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From France’s Eurovision entry to Harvard: Five Breton language facts

We also give you two phrases in Breton with pronunciation tips to have a go 

The Breton language is taught in Diwan (Breton-medium) schools and even at Harvard. But it was forbidden to speak it and punished by teachers until the late ‘60s. Pic: Ronan Davalan / Jorge Salcedo / Millenius / AJR_photo / Shutterstock

Alvan & Ahez, a collaboration band from Brittany, will represent France in the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest in Turin on May 14.

The band will not be singing in French but in Breton, a regional language spoken in Brittany and taught within the region’s schools. 

‘Fulenn’, the band’s electro-pop song, won the public vote among 12 other contestants. The term is a Breton word which means both ‘spark’ and ‘beautiful girl.’

Alvan & Ahez came into being when Alexis Morvan (Alvan) met Marine Lavigne, Sterenn Diridollou, and Sterenn Le Guillou (Ahez) in a bar in Rennes, central Brittany. 

They are the second band to sing in Breton and represent France at the Eurovision Song Contest after Dan Ar Braz and his band l’Héritage des Celtes participation in 1996. They were the first French contestants to sing their whole entry in another language and finished 19th out of 23 contestants. 

Breton is believed to be spoken by 207,000 people (roughly 5.5% of Brittany’s population), according to a study conducted by the Regional Council of Brittany in 2018. 

The study also pointed out that 40% of the population of Brittany had basic knowledge of Breton. 

The Connexion looked at five facts about Breton, a language which has gradually crossed the Atlantic and is now taught in Harvard.

1. Diwan schools

The French education system allows schools where lessons are taught in Breton in what is commonly known as ‘école diwan’ (Diwan school). The word ‘diwan’ describes something that is growing.  

The first Diwan school was created in 1977 in Lampaul-Ploudalmézeau (Finistère). Diwan schools sign a private partnership with the State. 

Students enrolled in elementary Diwan schools learn Breton by the age of two through an immersive technique which makes sure that no other language is spoken in the classroom.  

The French language is gradually introduced by the end of elementary school (around CM1 and CM2, or at age nine and 10) but through second language option courses. During high-school, only modern foreign language classes are taught in a different language to Breton.

Diwan schools have grown in popularity over the last two decades, with nearly 50 schools listed in 2020-21 and more than 4,000 students. Both numbers are increasing year on year. 

However, the schools have also had their share of controversy. 

Read more: France adopts historic law to protect its regional languages

Several students from Diwan schools wrote their baccalauréat and brevet exams in Breton in 2018 and were graded zero, the lowest score in the French system. 

This is because French is the only language allowed when writing in national exams – with very few exceptions – according to the law.  

The students from the Diwan school in Carhaix launched a petition in 2018 to demand their copies to be marked by Breton-speaking teachers. The petition was signed by 16,563 people. 

2. Breton is taught at Harvard  

As quirky as it seems, the entry of Breton into the Harvard University curriculum made headlines in national French newspapers when it happened. 

The Breton and Celtic studies department in the University of Rennes 2 signed a partnership with Harvard in 2013 for students enrolled in master’s and doctorate studies to learn Breton at the American university through ‘crash courses.’

The department was unavailable for comment when contacted by The Connexion at the time of writing.

3. Orthographic conventions 

The Breton language is written using the Latin alphabet but contains various differences from the original French. There are also various dialects of Breton which originated in different parts of Brittany. 

Breton is recognisable for its -zh letter combination, seen in words such as in ‘breizh’ (meaning ‘Breton’), the apostrophe uses in -c’h or -d’ar or letters such as ñ, ù, é, â, ê, à, ü

The letter -c has been removed from the language and replaced by -ch or -c’h.

The -zh sound is used to reunite two different spellings from western and eastern Brittany, the typical French -z sound and the English -h sound. 

C’h is close to the Welsh -ch sound or the Spanish ‘jota’ sound.

All road signs in Brittany are written using both French and Breton. 

Read more: New French regional languages law is 'politically historic'

The tilde over the letter -n was at the centre of a controversy in France when a couple from Brittany that wanted to name their child Fañch (the equivalent of François in French or Francis in English) were refused since the letter was not recognised by the birth registration service.

The family took the case to court and attended several hearings over the next two years, but the case was eventually dismissed. 

MP Marc Le Fur (Les Républicains) proposed a bill on December 19, 2018 to allow otherwise unrecognised letters with diacritical signs when used for first names.

4. Speaking Breton was once forbidden in schools 

Until the 1960s, the state forbade pupils from speaking Breton in school, and those breaking the rules were punished by a rap on the knuckles with a ruler. 

The punishments lasted until the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, by which time hardly any pupils knew how to speak Breton. 

“There was no law punishing such behaviour, however,” said Fulup Jakez, director of Ofis Publik Ar Brezhoneg, the official public office of the Breton language.

5. Try your hand at Breton!

Here are two phrases you try out Breton and support France in the next Eurovision Song Contest:

Sod on gant ar gazetenn The Connexion’ (I love the Connexion.)

Breizh war-raok!’ (Come on Brittany!)

The word ‘gant’ can be pronounced with a final -d sound to connect with the following words, ‘raok’ can be pronounced ‘rha + ock’ or ‘rok’ with a long -o sound and the -w can be pronounced both as an English -w or a French -v, Fulup Jakez told The Connexion.

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