“We talk to the horse in Breton and to the tractor in French”

Progress versus the Breton language

(Translated article from a review jointly published by Offensive – trimestriel d’offensive libertaire et sociale and Courant alternatif – mensuel anarchiste-communiste. See original French-language review here)

For the last hundred years you’ve needed to be brave to speak Breton. “We were ashamed to know Breton” (let alone speak it!), explained young people born after the war.

The secret suffering of your language being banned at school, of harassment at church, of the humiliation of being a “yokel”, of the shame of living on a farm up an earth track… when cars, televisions and towns all speak French.

In their thousands, Bretons belittled their own identity. This shame of being themselves led them to abandon their mother tongue. A whole generation stopped handing it down to the kids. “We didn’t want them to go through the same humiliation!”

When Breton is not the main language at home, it’s only used when they don’t want the children to understand. A language that blocks communication – what more proof do you need that this is a society moving backwards?

These still-open wounds led to a heated argument around the revival of interest in Breton. Since the 1970s, partisans of the Breton language have worked and fought incredibly hard to save this endangered language. But some people have simply been baffled by the fact that Breton is once more being spoken, defended, exhumed, when they have made such an effort to learn French. Why try to turn the clock back?

The truth is that French was imposed as part of the modernisation of society. It was associated with the future at a time when behind-the-times Brittany wasn’t enjoying the commodities and comforts of “the French-speakers”.

1930s tourists who arrived to take a dip in the sea, with all their wealth and summer outfits. Industrialised areas through which Breton soldiers passed on their way to the front in 1914. Bretons who emigrated to Paris also learnt French. In the same way, women gave up the language after the Second World War so they could get away from patriarchal rural society. They set themselves free from parents who weren’t comfortable with the language spoken by Charles Trenet and other French stars of the time.

Young men even had to chat women up in French to persuade them that they were offering them a brighter future!

And the countryside lost its language at the same time as the farm machinery arrived: “We talk to the horse in Breton and to the tractor in French”, explained one small farmer.

Instead of enjoying a communal life built around working the fields and around village festivals, people were shut away indoors every night, sitting in front of a box of pictures that, from 1964, spoke to them in Breton for a full minute and a half every week.

In the end the Breton-speakers walked away from a language which blocked social ascent. Speaking Breton meant you were still a worker, a peasant, a seafarer. Speaking French meant you could be mobile, move up the ladder, upgrade yourself socially and economically.

Jobs in administration helped spread the French language among the Breton people. The language of power and wealth will always prevail. In the Basque Country, it was reported that “the language of the dominant group was used for financial matters – the dominant language for the dominant system – and the domestic language – Basque – for the home”. Breton society collapsed, lost itself. Only the anti-establishment tide of the 1970s would reverse the flow.

Criticism of modern, liberal, capitalist society has always been secondary in Brittany. We write about the banning of Breton in schools and about the role of the Jacobin central state, but other factors are regarded as less relevant, as unimportant or unproven. We criticise the stick of the state without looking at the carrot of modernity.

By only pointing an accusing finger at the state, Breton-language activists shy away from challenging the ideology of “progress” which has contributed to the suppression of minority languages. The secular, socialist, sometimes libertarian or vigorously internationalist Left has always been hooked on Jacobinist centralism. The Revolution of 1789 was thus only associated with French.

“Breton lends itself less than French to the expression of new ideas, to those foul and hateful republican ideas of which the French language is the admirable conveyor,” mused Emile Combes, a key figure in the 1905 separation of church and state.

This progress-hungry Left denied, like the Breton-speaking Ernest Renan, that “any philosophical, scientific or economic work could be written in dialect”. Once again, real culture, the culture of the elite, had to be in French: “What a shame that this masterpiece was written in the language of our servants!” was the reaction in the salons of Marseille to the work of the Occitan poet Mistral.

