Breton and Cornish Studies: Language, Linguistics, and Literature

In: The Year’s Work in Modern Language Studies
Merryn Davies-Deacon Queen’s University Belfast UK Belfast

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1 Breton

Nadine Pellen and Tanguy Solliec, ‘Dialectometry and Genetic Demography of Cystic Fibrosis. When Results Converge: The Case of Western Brittany’, Studia Celto-Slavica, 12 (2021), 63–103, identify parallel founder effects in the occurrence of cystic fibrosis in Brittany and in dialectal variation in local varieties of Breton, showing that distinct groups of cystic fibrosis carriers cluster with distinct dialect areas, with linguistically cohesive areas showing high concentrations of carriers. This provides evidence of long-established genetic groups in Brittany, dating back, they suggest, to the Armorican migrations of the 4th to 7th centuries.

Milan Rezac, ‘Mihi est from Brythonic to Breton II: The Nominative Object’, Indogermanische Forschungen, 126 (2021), 325–386, continues the thorough investigation of the dative possessive structure in Breton begun in Part I (see YWMLS 82). In Part II, Rezac focuses on changes in the clitic system of Breton, placing the language in comparison with Welsh and Cornish and investigating the evolution of these structures from Middle Breton to the present day, coming to the conclusion that Breton has not moved to a fully nominative-accusative possessive structure.

Holly Kennard, ‘Variation in Breton Word Stress: New Speakers and the Influence of French’, Phonology, 38 (2021), 363–399, uses linguistic data from contemporary Breton to probe claims about new speakers of the language, which have typically suggested that these speakers use a French-influenced stress pattern that stresses the final syllable instead of the traditionally stressed penult. Kennard’s findings show that in some recent borrowings this influence is present, but that generally penultimate stress is maintained among both young new speakers and older traditional speakers, indicating that the attrition and French influence commonly cited are not observed at a high rate. New speakers are also the focus of Michael Hornsby and Noel Ó Murchadha, ‘Standardisation, New Speakers and the Acceptance of (New) Standards’, in The Cambridge Handbook of Language Standardisation, ed. by Wendy Ayres-Bennett and John Bellamy (Cambridge: CUP, 2021), pp. 347–370, which gives an overview of issues in the standardization of Breton through a new speaker lens, providing a comparison with Irish to show how speakers’ beliefs about legitimate or correct linguistic varieties can cause particular complexities for language standardization in these contexts.

Michael Hornsby, ‘Breton’, in Linguistic Minorities in Europe Online, ed. by Lenore Grenoble, Pia Lane, and Unne Røyneland (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021), also covers the perceived split between traditional and new speakers as part of a broader overview of the sociolinguistic situation of contemporary Breton and its speakers. As well as dealing sensitively with the issue of new speakers, noting that this is sociological rather than linguistic, the article provides information on how Breton is supported by top-down and bottom-up language planning initiatives, and on how it is acquired, as well as fundamental demographic data, contributing to the database’s aim of being a convenient reference resource for scholars of linguistic minorities.

Robert Blackwood, ‘Linguistic Landscape Activism as a Means of Community Empowerment: Direct Action, Ai’ta and Breton in France’, in Multilingualism in Public Spaces: Empowering and Transforming Communities, ed. by Robert Blackwood and Deirdre A. Dunlevy (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), pp. 177–194, and Nicole Dołowy-Rybińska, ‘Fest-Noz and Revitalisation of the Breton Language’, in Revitalising Endangered Languages: A Practical Guide, ed. by Julia Sallabank and Justyna Olko (Cambridge: CUP, 2021), pp. 287–288, both focus on specific aspects of the Breton revitalization movement. Blackwood covers a more overtly political angle with a focus on the organization Ai’ta, which concentrates mostly on ensuring Breton is represented in public signage and the media. This chapter shows the ideological motivations that drive Ai’ta and the ways in which they use civil disobedience to highlight issues of minoritized language representation. Dołowy-Rybińska’s brief contribution instead focuses on cultural features, highlighting the fest-noz, a traditional music and dance event, and its role in providing spaces for Breton speakers and activists to meet, blending tradition and modernity in a case of cultural revival that operates in tandem with the language revitalization movement. This theme continues in Nicole Dołowy-Rybińska, ‘Language Practices of Young Adults from Four Linguistic Minorities: Between Assimilation and Activism’, in Dimensions of Cultural Security for National and Linguistic Minorities, ed. by Jean-Rémi Carbonneau, Fabian Jacobs, and Ines Keller (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2021), pp. 313–332, which expands on the important link between language and culture for minoritized groups, placing Breton in comparison with other languages to show how young people navigate their membership of these communities.

The year 2021 saw a number of publications on Breton literature, several of which appeared in a special issue of Nottingham French Studies entitled ‘New Dialogues with Breton Literature and Culture’. While the articles in this issue mostly deal with French-language writing by Breton authors, there are nonetheless references to literature written in Breton: David Evans, ‘Myths of Authenticity and Cultural Performance: Breton Identity in the Poetry Anthology, 1830–2000’, Nottingham French Studies, 60 (2021), 159–174, provides a study of poetry anthologies, including Breton-language publications, showing the changing influence of political and aesthetic concerns in the compilation of such anthologies over time. Similarly, Armelle Blin-Rolland, ‘A Breton bande dessinée? Graphic Mosaics of Brittany’, Nottingham French Studies, 60 (2021), 254–271, primarily focuses on French-language bandes dessinées, but cites examples where Breton is used in conjunction with French, with the two languages sometimes being mixed in innovative ways.

