7 things you need to know about the Breton language

If you've been following this year's French Eurovision entry, you might be struggling to understand the lyrics. And that's because it's not in French, it's sung in the regional language of Breton. Here's what you need to know about it.

7 things you need to know about the Breton language
Photo: Loic Venance / AFP)

As one of Eurovision’s “Big Five,” or top financial contributors, France already already has its place secured in the final, set to take place this Saturday, May 14th. But viewers were finally able to get a real taste of what they will see on Saturday, after Eurovision released the official music video France’s performance.

With its bright green and orange lighting and exciting pyrotechnic effects, the video is striking…though not as striking as the fact that it is the distinct lack of French sounds in it. 

The entry to the 2022 contest, from Alvan and Ahvez, is sung entirely in Breton and as you will hear, this is no mere regional dialect of French, it’s a completely different language.

Here’s 5 things to know about the ancient Breton language. 

It is the only Celtic language still spoken on continental Europe

Breton was brought from Great Britain to Armorica – the ancient name for the coastal region that includes the Brittany peninsula – some time in the Early Middle Ages.

It is most closely related to the Cornish language, which is quite a coincidence as most of Cornwall and parts of Devon were formed millions of years ago when a section of France collided with Great Britain, according to a 2018 study. You could say that makes Cornwall French…

Breton was written down before French

The oldest known text written in the Breton language is a four-page work called the Book of Leiden, in Old Breton and Latin. It is a medical treatise dating from the end of the 8th century – and the language is known to date from the 5th century. The oldest known French text is the Oaths of Strasbourg, which were written midway through the ninth century, in 842.

In fact, the first French dictionary is also the first Breton dictionary. In 1464, the Catholicon was a trilingual Breton-French-Latin dictionary.

It’s spoken by over 200,000 speakers

According to a 2018 survey carried out by the regional council in Brittany the Breton language is spoken by around 213,000 people in Brittany – which equates to around 5.5 percent of the population.

As well as that 31 percent of the population of Brittany say they know several words and expressions in Breton.

Most Breton speakers are in the west of the region in the département of Finistere.

There is another regional language of Brittany known as “Gallo” which is more spoken in the east of the region roughly by around 200,000 people.

Breton is in demand among young people

According to that 2018 survey some 73 percent of those surveyed wanted more Breton taught in local schools and 55 percent wanted more TV shows in the regional language.

France tried to kill it off

Between 1880 and the 1950s, Breton – along with other regional languages – was banned from the French school system and children were punished for speaking it.

The situation changed when the 1951 Deixonne Law allowed the Breton language and culture to be taught for a maximum of three hours a week in the public school system on the proviso that a teacher was both able and prepared to do so.

Today, about 200,000 people speak Breton, down from 1 million in 1950.

What’s in a name?

But some parts of the French system still appear resistant to Breton.

In 2017, authorities refused a couple’s choice of baby name because it included a letter they do not consider to be French enough. The couple discovered exactly how stressful choosing your baby’s name can be in France when they tried to register their newborn “Fañch”, which is the Breton version of François.

Unfortunately, at the time, the the letter “n” with a tilde (ñ) – common enough in Spanish and also part of the Breton language – did not feature on the government’s list of acceptable letters.

A two-year legal battle only ended when Cour de Cassation dismissed the appeal lodged by the Attorney General due to a procedural error, and therefore definitively authorised the child to keep the tilde on his first name.

Asterix is a Breton hero – then, and now

The Asterix comic series has been translated into Breton. According to the comic, the Gaulish village where Asterix lives is in the Armorica peninsula, which is now Brittany.

Some other popular comics have also been translated into Breton, including The Adventures of Tintin, Hägar the Horrible, Peanuts and Yakari.

Member comments

  1. Cornish is a dialect of Welsh (or both are dialects of a common language). Many words are the same in Welsh, Cornish and Breton, e.g. black= du, blue =glas and others are slightly different but easily recognisable, e.g. fish = pysgod (W), pysk (C), pesked (B) and white = gwyn (W), gwynn (C), gwenn (B). Until not so long ago Breton onion sellers were familiar and much welcomed Autumn visitors with tresses of (Roscoff) onions draped over the handlebars of their bicycles. Those that worked Welsh speaking areas were able to communicate in Breton.

  2. Some factual inaccuracies here…Breton was not imported from Cornwall or the UK, though after the withdrawal of the Romans from the UK there was an influx of people into Brittany from the formerly Roman controlled parts of the UK.

