Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, pick a more original picture, but this keeps in mind those that have never seen this flag before. Introducing, dear friends and followers and curious people, the flag of Brittany!
Time for me to be honest, I get vexed whenever I see a “reasons to learn popular language” post, as if they needed any more reason aside from being from (usually) very politically powerful and/or rich countries.
So this series is my response, and I’ll start with one of my favorite languages to sing in…
“You’re learning what…?”
Too often people will rule out potential languages to learn if they have to explain what it is to most people.
You have one life.
I understand if you may not want to spend even a small portion of that life doing a certain something.
But if you do have a desire, however small, to learn a language that most people in your community don’t even know exist, then…DO IT ANYWAY!
But you haven’t come here for my opinions, you’ve come here to learn about Breton (or maybe you just want to know what it is!)
What is Breton?
Breton is a Celtic Language native to Brittany, which is the area of France directly across from the English Channel. That peninsula sticking out westward towards the sea? That’s it.
But if you go to Britanny nowadays, you’ll hear mostly French spoken on the street, the reason for that being the same as why you’d hear mostly English rather than Irish in Dublin.
That said, there are movements for the revitalization of the Breton language, and there are a lot of people who know it natively (at least 100,000 people!), but most of these are older people (born in the 1950’s or so).
So given the current demographics, and despite the existence of the Diwan school network (which you can read about here), there is some cause for worry.
But luckily you, dear traveler, can help!
And if you want to hear it spoken, feel free to scroll down where you’ll encounter folk songs and heavy metal (no, not making this up!)
If you want to see it written, feel free to look at some of the links as well as Breton Wikipedia here.
And No. 6 on this list will have exciting ways for you to use the language while having fun!
Why Should I Learn Breton?
- Breton played a key role in the history of Britain and France
Bretons were essential in turning the tide of victory to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, one that ultimately decided the future of the world’s most powerful language today.
After the Normans defeated the Saxons and set up “house” in England, Bretons migrated from across the English Channel to Cornwall, making the Celtic languages there, especially Cornish, more similar to Breton.
The Celts played a role in influencing both Britain and France, and their influence in turn has been spread over the entire world, despite the fact that all Celtic languages alive today are endangered. Enya’s “March of the Celts” describes them as “Beo go deo / Marbh go deo” (Irish for “Alive forever / Dead Forever”), and ever since hearing these words, I’ve noticed that the not-completely-subtle-nor-completely-invisible influence of Celtic Languages and Cultures has spread throughout the entire globe.
Brittany is no exception, and among some well-known people of Breton heritage you may have heard of are Jack Kerouac and Charles de Gaulle, both of whom used the language at various points. (General de Gaulle’s uncle was a Breton poet! De Gaulle = V’ro Chall. Bro C’hall = Gaul Country = France)
Brittany continues to play a role in popular culture in the Francophone world the same way that Scotland does in the Anglophone world. What’s more, people with Breton names live in all continents, by virtue of the fact that France actually has territory in more time zones than Russia does (!!!)
- Like Singing but Can’t Play Instruments? Breton is for you!
Almost all of the Breton music I have heard sounds equally fantastic when sung solo as it would be on highly produced recordings.
If you like Open Mic nights and want to impress people with something exotic and memorable, getting to know Breton music for a while would be highly worth your time!
Denez Prigent (his last name is pronounced as in French), best known for songs of his that were featured in works of American popular culture such as “Black Hawk Down” and “South Park”, learned Breton from his grandfather and has since become a powerful voice of Breton music.
This is the song that was featured in both of these works, and I know it isn’t particularly creative of me to include it, but I have to include it because some of you may have that “wow, I actually know this song from somewhere”. Lyrics and information in the description of the video:
(This song has since been covered dozens of times as well, and I highly recommend you check out Denez Prigent’s other albums, “Irvi” and “Sarac’h”, some songs are very helpful for advanced beginners, others are quite arcane, however…)
And for those seeking something more energetic and wondering. “Cool…got any heavy metal?”
This is for you (title translates to “The Sailors are Dead”, one thing you’ll notice about Breton is that, like Ye Olde English, the sentence structure actually reads “Dead are the Sailors”. I’m also curious if I’m the only one that thinks of the NES game “Zelda II” when I listen to this):
I’ve found myself genuinely a changed man as a result of Breton music. What’s more, because I am a synagogue cantor as well as (insert my other six odd jobs here), I’ve found inspiration in the a capella melodies of many a Breton singer.