Heather Williams, ‘Are the Bretons French? The Case of François Jaffrennou/Taldir ab Hernin’, Nottingham French Studies, 60 (2021), 192–205, focuses more on Breton-language literature, describing how the early 20th-century poet François Jaffrennou/Taldir ab Hernin rejected the bilingual publishing tradition of the age and chose to publish works only in Breton, or in Breton and Welsh in parallel, as an act of rejecting the assumed Parisian centre. Finally in this collection, Nelly Blanchard, ‘Évolution du phénomène de traduction dans le domaine littéraire de langue bretonne’, Nottingham French Studies, 60 (2021), 206–222, provides a survey of literary works translated into Breton and shows that most translated texts were originally written in French, raising interesting questions about the function of this type of translation. Blanchard reveals that a large amount of children’s literature has been translated since the 1970s in particular, highlighting the growth in resources for young learners since the establishment of Breton-language immersion schools, but also points out that much translation has been done for political reasons or to demonstrate the legitimacy of Breton as a modern and adaptable language. A similar field is covered by Mannaig Thomas and Philippe Lagadec, ‘(Re)traduire des classiques français en breton’, Revue électronique de littérature française, 15 (2021), 114–125, as they examine the continued translation of French works into Breton, analysing the scheme provided by the official language planning body, which funds translations of works believed to be important. Thomas and Lagadec again point out the complex function of such translation, using the term ‘(re)traduire’ to acknowledge the fact that contemporary readers of Breton are also competent in French and may already be familiar with the translated works.

A third article on translation, Jean-Michel Le Bot, ‘Les traductions de la littérature russe en langue bretonne’, Revue des études slaves, 92 (2021), 337–350, concentrates on translations from Russian into Breton, showing that given the small potential readership, these have typically involved shorter texts. Authors from minorities within Russia are highly represented among the texts translated, with their work presumably being of interest to Breton-speaking readers seeking connections with members of other minoritized communities.

Jelle Krol, Minority Language Writers in the Wake of World War One: A Case Study of Four European Authors (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 346 pp., includes a chapter on the influential Breton writer, linguist, and lexicographer Roparz Hemon. Emphasizing the complex political context of the early to mid-20th century and the perceived need to modernize Breton language and literature that existed within the movement at that time, Krol demonstrates how these played out in Hemon’s vast output, making particular reference to his dramatic works to show how political concerns remained paramount despite Hemon’s lack of adhesion to any specific political party. Nelly Blanchard, ‘The Breton-Language Autobiography of Julien Godest (1905–13): Current Events and Cultural Archaism on the Eve of the 20th Century’, Studia Celto-Slavica, 12 (2021), 1–13, similarly focuses on a single writer who worked only a few years earlier. While Hemon’s Gwalarn movement embraced modernity and the linguistic and political developments this entailed, resulting in dramatic changes to the image of the Breton language, Godest instead made heavy use of religious elements in his writing, showing how Breton-speaking labourers adapted to social changes without taking an explicitly political stance. Blanchard demonstrates how the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in Godest’s work gives us a rare insight into a rural Breton culture that was already becoming archaic.

2 Cornish

Oliver J. Padel, ‘English Influence on the Middle Cornish Verbal System’, Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, 68 (2021), 255–296, argues that English influence is pervasive in Cornish texts, and can even be detected in most surviving texts from the Old Cornish period. Focusing on Middle Cornish drama, Padel highlights examples of English influence in syntax, showing how both Brittonic and English characteristics are evident in the literary form employed, and suggesting that the presence of subject–verb–object in both Cornish and Breton is not due to a common development but independently results from contact with English and French respectively. It is this sustained language contact and its effects, he contends, that make Cornish worthy of study.

Mark A. Williams, ‘Biblical Register and a Counsel of Despair: Two Late Cornish Versions of Genesis 1’, in Scribes as Agents of Language Change, ed. by Esther-Miriam Wagner, Ben Outhwaite, and Bettina Beinhoff (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021), pp. 21–38, investigates two translations produced in around 1700 by some of the last learned writers of traditional Cornish. Like Padel, Williams points out influence from English in the texts and additionally identifies some linguistic errors and inconsistencies. However, he also shows that these writers were aware of stylistic variation and were careful to avoid repetition in their prose, also noting that they were conscious of the symbolic importance of Bible translation at a time when Cornish was in an advanced state of sociolinguistic obsolescence.

Jesse Harasta, ‘Utilisation of Ethnolinguistic Infusion in the Construction of a Trifurcated Metalinguistic Community: An Example from the Kernewek (Cornish) Language of Britain’, in Metalinguistic Communities: Case Studies of Agency, Ideology, and Symbolic Uses of Language, ed. by Netta Avineri and Jesse Harasta (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), pp. 141–160, turns to revived Cornish through the lens of ethnolinguistic infusion, the incorporation of fragments of the language into public space despite most members of the community not being competent speakers. Rather than increasing speakers’ linguistic proficiency or the size of the speaker community, this has the aim of encouraging members of the local population to identify with Cornish on a symbolic level without necessarily using it for communicative purposes. Harasta considers the tripartite nature of the community in Cornwall—language enthusiasts, Cornish-identified residents, and policymakers who do not identify as Cornish—and examines the way in which these actors negotiate the use of Cornish, showing how it fulfils this symbolic role.

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