    The culture and language was already present in the region and linguistically Breton forms part of the second migration of Celtic tribes into western Europe. Much the British Isles Celtic languages form part of the first migration. No doubt the influx of settlers from the UK would have influenced the languages spoken in Brittany (there are in fact four recognised dialects) but was not the source of it.

  3. “You could say that makes Cornwall French…”
    What it actually means is that Brittany is actually British and we’re just letting the French look after it for us.

  4. “You could say that makes Cornwall French…”
    What it actually means is that Brittany is British and we’re simply letting the French look after it for us………..

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France’s national fast food: What exactly are ‘French tacos’?

If you're from the north American continent, you are probably familiar with the (traditionally Mexican) taco - but in France you will meet 'French tacos', a different beast entirely.

France's national fast food: What exactly are 'French tacos'?

If you walk the streets of any French city or large town, you will likely stumble upon a fast-food restaurant called O’Tacos. But if you are expecting to be able to order a delicious Mexican al pastor taco with salsa verde, you will find yourself sorely disappointed.

As staff writer for the New Yorker, Lauren Collins wrote in 2021, “French tacos are tacos like chicken fingers are fingers”. In fact, one Mexican chef in Paris told Collins that she once had a customer “throw his order in the trash, saying it wasn’t a taco”.

French tacos (always spelled in the plural sense) are a popular and distinct fast food in France, often decried by health experts as highly caloric – an average French tacos clocks in at about 1,348 calories, and an XXL can run up to 2,300, above the recommended daily total caloric intake for an adult woman.

What many imagine when thinking of a taco is the traditional Mexican food, eaten by hand, which consists of a small corn or wheat tortilla filled with meat, beans and/or vegetables, topped with condiments like salsa or guacamole.

In contrast, the French taco is a flour tortilla filled with meat, sauce, and French fries, folded together and grilled to build a panini-burrito-kebab mélange. You can add plenty of other ingredients inside too – from cheese to turkey bacon. Most French tacos are halal-certified to accommodate Muslim customers – so do not contain pork.

The biggest chain is the strangely named O’Tacos – France is home to 300 O’Tacos restaurants – an amount that has doubled in the last five years, as French tacos continue to pick up popularity among the youth.

And you are not limited to O’Tacos for your French taco needs – plenty of smaller fast-food shops and chains across the country, particularly those selling kebabs and those that remain open late into the night – offer French tacos too.

The origins of French tacos

There are various claims regarding the origins of French tacos – or whether there is a single inventor of the fast food at all – but many point to the diverse suburbs of France’s gastronomy capital, Lyon. 

In a documentary by Bastien Gens, titled ‘Tacos Origins’, claimed that French fast food was created toward the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s in Lyon suburbs of Villeurbanne and Vaulx-en-Velin. 

According to Collins, the “earliest innovators of the French tacos were probably snack proprietors of North African descent in the Lyonnais suburbs.

However, some claim that the concept originated in Grenoble first, which is also the site of the first O’Tacos restaurant, opened in 2007 by a former construction worker, Patrick Pelonero, who told Collins he had never visited Mexico but simply enjoyed eating French tacos on his lunch breaks.

Tacos’ popularity 

One thing is certain – French tacos, typically priced around €5.50 are distinctly French.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Loïc Bienassis, a member of the European Institute of Food History and Cultures, said that: “For decades, France has been an inherently urban, industrial, and culturally diverse country. The French taco is a mutant product of this country. It is its own national junk food.”

In the past few years, French tacos’ popularity has spread beyond the l’Hexagone – to Morocco, Belgium and even the United States.

The sandwich has become so trendy in France that some even refer to traditional Mexican tacos as a “taco mexicain” to differentiate between the two.

In 2021, over 80 million French tacos were consumed in France, making it more popular than the hamburger and the kebab.

In the same year, French youth also took to social media, joining in an O’Tacos challenge #Gigatacos. The goal was to consume a giant French tacos, weighing in at 2kg. Anyone who succeeded would be automatically refunded. Videos of the challenge coursed through French social media networks, with several million views.

While France is known for its classic cuisine, which relies heavily on fresh ingredients, the country also has a history of loving fast food, so it may come as little surprise that it would invent its own highly caloric dish.

As of 2019, France was home to the second biggest market for McDonald’s per head of population after the United States. 

READ MORE: Krispy Kreme, Popeyes, Five Guys: the American fast-food chains taking on France