This same approach resurfaced decades later when the Diwan Breton-language schools set up in the 1980s had to prove that maths and science could be performed just as well in that tongue. Marxist thought, always mesmerised by development, workers and the factory, has also often turned its back on rural Breton-speakers. “We’ll change henceforth the old tradition”, say the words of the Internationale.

The French language flooded in along economic axes, along main routes and railways. The drift into the factories turned peasants into workers. When they went to live in the now-polyglot towns, French was the most widely-shared language… so it was used for conversations between workers.

If you only blame the state, you also tend to present it as the only means of saving the language.

It is certain that the current explosion of interest in people wanting to learn Breton would be even more startling if the state wasn’t so slow-moving. But we cannot be sure that an enforced bilingualism would have saved Breton. Several countries have introduced bilingualism in schools without any resulting increase in actual use of the minority language. In Ireland, ever since independence from the UK, there has been a political will for Gaelic to be spoken, but the number of speakers has stagnated at 5% to 10% of the population. “People feel ridiculous when they speak Gaelic!”

In Finland, where Swedish is the second official language, young people make little effort and are often better at English! The language of economic power always prevails.

In Wales, where the situation is in many ways better than in the other Celtic countries, government policies will not be enough to save Welsh. No law, no state, can determine everyday use. As a corollary, interest in the Basque language actually increased under Franco. We should be grateful that our fate is not always shaped by the hands of an all-powerful state!

Ever since the Great Revolution, the French state has been laying into the native languages which once characterised this fragile Nation. But it still had to launch a serious assault on its rural areas to complete the task. It was not until the end of the 19th century that French was the first language of the French countryside.

And why not take this further? What if the current vitality of the Breton partisans was linked to state repression? In 1977, the Diwan schools were set up outside the education system. The hundreds of volunteers who shared their language in evening classes, the thousands of people who came to learn, the parents who made the effort to take their little darlings to a bilingual school on the other side of town did not so because of any official inducement but because they experienced the language in a positive way, as something that needed preserving.

This turn-around began at the start of the 1970s. A section of the Left started questioning the modern world and the damage it was causing. The universalist stance of being “world citizens” took a hit. People dug up old traditions to turn them into new ones (music, theatre, art, etc). Their own identity was no longer perceived negatively.

The more dogmatic Left was frightened and saw in this the resurgence of the Right, or even of Fascism. But far from being right-wing, this attitude spread through the environmental movement, employment struggles, campaigns against military bases… All these activists fought alongside the traditional Left. The Breton movement (Emsav in Breton) leaned mainly towards the Left at that time. People rediscovered their language, they rediscovered their land and they criticised “progress”, which had done so much damage.

Land consolidation was singled out for criticism – the levelling of banks and hedgerows to make way for tractors. “There are now four or five fields in the same field”, in the simple words of the Breton poet Anjela Duval.

Instead of calling for an official language, activists fought for a living language. They said it was dangerous to leave our future in the hands of the state, whose political support was dependent on whatever power games it was playing at the time. Too many centralist Jacobins today claim to support a language that they actually want to marginalise: they would have people learn Breton like they learn cross stitch or Thai cuisine, in evening classes. The real challenge is to claim back the spaces where the language can be spoken, so that it no longer merely exists “amongst ourselves”.

Michel de Certeau said of the 1968 uprisings: “Last May we found our voices like we did when we stormed the Bastille in 1789”. Utopia would be born from the return of the verb, which had too often been confiscated by the Gaullist authorities. On the picket lines it was the workers who were speaking and not just their union reps. Students in the occupied lecture theatres heckled and refused to listen obediently to the platform. It was even said that “the walls are speaking out”.

Although this may be a daring proposition, let’s dream that the resurgence of a battered language can also be the resurgence of another way of “living together”, a society of change and exchange…

To speak another language is to renew a dialogue, to re-establish common ground. Some would say that it is to “think differently”. So let’s hope that the fight for another language is also the fight to “change life”, as the workers of Fougères, Brittany, demanded on their banner in January 1968.

Gildas