Breton then and now

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.

Published / Embannet

I sat down to update my CV tonight.  As I was working on it, I griped to J (via Skype) about that book notice that I’d written maybe four years ago–it had been accepted but had never gotten published. I wondered aloud if maybe I should just delete any reference to it, given that it seemed absurd to use the phrase “in press” year after year next to its entry on my CV. Maybe in the transition from one journal editor to another it had gotten misplaced? For a year or two, I’d dutifully checked the journal every month or so to see if my book notice was there. And it really was just a book notice, and why keep it in there, when it was never going to get published at this rate. After a while, I’d pretty much forgotten about it, except on those rare occasions when I read over my CV. And by now, four years later, the book that it was about (Europe and the politics of language: Citizens, migrants and outsiders, by Máiréad Nic Craith) was no longer new, so did it really matter?!

As J was reminding me that–while these academic publishers are not the speediest in the world–they do eventually get around to publishing things, I opened up Firefox and looked for the journal. When I got to the eLanguage homepage, I typed my name into the search box, just to prove to her that it still wasn’t there.

Except it was there. In print. Or as close as things get to actual print nowadays–online and available for all to see. And it looks like it’s actually been there for 11 1/2 months. Must have slacked on my checking for it in the last year or so. And if they wrote me last year to let me know it had been published, they undoubtedly would have used my grad school email address, which no longer exists. So that’s why I hadn’t heard from them when they’d published it. Wisely, whoever put the book notice online must have done some sort of search for me, because they inserted a link from my byline to my linkedin page.

So, I’m academically published! That feels good. Haven’t actually sat down to read it through yet, but I will read the whole thing through tomorrow, just for old time’s sake. If you’d like to take a gander at it, just click on this link to it in eLanguage. A bonus–unlike the Ya! article that I posted about the other day, this one is in English, so a little more reader-friendly for some folks.

Enklask brezhoneg / Breton quiz

I haven’t talked much about the Breton language yet, but it’s a very cool language. I enjoy learning the way it works, and discovering its occasional quirks. Here’s one quirk that we learned about recently. I’ll post it as a grammar challenge for you all today, and then I’ll go back and add in the explanation on the weekend. That’ll give you time to read and ponder the mystery. Feel free to post a guess, if you like. Here goes.

What does the following sentence mean? How would you translate it into English? (Do not dispair–there’s vocab help just below.)

Tangi zo pinvidik e vab.

Assuming that you don’t already know how to translate this particular type of sentence, have a go at it.

(Needless to say, if you happen to be already familiar with this particular quirk of the Breton language, please don’t post an answer. Email me, if you’d like.)

First of all, ‘Tangi’ is a man’s name.

The other words in this sentence mean:

zo = form of the verb ‘to be’ (COP, for the linguists out there)

pinvidik = rich

e = his

vab (i.e. mab) = son

Your turn now…. Kalon vat ! (Good luck!)



Tangi zo pinvidik e vab.

Tangi’s son is rich.

Did you get it right? I know at least some of you did, so congratulations!

Glav, glav, glav ! / Rain, rain, rain! Or, sometimes fieldwork just happens

I woke up to a ray of sunshine on my wall this morning. Exciting, given that the weather here has been three nonstop days of rain, howling winds, and dark clouds. I’ve learned here that all storms come from the west, so if I look out my bathroom window, I can see what is heading my way. I checked, and I could see a mass of heavy gray rainclouds to the west. So much for my sunshiny Sunday morning!

How to take advantage of this brief moment of heavenly rays?! I decided to do something I’ve never done before—that most quintessential of French morning activities—head out to the local boulangerie to buy a fresh baguette before breakfast. My normal breakfast is cereal, or on a lazy weekend morning, scrambled eggs; and in truth, I’ve only been to this boulangerie maybe three times before. But a quick walk one block up and back in the sunshine and before the rains hit again was reason enough for me to try something different.

People tell me that November weather is usually sunnier than this, but we’ve had a lot of rain and wind and gray days so far this month. November is called ‘the black month’ in the Breton language (miz Du), but that’s supposed to refer to the shorter days and not to the weather. My whole four-day weekend so far had pretty much been one big rain or wind storm after another—not a bad thing for a weekend of catching up on work, but I’m one of those folks who craves sunlight. I couldn’t take a chance on missing this brief moment of sunshine. So, I brushed my wild hair, threw on some clothes (not clean, perhaps, but not too dirty either), grabbed my wallet, and headed out.

How nice to be out without a raincoat, and without the wind howling down the road! I made it to the bakery without a drop of rain, but without actually seeing any sunshine either. A fresh baguette, a mini quatre quart cake, and a loaf of whole wheat bread later, I headed back to the house. Still no rain, but the gray clouds seemed to be taking over. Then, just as I got to the path that leads down to the beach, I saw it—the sun, starting to poke through. I lingered there for a moment in the sunshine, watching a woman walking with her dogs. I was apparently not the only one trying to take advantage of the break between storms. Slowly, I crossed the street over to my house. The sun was still shining, but the gray clouds were getting closer.

