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Πέμπτη, 11 Αυγούστου, 2022
ΑρχικήEnglish EditionAr Fulenn: The fate of Breton in France and language politics

Ar Fulenn: The fate of Breton in France and language politics

By Evi Tsakali,

“Dispont ‘kreiz an digoadenn e tañs ar fulenn” (“Fearless in the middle of the forest clearing, the spark is dancing”). If you recognize these lyrics, then you had probably heard the song of France for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, Fulenn by Alvan and Ahez. What you may not recognize though is the language of the lyrics: from the first seconds of the performance, you could understand that it is not French (and I can assure you that it does not sound at all like French).

The language of the lyrics is Breton, a Celtic language, which has also links to Welsh and Gaelic. It is spoken in Northwest France, in the region of Britanny (Bretagne). It is the only Celtic language still in use on the European mainland by about 210,000. It is classified as “severely endangered” by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which leads us to wonder how we got to this point, and discover the hard truth about the Breton language in France.

The oppression of the Breton language

Under the 1st French First Republic (Première République), in an effort to unite the people, the French made the mistake of oppressing less major parts of the country: whether that be banning languages or religious practices. Affected by the French Revolution and a report from Abbé Grégoire, a catholic priest and revolutionary leader, on the necessity to annihilate the patois (another non-standard language of France, along with Occitan and Basque, among others), the French authorities banned Breton from schools between 1880 and the mid 20th century. According to reports, the ban imposed reached an extent to which children found speaking the language were punished in ways that include, but are not limited to “manual labor, extra homework, corporal punishment and sometimes even organized mockery led by the headmaster”. These conditions are further elaborated on in a documentary created in 1979 under the title “Yez ar vezh” (the language of shame).

Credits to: Loic Venance/AFP. Image source: thelocal.fr

The position of Breton in today’s French society

The evolution of the position of Breton in France presents certain ambiguities. On the one hand, there is the French lingual fanaticism personified by the Académie Française, which poses as a custodian of the French language. In France, the way the Académie tries to combat “franglais”, by encouraging the French to use “courriel” instead of “email”, or “logiciel” instead of software, is generally respected, however one could claim that it is not realistic to expect a language to remain intact in this ever-changing world. It is by promoting linguistic evolution that there will also exist space for — and open-mindedness towards — minority languages. 

On the other hand, attempts at the revival of the Breton language are mainly owed to the French people, who propose a variety of teaching methods (and I have found plenty in major Parisian bookstores), while in Bretagne there are bilingual French-Breton classes, besides some Breton-speaking schools, the Diwan, which are supposed to offer total immersion. Nevertheless, according to related sources, the result is rather artificial: it is very debatable whether the concept of a native speaker of Breton exists anymore while teaching children the language is mainly effective when they have Breton-speaking friends and/or family in order to practice.

Image source: herald.wales

The example of the fate of Breton demonstrates how language politics, an aspect of politics not so frequently discussed, sacrifices linguistic identities for the sake of a desperately wanted national unity (especially in a society like France, which is already fractioned enough in many ways, some of which I have described in previous articles). It is now up to the language’s speakers and learners to ensure that like the “spark” in the song that unleashed this research and this article, it will “dance” fearlessly for at least a little bit more…

Dispont ‘kreiz an digoadenn e tañs ar fulenn…

  • Langue bretonne : de la honte au renouveau et à la fierté, ouest-france.fr, Available here
  • Alvan & Ahez – Fulenn – France 🇫🇷 – Official Music Video – Eurovision 2022, youtube.com, Available for listening here



Evi Tsakali
She was born in 2001 in Athens, Greece. She studies law at La Sorbonne and Political Science and Public Administration at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She has a particular interest in international humanitarian law and has former experience in rhetoric competitions and Model United Nations conferences since her school years. Meanwhile, she has attended seminars regarding medical law and bioethics, as well as regarding invisible racism and its eradication through education.