The French Connection

Originally in Country Quest

No, it's not the tricoleur.

     The first time I became aware that Brittany had a separate identity from most of the rest of France was back in 1967, when I lived in London. There I had a work-colleague that we nicknamed 'Frenchie', but he would insist that he was a Breton, and not French at all.

     Two years later, I was standing in front of a bar in Bayeux, Normandy, with a group of French friends. Although I didn't really know what was going on, I was cheering with the rest as a long procession of people marched by. There was no irony in their shouts of 'vive les Bretagnes', and, although I said nothing at the time, I couldn't help why many of the marchers wore what looked distinctly like Welsh national costumes.

     Since then, in my more mature years, I have visited Brittany many times. Like so many of us, I have found that this part of France is very much like Wales in character and spirit, and have also discovered that the reason for this is very simple: we were once essentially the same people.

     The Brythonic Celts arrived in the British Isles from Central Europe in about 250 BCE, settling mainly in the southern half of Great Britain. Soon after, some of them spread to Strathclydean Scotland and the north-western part of what is now France. The Goidelic Celts, arriving a hundred years or so earlier, had made what is now Ireland their own, and centuries later they migrated on an expansive scale to Scotland and the Isle of Man.

     The history of migrating peoples is never quite as neat as this sounds, of course. The landscape of South Wales is enriched by Ogham stones left by Goidelic- or Irish-speaking Celts in post-Roman times, as well as the remains of some of their dwellings. On many ordnance survey maps you can find the legend cytiau gwyddelod, which translates as 'Irishmen's huts'.

     It is in language that the differences between the two groups of Celts have left their most lasting impression. With territorial expansion, Goidelic was to divide further into Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx. These are called 'Q-Celtic' languages, because the 'kw' sound of Proto Indo-European (the ancient speech that is the ancestor of most European languages) was partially retained.

     Brythonic was to become Welsh, Breton, Cornish and the more or less extinct Cumbric. These are called 'P-Celtic' languages, because the 'kw' evolved into a 'p' sound. The example most often given is with the number four; 'ceathair' in Irish and 'pedwar' in Welsh.

     Welsh and Breton remain cognate languages, despite the passage of two millennia and the coming influence on their lands of speakers of Germanic and Latin languages, later to evolve into English and French. Breton is not so much spoken now, but it is worth listening to recognise the marked similarities to Welsh, if you get the chance. Accompanying this article are reproductions of the Lord's Prayer in the two languages. For an even simpler example, take the numbers one to ten: unan; daou; tri; pevar; pemp; c'hwec'h; seizh; eizh; nav; and dek in Breton; un; dau; tri; pedwar; pump; chwech; saith; wyth; naw; and deg in Welsh. You don't have to be a linguist to see that the languages are closely related. Wales, Brittany and Cornwall were not really separate countries in anything like the modern sense for several hundred years after the coming of the Brythonic Celts. The thing that forced them to become so were the later migrations of further groups from Europe, particularly Anglo-Saxons to the British Isles.

     Probably the most striking illustrations of the close relationship between the nations can be found in the biographies of the early Celtic saints. St. Samson, for example, the most famous of the saints of the abbots of the first monastery at Caldey Island and its Patron, is usually thought of as Welsh. Yet he died in Brittany and may even have been born there, and also spent important periods in Cornwall. In a very similar way, St Paul Aurelius did the ministry for which he is best remembered in Brittany, but was born in Wales.

     So if you go to Brittany (I would certainly recommend that you do) and get the feeling of being very much at home, it's only because you're experiencing our very own French connection.

Ein Tad.  Hon Tad.


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