Five years ago today, I completed my six-month Breton language immersion program at Stumdi, in Plañvour, Brittany. Although I’d had some Breton under my belt when the program began, I felt I had very limited skill in the language–especially when I tried to speak it or understand it in conversation. My desire to be able to really speak the language had been one of the major motivators for me to pack up and move to Brittany to participate in the immersion program. And so, at the end of the six months, it was quite satisfying to know that–not only did I have a solid basic knowledge of the grammar and vocabulary–I could now hold my own in a conversation in Breton!
Skill in the Breton language was not the only thing that I gained. After six months of studying together, five days a week, 8 hours a day, with my 9 classmates, and the 10 students in our sister class next door, and the teachers who guided us through the process, I felt that I had gained a new community of friends. When I had shown up for the first day of classes, I’m pretty sure my classmates did not know what to make of me: why would an American adult pull up roots and move to a small town in Brittany, France, just to learn their local language? By the end of our six months together, they seemed to have decided I was okay, and I found myself spending my free time with a number of them. And since moving back, I’ve kept in touch with many of them to one degree or another– via mail, phone, and facebook. I’ve gone back for visits and seen some of them, which has been great, but I never have enough time on my trips to see everyone I’d like to. But to paraphrase Bogart in Casablanca, we’ll always have Plañvour.
After those six months of sweat and struggle–and laughs–we did create a bond of experience, and I feel very lucky to have gotten to know my classmates and my teachers. (The picture above is of me and a few of my classmates, dressed up for Malarde, known in the U.S. as Mardi Gras. I’m not sure who took the photo for me on my camera. The photo below is of me and some classmates and teachers, taken by Michel Thierry at the end of our graduation day hike along the Intel/Etel river.) I’m glad that at least some of us have been to be able to keep in touch. And even visit occasionally, even if it never seems to be often enough or long enough. It was an incredible time for me, and I’ll always have fond memories. Thank you, and happy anniversary, to my classmates and teachers! Bloavezh mat deoc’h, an holl stummerien hag an holl stummadurien!
As in many rural regions of the US, small towns in less-populated parts of France have difficulty finding doctors to work there. A little over a week ago, news articles started popping up–both in the French- and in the English-language media–about a village in northern Brittany (La Roche-Derrien) that had been experiencing this problem. While the issue was sadly commonplace, the solution that the village leaders had arrived at was decidedly not: La Roche-Derrien was hiring a druid healer to be the new local doctor.
Brittany, as a Celtic land, has had a long history of traditional healing, passed down from generation to generation. Friends in Brittany have told me how every area has at least one local healer. The healers don’t put a shingle out, but the locals know who it is and where to go when they need help with physical or psychic difficulties. I don’t know how many people avail themselves of the healers’ services in modern times, but clearly some do.
I myself have never been to one of these healers, so I cannot speak from personal experience about how they practice. Nor can I say whether there is commonly seen to be a connection between the druidic culture of long ago and modern-day Breton healers. But I’ve always found it admirable that traditional healing practices–and so many other traditional cultural practices–have been maintained in Brittany to this day.
But even I was skeptical of this story: would modern French bureaucracy ever permit a village to bring on a traditional healer as a town doctor? In fact, it would not. Almost immediately, this story was revealed to be a hoax carried out by the village, with the help of a PR agency, to get people’s attention because the village is in need of a town doctor and they can’t find one. They’d even hired an actor to pose as the purported druid healer to bring the story to life. I hope all the buzz that they generated helps them to solve their doctor shortage. But for many rural areas, this growing lack of local doctors is creating an increasing health crisis.
The words are so optimistic: the speakers live in a compact area and the language activism strong. You could almost mistake it for a modern essay on the state of the Breton language. Except for the slightly archaic tone. And that half of the speakers are monolingual. And the statement that there are over a million Breton speakers.
Reading this is at once inspiring and heart breaking. This text comes from Celtia journal, and was published in 1901. In just over a century, the Breton language has essentially lost 83% of its speakers–there are now around 200,000.
Language revitalization isn’t for the faint at heart. And still, so many wonderful things are going on in Brittany nowadays that are making Breton stronger.
Brittany has the advantage of the largest and
most compact Celtic language area, with its
1,300,000 Breton speakers, only half of whom
speak French at all. The Breton language
movement has, however, only comparatively
recently taken up a prominent place in the
national life and aspirations of the hardy
Bretons. The process of Gallicisation — a
ruinous policy for France as well as Brittany —
has been going far and fast of recent years.
The policy of centralisation bids fair to sap
those springs of vitality which might save
France from that "painless death" so lugu-
briously prophesied for her. But there are
signs that Brittany will have her own say in
the matter. The vigour of the new language
movement, the constant stream of new verna-
cular literature, the spirited fight for recognition
of Breton in the schools, and the steadily-
increasing number of distinguished adherents
of the Breton cause — all these elements make
us believe that the future of Breton language
and nationality is safe.
I don’t think I’ve encountered Celtia before, but thanks to a Facebook posting by Diwan Bretagne, I discovered both this paragraph and the journal. It seems to be a rich resource to those of us who work with and love the Celtic languages. To quote Celtia‘s mission statement:
Our own special task, and that to which this
Journal will be steadily devoted, is that of
fostering the mutual sympathy between the
various Celtic nationalities.
The full text of Celtia journal is available online here.