A Breton president? / Ur brezidantez breton?

The current presidential election–a topic that you didn’t expect on this blog. It’s extremely important, of course. But don’t worry–I’m not here to talk US politics. Instead I’m going to share with you the one thing I’m pretty sure that you don’t know about one of the major candidates….

Hillary Clinton is Breton! That means in two days, the US may be electing a Breton president. I have to say, I think that’s pretty cool. And I think it’s safe to say that I’ve managed to scoop the New York Times and the Washington Post on this one.

It turns out that Hillary is French Canadian on her mother’s side, and her ancestors came from 16 different départements–which are similar to states–in France, including two Breton départements, Morbihan and Ille-et-Vilaine. (She also has an ancestor from Loire-Atlantique, which includes an important corner of traditional Brittany, so she may be even more Breton.) Morbihan is where I was living when I began this blog, so maybe she’s related to the people I met when I lived in Plañvour. And no doubt, those ancestors spoke in the Gwened (aka Vannetais) dialect.

Also of note: Hillary is a descendant of King Louis X of France, a medieval king who–among other things–freed the serfs and allowed the Jews to return to France. These two facts are quite impressive. The details on his Wikipedia page point up some self-serving motives and harsh details–but still, a step in the right direction. And who else is descended from King Louis X? The current president of France, François Hollande. So they’re distant cousins.

Closer cousins of Hillary via that French Canadian heritage apparently include Madonna, Céline Dion, and Angelina Jolie. Just imagine that family reunion….

I found all this out via the France 3 (Bretagne) website article (it’s in French, of course) about Hillary. It takes this information from a new book on French and international leaders’ family histories. It’s called Dico des Politiques, is written by the geneologist Jean-Louis Beaucarnot, and was just published on November 2nd.

Gortoz a ran / I wait

One of the reasons that I write this blog is because most people in the U.S. have never heard of the Breton language or Brittany, and I want to spread the word. So any time that Brittany or the Breton language is in the mainstream English-language media—something that only seems to happen very rarely—I’m thrilled. This is one of those times.

Millions of Americans heard part of a Breton song on TV the other day. Did you know that? I didn’t either. Pretty cool. It would have been even cooler, perhaps, if they’d been aware of it, but I suspect they weren’t. The song in question was on an episode of South Park, on Comedy Central. “I Can’t Fix You” is the name of the episode, and this clip has the bit of the song that they used. The song starts a minute in.

It’s quite a haunting tune. The name of the song is “Gortoz a Ran” (I Wait), and the recording is by Denez Prigent and Lisa Gerrard. Denez Prigent is one of the best-known singers of traditional Breton music, and this song is on his 2000 album Irvi. (Available in all the usual places.) It’s actually not the first time Americans have been exposed to this song–it was featured in the movie Black Hawk Down. I haven’t seen the film, but I had read about that at some point. Here’s the official video of the song on YouTube, with film scenes interspersed with video of the singers:

 

And because I don’t really watch animated TV programs, this South Park episode is not something that I would have come across by chance. Thanks to the internet, I read about it in this article in Le Ploermelais, a small (French-language) newspaper in Brittany. Did any of you happen to see the episode? Have you heard this song before? Let me know in the comments below.

Language activists take on the SNCF

kemperle stickers

Yesterday, the political action collective Ai’ta festooned the Kemperle (Quimperlé) train station with stickers protesting the inferior treatment of the Breton language in the signage around the station. (The image above of one of these stickers comes from Ai’ta’s own article about this action, in Breton and in French, including photos and a video.)
This act of protest was carried out in Ai’ta’s signature style—a very targeted serving of guerilla politics and language activism, performed in colorful and entertaining attire.
A little background on why Ai’ta chose to take this action in Kemperle:
The SNCF is the national train system of France, and while signage is primarily in French, there is typically some signage in other languages (such as English) in smaller print to help tourists visiting France.
In Brittany, where Breton has historically been spoken, the language’s presence (or lack thereof) in signage is a big issue. It’s essentially a local decision, city by city, and this is a big topic in and of itself, which I’ll have to save for another post. But because the train stations are part of a national train system, getting Breton signage included has been a struggle.
There has been signage in Breton, but it was partial and in a smaller font size, and thus treated in the same way that English and other foreign languages are treated. This is of course an insult to Breton, since it is the traditional language in a place such as Kemperle.
Great progress was made last fall, politically, when the regional government of Brittany reached an agreement with the national government of France to move toward an equal footing for French and Breton on infrastructure signage in the region. This was a very big deal.
You’d think that train signage would be a part of that move toward true bilingualism, right? Apparently not. A new high-speed train line, known as the Bretagne Grande Vitesse (Brittany High Speed—like France’s nationwide TGV, Train à Grande Vitesse) is being developed for the Brittany region. In anticipation of this new line, which will speed up transport between the major cities of Brittany, the SNCF is creating new signage for stations along the route, starting with Kemperle. The new signage in Kemperle, despite this agreement to move toward true parity for Breton and French in infrastructure signage, is just like the old signage—with French dominating in size and content, and Breton in smaller letters and only including some of the content. This is why Ai’ta chose to protest the signage now, in Kemperle. Maybe if the protest gets enough attention and media coverage, the SNCF will rethink their signage strategy and fulfill the government’s goal of moving towards bilingual parity in signage around Brittany.

