and stretches along the Tamar downstream). Indeed, Oliver Padel has found that in 1327 there was little difference in the proportion of locative surnames between the west and east of Cornwall. Yet that had changed radically by the early 16th century. In the 1500s the Cornish-speaking west had a considerably higher number of locative surnames than did the east. Moreover, the transition was not gradual but exhibited a sudden, sharp discontinuity in mid-Cornwall. This discontinuity came precisely at that line running from the Camel southwards through St Wenn and Luxulyan to St Blazey. Clearly this has to be evidence for different naming practices in east and west, reflecting cultural divisions within Cornwall in the 1500s.

cornish language locative names C16

5 thoughts on “Surnames and the Cornish language

  1. My ancestors in the 1850s lived in St Just and Penzance. They were called Gard, however they also seem to refer to themselves as Safeguard and then San Garde. They moved from Cornwall to Liverpool. Why would they change their surname? Was it common practice at this time? Thanks.

    • Changing surnames is unusual as late as the 19th century but use of aliases was common and it was not unknown for surnames to be swapped over the generations. This could be an example of preferring an alias.It could have been a status thing – maybe they throught a longer surname was posher? As a surname Gard was most common in the very east of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset rather than the far west. In the early 16th century the only examples in Cornwall are found in Morwenstow and Launcells.

  2. In May 2015 you gave some talks in Madron on Cornish surnames. Is there a way to obtain a copy of the information you gave about the Trembath surname please?

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