The real and true name of Lelant

Maxwell Adams 2003-2006

Version 2 October 2006

A sign at the entrance to our village is in Cornish and says Lannanta. I suppose some people might be led to believe that is the way the Cornish-speaking people spelt and said the place name fifteen hundred years or so ago. Well, we simply don't know what the people who founded this village called it or how they said it. We don't even know when they founded it or who they were. Most likely they didn't write the name down because they couldn't write.

There is no entry for Lelant in the national Domesday Survey of 1086. The first written record of the village name appears to be in about 1170, far too late for us to be reasonably sure about the name's derivation (Archives of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral number 3762, page 54). The word is spelt in 1170 Lananta, with one middle N unlike the Cornish name sign in our village which has two. The name is perhaps made from two parts: lan or lann, probably meaning a religious enclosure, and anta, usually said to be the name of a Christian missionary-settler. We cannot even be sure about this two-part explanation or whether there was such a person as Anta. And we don't know what this place was called before the supposed arrival of Anta. We don't know why the church is named after Uny and the village after Anta.

The village name appears in several medieval/mediaeval documents thereafter and is spelt/spelled in about a dozen different ways that I have counted so far. The most common spelling is Lananta. Four-fifths of the medieval instances have lan with only one middle N and a varying ending in A or E. Beware: I've not yet seen any of the original medieval documents; I'm relying here on transcriptions and they might be miscopied. It will take me a long time to look at the originals which have survived.

So there is a hotchpotch of spellings of our village name in the Middle Ages. Altogether a dozen different ways of spelling the name, and about a score of different ways if we count the spellings in the Tudor years as well. And there might be more that I haven't come across yet. How would you decide which of so many different spellings to put on the present Cornish name sign?

Now variety in spelling is a common feature in English until well into the eighteenth century so there is nothing unusual in this Lelant spelling hotchpotch. Writers had a freedom in spelling which we feel we don't have unless we are advertisers and, for example, William Worcester in 1478 spells Lelant in several different ways in his notes (Worcester 1478). So whatever goes on Lelant's Cornish name plate, there will be other different and valid spellings behind it. We can't say one is correct and the others wrong. Spelling is a human invention to approximately represent spoken sounds and a spelling is correct if enough native speakers use it.

Ah, native speakers. That's another important difficulty. Whose spellings are these anyway? Let us try to be clear. First, what we do not have. Obviously we don't have any audio recordings of villagers speaking in medieval times. And there are no bits of paper on which the medieval Lelant villagers, the people who spent all their lives here and spoke the name in their native Cornish, scribbled the name of their village for us - anyway, they mostly couldn't write. We do not have, as far as I am aware, any medieval documents written wholly in Cornish by native Cornish speakers in which our village name occurs.

So what do we have? Broadly, we have instances of the village name in medieval documents of the royal government and the church. The bulk of medieval official documents were written in Latin with some entries in French, Latin and French being later replaced by English. They were not written by native Cornish speakers in Lelant, though some of the references to the village might well be informed by local report. We have, for example, a report of 1433 in which arbitrators in a dispute came to the estuary and looked with their own eyes at the scene of the dispute and the record says Lananta (Dunstan 1966, ii, 134). Broadly, the documents were written by people whose first daily language was medieval French or medieval English or even medieval Latin, people who knew no Cornish. The scribes had to find letters to represent what they thought was the Cornish sound and word and to do that they had to use the contemporary conventions of their Latin and French and English alphabets and pronunciation and handwriting, which changed over the years. We see a similar struggle to represent English words after 1066 in Norman-French sounds and handwriting. We do not know how far the village name is Latinised, that is cast into a form which conforms to the medieval Latin spelling system, and how far it faithfully reflects the unrecorded Cornish spelling. The village was often called Uny Lelant and there is a plaintive note by George Oliver in 1846 trying to decipher the name of Uny, the church-saint, in a fourteenth century document which sums up the difficulties: "The word is spelt in the original roll with an E followed by five minims, Y, and three minims" (Oliver 1846, xxii). Something like Euniyni or Ewnyni, heaven help us.

We might well see these very various and numerous spellings of Lelant as attempts by people who did not speak Cornish to spell the village's Cornish name in Latin, though as all the spellings agree around LNT they are probably close approximations to the local word. However, in what sense is any of them a genuine, unmediated medieval Cornish spelling?

Behind the spellings are a village people talking. However much we strain our ears, we cannot hear them clearly. The spellings only suggest, only approximate to, the spoken word. We don't surely know how the pronunciation of the village name changed over the medieval years. The nearest we can get to probable truth is that Lannanta, the spelling on the sign, is a spelling in medieval Latin and English like all the others. Of course there was a real and used spoken Cornish word behind it (and the other spellings of the name), but we cannot know what this reality was with certainty though it probably sounded very like the spellings.

So there are several difficulties which we have to face. The written history begins only round 1150 and we don't know how the name fared before that. The name was spelt in a number of different ways in the middle ages and Lannanta, the name on the present village sign, is unrepresentative of these. The spellings were not written by Lelant villagers or by other native Cornish speakers. We don't surely know how the native Lelanters said the name or how they would have spelt it if they could, though we have a realistic idea.