Suite Armoricaine

I was whisked away to Brittany yesterday by Suite Armoricaine, a film showing at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Set in Rennes, and in western Brittany, the film tells the tale of Françoise, a professor of art history, returning to her alma mater and her native land of Brittany after spending 20 years in Paris. There’s also a second, parallel story about Ion, a geography student of mysterious origins, and the connection between the two characters becomes clear over the course of the film.

Here’s the trailer:

Of course, I couldn’t resist checking out a film set in, and about, Brittany. (For a little context on the title, the term “Armoricaine” is from a Celtic, pre-Breton term –Armorica–for the region of Brittany/Bretagne/Breizh.) And then watching the film, what was so exciting and moving for me was that I got to hear and see (in some of the titles) the Breton language! I didn’t expect that, although of course I hoped I would. Like the landscape of Brittany, the language was a character in the film,  playing a minor role, but ultimately–via two ethnology students–part of the alchemy that reintegrates Françoise with her family history.

I wonder if the Breton language has ever appeared before in a mainstream film. (Does anyone out there know?) I perused a few reviews, and it seems that the French film critics accept this linguistic and cultural journey as a meaningful one, in spite of France’s historical tendency to minimize difference among its peoples.

The filmmaker herself, Pascale Breton, spoke at the screening I attended at BAMPFA, which was a wonderful bonus. I thanked her for including the Breton language in the film during the Q and A. She also mentioned that she has two new film projects in the works, and one of them is specifically focusing on the Breton language. That’s both remarkable and exciting. I can’t wait to find out more about that.

Meanwhile, if you’re in San Francisco, you still have a chance to see Suite Armoricaine–the festival is showing it one more time, this evening, at the Alamo.

Watch out for the Butter! / Diwall–an amann!

I realize that I haven’t posted enough (or perhaps at all, really) about food in Brittany–certainly, an important topic. A rather odd event this week forced me to sit down and introduce this topic finally, although not in the way I’d planned. Rather than discuss a delicious Breton food, I’m going to tell you about something that’s where it shouldn’t be: the butter in the river.

It sounds like an old folk song, or perhaps the name of an indie ska band; however, it’s an industrial accident that occurred Tuesday. Yes, butter fell into a river. A bunch of it. Hundreds of pounds, actually.

While it’s very unfortunate, and I’m imagining that it has caused a lot of people (and perhaps a lot of fish) problems, I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read the news because–if there was going to be a butter spill somewhere, it makes sense that it would be in Brittany: butter is essential to Breton cuisine. Bretons use lots of very yummy butter in their cooking–and especially in their baking. More on this topic another day!

Here’s what happened: a dairy processing plant accidentally spilled the butter into the Odet river, just outside of the city of Kemper (Quimper). If you follow the link to this article, you can watch a video showing chunks of butter cruising down the Odet through the center of the town. I’ve often strolled along the banks of the Odet and crisscrossed the river right about where the footage was shot. It’s a very scenic area–the little bridges are lined with colorful flowers in the warmer months, and Kemper itself is a charming city.

“Pep tra a zo mat a zo mat da gaout”

So, one of the things to know about Breton is that it–like all of the languages of France other than Standard French–has historically been suppressed, ignored, and villified by the French government. Which is why I love this clip. Because in it, two members of the Assemblée Nationale speak in the Breton language. During an active Assemblée session. It would be the equivalent of a member of congress speaking a Native American language during a session of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Has that ever happened? Perhaps one of you can enlighten us in the comments section on that.)

For those who don’t speak Breton, in the course of his comment on an environmental topic, Assemblée member Paul Molac (0:22) quotes a traditional saying, “Pep tra a zo mat a zo mat da gaout”, which translates “Everything that is good is good to take.” Then, Marc Le Fur–who appears to be chairing the session–comments (0:53), “Marteze tout an dud n’o deus ket komprenet” (“perhaps everyone didn’t understand”).* He then translates into French himself and gives a little laugh.

Both of the men are Breton, not surprisingly. And Molac, according to Wikipedia, speaks both Breton and Gallo–the two traditional languages of Brittany, now both endangered.

This occurred in 2013, and I believe that it was the first time Breton had been spoken by its members in the Assemblée. Perhaps it was even the first time any minority language had been spoken in the Assemblée. The brief exchange did not go unnoticed by the French press–google the saying, and you’ll come up with a dozen or so French and Breton outlets reporting on this event. This was a wonderfully subversive act of speaking Breton in the Assemblée, smack dab in the halls of government where it had so often been reviled.

* I’m using Rafael Urien’s transcription of the text here, and I’ve seen the same transcription in news articles, so I don’t know who originated it. When I listen to the text, I don’t hear the past tense postposition -et at the end of Le Fur’s utterance, but it would theoretically be there, certainly.

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.