An older gentleman appeared across the street. He was calling something out to me as he zipped up his jacket. I couldn’t quite hear what he was saying, but nodded politely in response—it was no doubt a comment about the weather. He surprised me by crossing the street and walking over to where I was standing. I said I had been trying to make the most of the sunshine, and gesturing toward the bakery-wrapped breads and cake in my hands.

I’ve heard of you, he said. You’re a Breton teacher, or you’re learning Breton?

Yes, I told him, I am studying Breton right now.

He told me that the local newspaper has a weekly Breton language column in it and offered to drop it off in my mailbox.

I’m a Breton speaker, he said, from the Cornouaille region.

Different from the Breton around here, I said.

He offered me his hand and I moved my baked goods to my left hand so that we could shake.

Are there many Breton speakers in this area?, I asked.

No, he said, there aren’t many here. But lots of Breton speakers in Finistère.

I told him which mailbox was mine, and we exchanged names. His was a Breton name, he said. He told me where he lived, just a few doors down the street.

The sky was a dark gray by now, and drops began to fall on us as we stood there.

I’d better head home to get a raincoat, he explained. He’d been heading to the bakery as well, but at this point he needed more than his cloth jacket.

We said our goodbyes and he began to head back across the street. Then he turned back towards me to say something.

Perhaps we could speak Breton together sometime.

That would be great, I said.

Goodbye, we said again, as the rain began to pour down.

I’m really glad that we got to meet, I tried to say in French, nervously fumbling for the words as he headed across the street.

I headed through the gate and towards my front door, smiling to myself. I had been wanting to meet older Breton speakers in the area, both to converse with and also in hopes of gathering some data. I’d only met one so far at the beach, and she lived somewhere in Lorient, so I wasn’t likely to run into her again.

Some people in Brittany will tell you that Breton speakers are embarrassed to admit that they’re Breton speakers, and that it’s hard to connect with them as an outsider. But today, happily, was a wonderful example of the opposite.

a beginning / ur c’hrog

Almost all of my possessions are in storage, I have left my job at the University of Colorado, said good-bye to friends and family, flown across an ocean to Europe, and made my way by train to Brittany, where I will spend the next eleven months.

A culturally-rich, picturesque corner of France, Brittany is steeped in history and myth. It is the land of King Gradlon, and his beloved coastal city of Ys, which was swallowed up by the sea long ago. It is the land of Tristan and Iseult/Isolde. It is also, according to some folks (and many local tourism brochures and websites), the home of King Arthur and his round table.  Many know Brittany for its prehistoric megaliths, its strong pagan traditions, and its long history as an independent state. And many (in France and England, at least) love Brittany for its stunning pink granite coastline in the north, and its sparkling white sand beaches in the south.

I try to keep that all in mind while I deal with the daily challenges of getting settled in here. Since I have arrived, life has been full of shopping trips (via foot or bus) to get food and other essentials for daily life. Missing folks back home, and taking almost daily buses to the big city of Lorient to get access to wifi so I can communicate with loved ones and others who are now so far away. Getting used to speaking French again. Getting unpacked, and organizing myself so that I feel at home in my new place. Feeding myself. Trying to find a bicycle. Dealing with leaky faucets. Opening a bank account, and trying to get internet and phone service established. Seeing a few friends (more on that later). Jet lag and swollen ankles. Buying a bike, finally. French TV. And rain. And now a national transportation strike (my first!). Taking care of paperwork. And more rain. And, yes, the occasional trip to the beach, which is, well, lovely.

Why did I disrupt my life in this way and come all this way to this particular spot on the planet? To fulfill a dream. More on that dream—dreams, really—later on.

For now, just a little about this blog. It’s here so that I can share my Breton adventures with friends and family, wherever they are. And with others, too—all are welcome here.

As for the topics of the blog, I expect them to run the gamut, as this will be part linguistic anthropological study, part personal travelogue. I’ll be writing regularly about the intricacies and quirks of the Breton language, and about my adventures as a student in a Breton language immersion program for adults. I’ll also talk about my daily life here on the coast, as well as any travel adventures. For those who love good food, and especially good Breton food, I’ll include highlights of my gustatory adventures. And who knows what else. And photos, whenever and wherever they seem relevant or fun or both. Bookmark this site, or do whatever it is that one does to keep abreast of blog entries. I’ll try and post about twice a week. Kenavo!

Note: Yes, that’s Breton in the title.  I figured I might as well share some with you all. And practice some vocabulary. If there are mistakes, I’ll catch them eventually.