7 things you need to know about the Breton language

If you've been following this year's French Eurovision entry, you might be struggling to understand the lyrics. And that's because it's not in French, it's sung in the regional language of Breton. Here's what you need to know about it.

7 things you need to know about the Breton language
Photo: Loic Venance / AFP)

As one of Eurovision’s “Big Five,” or top financial contributors, France already already has its place secured in the final, set to take place this Saturday, May 14th. But viewers were finally able to get a real taste of what they will see on Saturday, after Eurovision released the official music video France’s performance.

With its bright green and orange lighting and exciting pyrotechnic effects, the video is striking…though not as striking as the fact that it is the distinct lack of French sounds in it. 

The entry to the 2022 contest, from Alvan and Ahvez, is sung entirely in Breton and as you will hear, this is no mere regional dialect of French, it’s a completely different language.

Here’s 5 things to know about the ancient Breton language. 

It is the only Celtic language still spoken on continental Europe

Breton was brought from Great Britain to Armorica – the ancient name for the coastal region that includes the Brittany peninsula – some time in the Early Middle Ages.

It is most closely related to the Cornish language, which is quite a coincidence as most of Cornwall and parts of Devon were formed millions of years ago when a section of France collided with Great Britain, according to a 2018 study. You could say that makes Cornwall French…

Breton was written down before French

The oldest known text written in the Breton language is a four-page work called the Book of Leiden, in Old Breton and Latin. It is a medical treatise dating from the end of the 8th century – and the language is known to date from the 5th century. The oldest known French text is the Oaths of Strasbourg, which were written midway through the ninth century, in 842.

In fact, the first French dictionary is also the first Breton dictionary. In 1464, the Catholicon was a trilingual Breton-French-Latin dictionary.

It’s spoken by over 200,000 speakers

According to a 2018 survey carried out by the regional council in Brittany the Breton language is spoken by around 213,000 people in Brittany – which equates to around 5.5 percent of the population.

As well as that 31 percent of the population of Brittany say they know several words and expressions in Breton.

Most Breton speakers are in the west of the region in the département of Finistere.

There is another regional language of Brittany known as “Gallo” which is more spoken in the east of the region roughly by around 200,000 people.

Breton is in demand among young people

According to that 2018 survey some 73 percent of those surveyed wanted more Breton taught in local schools and 55 percent wanted more TV shows in the regional language.

France tried to kill it off

Between 1880 and the 1950s, Breton – along with other regional languages – was banned from the French school system and children were punished for speaking it.

The situation changed when the 1951 Deixonne Law allowed the Breton language and culture to be taught for a maximum of three hours a week in the public school system on the proviso that a teacher was both able and prepared to do so.

Today, about 200,000 people speak Breton, down from 1 million in 1950.

What’s in a name?

But some parts of the French system still appear resistant to Breton.

In 2017, authorities refused a couple’s choice of baby name because it included a letter they do not consider to be French enough. The couple discovered exactly how stressful choosing your baby’s name can be in France when they tried to register their newborn “Fañch”, which is the Breton version of François.

Unfortunately, at the time, the the letter “n” with a tilde (ñ) – common enough in Spanish and also part of the Breton language – did not feature on the government’s list of acceptable letters.

A two-year legal battle only ended when Cour de Cassation dismissed the appeal lodged by the Attorney General due to a procedural error, and therefore definitively authorised the child to keep the tilde on his first name.

Asterix is a Breton hero – then, and now

The Asterix comic series has been translated into Breton. According to the comic, the Gaulish village where Asterix lives is in the Armorica peninsula, which is now Brittany.

Some other popular comics have also been translated into Breton, including The Adventures of Tintin, Hägar the Horrible, Peanuts and Yakari.

Member comments

  1. Cornish is a dialect of Welsh (or both are dialects of a common language). Many words are the same in Welsh, Cornish and Breton, e.g. black= du, blue =glas and others are slightly different but easily recognisable, e.g. fish = pysgod (W), pysk (C), pesked (B) and white = gwyn (W), gwynn (C), gwenn (B). Until not so long ago Breton onion sellers were familiar and much welcomed Autumn visitors with tresses of (Roscoff) onions draped over the handlebars of their bicycles. Those that worked Welsh speaking areas were able to communicate in Breton.

  2. Some factual inaccuracies here…Breton was not imported from Cornwall or the UK, though after the withdrawal of the Romans from the UK there was an influx of people into Brittany from the formerly Roman controlled parts of the UK.

    The culture and language was already present in the region and linguistically Breton forms part of the second migration of Celtic tribes into western Europe. Much the British Isles Celtic languages form part of the first migration. No doubt the influx of settlers from the UK would have influenced the languages spoken in Brittany (there are in fact four recognised dialects) but was not the source of it.

  3. “You could say that makes Cornwall French…”
    What it actually means is that Brittany is actually British and we’re just letting the French look after it for us.

  4. “You could say that makes Cornwall French…”
    What it actually means is that Brittany is British and we’re simply letting the French look after it for us………..

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