There is another difficulty. All but one of these medieval spellings are agreed on the beginning of the name as LAN or LEN or LANN, whatever follows. The present spelling is universally Lelant. There has been a change in the third letter from N to L. I find the explanation that I have seen for this, assimilation, unconvincing, and, if there were contemporary comments on the change, they do not appear to have survived. The change does not appear to reflect any English language influence. It is difficult to date the change precisely but for some years the two pronunciations, with N or L, would probably exist side by side in Lelant, perhaps different generations using different pronunciations, perhaps fashion playing a part. As far as I can see, the first surviving writing with L is in 1478 (Worcester 1478). In the compositio, dated around 1500, setting out the agreement for the chapel for Anta, the village name is spelled both Lanante and Lalant (DRO Bishop Redmayne's Register). The L form starts to be common in the second half of the sixteenth century and by the 1600s is vastly predominant. Matthews records several references to Lelant in the late sixteenth century from the borough accounts of St Ives, the first in 1573 (Matthews 1892, 145). All these St Ives references have an L and not an N as the third letter of the name. Presumably the spelling followed after the change in the spoken language, reflecting what was happening there, so I think we can say that villagers were pronouncing the name with an L in the middle in the first half of the sixteenth century and perhaps before.

We are back to native speakers again because we have evidence that suggests that in the late sixteenth century the villagers of Lelant still spoke Cornish rather than English as their first language (Henderson 1958, 300). This suggests strongly that the change to Lelant was made by people whose native language was Cornish. The village name is spelt Lalant (or variations of this, all with a middle L) often in the borough accounts of St Ives of the 1500s and this must represent a local and native Cornish pronunciation (Matthews 1892). The spelling change must represent a distinguishable change in pronunciation. Lelant then is the Cornish villagers' word for the village and it has been the Cornish name since at least the 1500s.

Lelant is the Cornish word used by the last native Cornish speakers in our village.

We aren't talking just about language. The question thrown up by our village sign is basically, Whose Cornish counts? and that is definitely an ideological question not a language one. Whose language counts, that of ordinary villagers or distant scribes or modern enthusiasts? The last Cornish speakers or speakers at an earlier date? How sure are we of the way native Cornish speakers of any time ordinarily spoke and wrote in the past? Are purity and corruption legitimate concepts in language history, or are they a serious misunderstanding of how languages and cultures work and change?

So at the end of it all what is the real and true Cornish name for Lelant? Ah well, truth, said Oscar Wilde, is rarely pure and never simple. He must have had Lelant in mind.


DRO: Devon Record Office,Bishop Redmayne's Register 1496-1501 Chanter 12, folio 12 verso

DUNSTAN GR (ed) (1966) The register of Edmund Lacy, Bishop of Exeter (Volume 2) Devon and Cornwall Record Society, Exeter

Exeter Cathedral Archives, Archives of the Dean and Chapter, number 3762, page 54. In an email of 5 September 2006 the cathedral archivist confirmed the spelling Lananta in about 1170 in these archives.

HENDERSON Charles (1958) 'The ecclesiastical antiquities of one hundred and nine parishes of west Cornwall: Lelant' in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1958 but written in 1923-24. The 1170 reference to Lelant is on page 297. The Cornish language reference is on page 300 and is to a case in the consistory court in 1572 and it is also cited in HENDERSON Charles Calendars 10, 229-230 (at the RIC).

MATTHEWS JH (1892) A history of the parishes of St Ives, Lelant, Towednack, and Zennor Elliott Stock, London. Lelant in various forms but all with a middle l appears on pages 145, 149, 150, 153, 157, 167, 170, 237, 240, and 253 for example.

OLIVER George (1846) Monasticon dioecesis Exoniensis PA Hannaford, Exeter and Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. A copy at Morrab Library includes supplements.

WORCESTER William (1478) Itinerary. A copy is in Supplementary papers at the back of volume 4 of POLSUE Joseph (1872) Lake's parochial history of the county of Cornwall Lake, Truro. Reprinted 1974 by EP Publishing, Wakefield. Lelant references are at pages 98, 104, and 105 in this edition. Lelant is spelt Lallant, Lananta, and Lalant by Worcester..


A list of examples of the various spellings of the name of Lelant is found in GOVER JEB (1948) The place names of Cornwall (typescript at CRO)

The form lann which was used on the village sign as that, and not lan, was considered by the Cornish language advisers to Penwith District Council to be the Cornish word. Lann appears in PADEL OJ (1985) Cornish place-name elements English Place-Name Society, Nottingham. Though it does not mention Lelant, it discusses lann as a hypothecated Cornish word, that is, a form which has not been found as a separate word in a text.

This is a list of the forms of the name in various centuries:
12th century: Lananta
13th: Lananta, Lanante, La Nante, Lannante, Lannantha,
14th: Lanant, Lananta, Lanante, Lanantha, Lanaunt, Lannante, Lenant, Lenanta,
15th: Lanant, Lananta, Lenanta, Lalant, Lallant
16th: Lananta, Lanante, Lanantt, Lanaunt, Lannant, Lenant, Lalant, Lalante, Lelant, Lelante, Lelaunt

The 1291 taxatio appears to spell the name Lauvanta, Lavanta, Lananta, and Lamanta (JH DENTON et al).