ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCT 20, 2013
What’s in a name? Well, actually quite a lot. Our personal names are an intrinsic part of our identity. They link us to family and kin and provide stability as we meander through life. In similar fashion, placenames are an important part of the identity of a place. Woven into the texture of everyday mobility, they become a familiar part of who we are and bear a message to us from our past. With a little effort and their help we can unravel the history of our landscape and the heritage built by past generations.
These days our villages and towns are being extended by new streets and developments. Sometimes these are named in the Cornish language, as were 80% or so of traditional placenames. But more often than not they’re given a name that wouldn’t be out of place in the most English parts of England. These come as a horrible shock when we encounter them in a Cornish context, mocking the former distinctiveness of our land.
Take Taylor Wimpey’s development at the old Richard Lander school site at Truro. This has been given the crass name of Woodleigh Grange, a name more suitable for Kent than Cornwall. Up the road we have the Persimmons development at the grammatically and semiotically challenged Lowen Bre. Take your choice – names straight from English suburbia or tokenism that makes a brief nod towards the Cornish language before transforming it into a laughing stock.
Most developers plump for the former as the steady rise in new housing is accompanied by a renewed wave of anglicisation. There’s a phrase to describe this – cultural colonisation. Because names are also about power – the power to make a landscape in the image of those who do the naming. This is why the Celtic names of Devon were replaced wholesale by English names in the first millennium. The survival of Cornish names in Cornwall indicates also that the Cornish survived. Now that survival is blurred by this new wave of English names being imposed on our settlements.
What lessons does cultural colonisation hold for us?
First, it shows how Cornwall Council’s planners are powerless to influence developers in their choice of names, despite quietly negotiating the sale of our land. The Council now has a bilingual signage policy but this is toothless when it comes to the ability (or desire?) to stop monstrosities such as Woodleigh Grange. No doubt this development will get its shiny new street signs with a Cornish ‘translation’. But adding something like Tregoose ( or more likely, given the twee medievalism of MAGA’s signage gurus, something more like Penquite) merely legitimates the original insult.
Second, it tells us that the big construction companies regard Cornwall as indistinct from Surrey, or anywhere else in England. Their casual trashing of our linguistic heritage is more than just ignorance or forgetfulness. Giving places names like Woodleigh Grange makes it easier to market the houses upcountry as it’ll make the new residents, presumably the majority hailing from up the line, feel comfortably at home.
Third, the fact that developers can so easily get away with this cultural colonisation says a lot about our own condition. It highlights the pathetic level of our resistance as our land is transformed in front of our every eyes. There ought to be uproar; Taylor Wimpey should be pilloried in the press; the planners and councillors who allowed this to happen should be cowering away to escape the wrath of an outraged people. But no. This insult is thrust in front of us every time us zombies make our shopping/commuting trips to Truro. I guess it just shows how culturally colonised we already are.