What’s more Alan Stivell, the godfather of Breton music nowadays, is Jewish via his mother’s side (!)
Don’t lie! You’ve heard that melody before! (“Son ar Chistr” = the Cider Song, has to be the only drinking song I’ve found included in a phrasebook [!]).
This song’s melody has been included in various other pop songs all over the world, and is a Breton melody from the 1920’s (if I recall correctly).
One of those tunes that stays with you forever, isn’t it?
- The amount of public domain songs that exist in Breton is staggeringly high!
Do you like singing?
Even if you don’t like singing, do you want to use classical and vaguely familiar songs in your creative work?
Lots and lots of Breton songs are out there, waiting to be discovered!
As well as heart-rending poetry that YOU may be the next great translator of!
Putting this in google.fr set to Breton and clicking on “Ar Voul zo Ganin!” gets me this:
And that’s just 101.
- Standard Breton pronunciation is straightforward
To the very untrained ear, Breton and French are spoken with identical registers. Not surprising. I tell people who aren’t aware of what Breton is that “Breton is almost like Welsh spoken in a French accent” (even though Cornish is a lot closer, actually).
While there are some tricky sounds, including the c’h that is actually pronounced as a separate letter from “ch” (c’h = guttural sound like “Bach”, ch = sh sound in English), as well as some consonants/vowels that disappear in spoken speech (think New Englanders not pronouncing t’s) as well as shenanigans with the “ñ” sound (you’ll see this letter at the end of words in Breton), vowels are straightforward and diphthongs, while also slightly tricky, don’t take long to get used to.
Accented syllables are almost pronounced as two, and look for these on the penultimate syllable.
An iliz = the church. To be pronounced “on “ee-ee-leez”.
So much fun!
What’s more, there is at least one Breton-Language song I am aware of that is generally available in karaoke outlets in France. Probably one of the most recognizable Celtic songs on the planet, actually!
- By learning Breton, You Take a Stand Against Cultural Assassination
There are those that say that Breton has the distinction of being the one language in human history that dropped in usage more quickly than ANY other!
If you can read French, have a look at some of these chilling quotes under the section: “Les langues ne meurent pas toutes seules…” (Languages don’t die by themselves)
I’ll translate a few of them for you:
“For the linguistic unity of France, it is necessary that the Breton Language disappear
“There is no place for regional languages and cultures in a France that must make its mark upon Europe”
“A rule that I would never bend: not a word of Breton, neither in class nor at recess”
“Keep in mind, gentlemen, that you have only been put in place in order to kill the Breton Language”
I will spare you the rest of them.
It may or may not be “your” culture, but if you can play “doctor” to someone else’s culture or language, it will give you an extraordinary warm feeling of satisfaction knowing that you are, in this critical moment in time, taking the side of those who have been unfairly treated.
- Despite the fact that the Republic of France declares French the sole official language of the country, the opportunities to use Breton will grow despite of, or perhaps because, of this policy.
And while history can’t be undone, I think that people everywhere are more open to the idea of reviving and nourishing cultures that have been suppressed. And even within France, there are a lot of initiatives, from bottom to top, encouraging the usage of Breton and furthering its publicity.
Even if you are a not a native speaker, you can help! Let people know about the Breton Language, its music, its poetry, and the cultural aspects that may not seem as foreign to the ordinary American / Frenchman / Brit / (anyone else) as he or she may imagine.
The curiosity you spark in other people may very well start their journeys, and it is likely that you may have a deeper impact on creating cultural awareness than you realize!
Last year, one of Denez Prigent’s songs was featured on an episode of South Park (I found out this out at a Jewish youth event in Brooklyn, of all places…), and that by itself caused a lot of people to become curious. You may not be an extraordinary pop culture icon (yet), but you can still do something!
There will come a day in which Breton will come to Google Translate (as it already has come to Minecraft and to Mozilla Firefox, in complete translations, no less!). There may even come more impressive and unforeseen victories still.
Wouldn’t you like to be a part of that, and proudly say to your friends and family members that you helped make it happen?
Your boat, ready to take off for an exciting journey into Breton / Brezhoneg, that will forever change you. Note: this is Sweden, not Brittany. Sorry about that!