There was recently another acrimonious exchange between myself and two other members of the Celtic Linguistics group that I set up on Facebook. It doesn’t serve much purpose to rehearse it again here, but I will simply say in my defence that I sought to bring the debate back to whether or not “neo-Breton” is real or an artificial academic construct that does more pedagogical and sociological harm within the Breton-speaking community than anything else. I am not remotely interested in damaging the reputations of the those concerned, only the divisive and discriminatory idea that they have advanced. I tried to draw them into explaining their exact positions here but this was not forthcoming in a clear way. For my part, I regret the personal level on which it was conducted and said so openly in the group.
Here, I want to focus mainly on the issue at hand: standard registers and dialects.
The nature of debate in general
This paragraph is a slight tangent which readers interested only in the issue may skip.
I fully understand that this “neo-Breton” idea has been advanced in academic fora (e.g. Trier has been mentioned) and has the support of published academics. No matter how high their standing, all academic issues must be resolved only on the strength of the ideas, not who said them or how well published they are. This is why I believe passionately in groups such as the Facebook group because everyone, no matter the state of their knowledge, may participate. There is a duty on academics, long neglected, to convey their knowledge to others. We are teachers, not just researchers jealously guarding our knowledge within a career ladder of academics. We are also just normal people with opinions, sometimes correct or ground-breaking and more often not. So are the senior academics whose work we may quote. That’s the lazy way out, rather than thinking the ideas through constantly form first principles and trying to find out where they break. This is what the best of those academics who we quote do themselves. They abandon broken ideas in order to get closer to truth.
The problem with the “neo-Breton” idea
It was not made clear what “neo-Breton” actually is except the claim that it is not mutually intelligible with native dialects. I have heard such claims regarding Welsh and consider them extreme and far too sweeping generalisms to be useful or accurate. In order to be taken seriously, they need to be substantiated on a granular evidential level, which is hard to achieve in practice. Instead, let us consider other languages. I will use English and Welsh but any will do, minority or otherwise. That is not to say that the circumstances are always the same but they are nonetheless usefully comparable. All are languages and no language is immune from the sociological imperatives that arise from being communication systems.
As a native speaker of English, I am aware that I can understand people in Britain but not always from elsewhere from most sociological backgrounds but not all. Even in Britain, there are exceptions in dialect areas that I have less contact with (including via the media) and where people’s sociological circumstances differ massively from my own. If people come from other extremes of the dialect continuum e.g. broad Scots (arguably another point in a diasystem of two languages, but that is another issue), varieties of speech from the US, Canada etc, there are occasional problems. (I usually find that Australian and New Zealand speech has many of the same dialect inputs as my dialect, so this tends to be easier for me.)
There is a role for standard registers, which arise out of a long process of speakers of different dialects trying to understand each other. Proponents of neo-Breton counter – I believe without good foundation – that instead a single constructed variety of Breton was created and continues to be advanced by an unidentified movement. This is the allegation formerly made of Cymraeg Byw and still generally of “learners’ Welsh”. The problem is that it’s accurate in the first case (which failed as a result) but far too general in the second. You cannot fairly impose a sweeping judgement of the teaching methods of vast numbers of Welsh or Breton tutors without providing evidential material about how their Welsh is or isn’t native in style. Thus it descends into a simple unevidenced prejudice. I shall discuss its divisiveness later.
An example of Indian English
Let’s imagine a man from India who learns English in a job in a call centre serving the UK. I shall add some background to make it realistic, i.e. that he is called Rajesh and has a mix of religions in his family but is himself a Hindu, that he is obliged to call himself Mike once he comes into work, where he is obliged to eat western food at lunch etc. So much for the stereotypical portrait. He has two evening slots available for English lessons owing to his wife’s work and their family commitments. However, one is less convenient because he will be very tired. This means he is learning from a non-native Indian, albeit fairly proficient but who makes some grammatical mistakes inspired by his or her first language. (Experience: I am a half-Punjabi and can speak confidently about the persistence of this even in fluent English.) He cannot go to the class run by a teacher who was born and bred in Birmingham, who has a native command both of standard English and his native dialect (language registers) but always has at least a slight Birmingham accent no matter how he speaks.
When Rajesh becomes fluent, is he speaking neo-English? At first he is not very idiomatic but easily comprehensible by good speakers of English who have had a wide exposure to many other speech registers. There are those who can’t follow him, of course, for whatever reasons relating to which speech registers they find easy, based on their personal experiences. Ideally, Rajesh might have gone to Jim’s class but he went to Indra’s instead. On the other hand, Jim never learned English grammar but Indra provides practical lessons in constructing good sentences based on her grammatical knowledge – she doesn’t actually teach grammar. Rajesh needs to improve in the standard register right now.
Later, now living in Birmingham, Rajesh needs to understand native dialects, which he picks up fast because by now his English has a secure grounding. But he struggles visiting his family in Canada because he doesn’t have the exposure to native dialects that Jim does. Indra has more experience but she can’t rival Jim, yet actually her advanced writing skills are in some ways better than his, e.g. in writing formal funding proposals and her own fiction and poetry.
What about Breton?
In Breton, native dialect speech is under threat. There are indeed purists who teach artificial types of Breton but it’s straining reality to breaking point to say that these are in no way mutually intelligible with natural dialects. Only one major proponent of the idea of neo-Breton, Iwan Wmffre, has gone into extensive details about what he considers it to be. But these seem instead to be admittedly very valuable analyses of dialect contractions, common in English as well, e.g. Rajesh might have issues with understanding a Thurrock speaker’s rapid “y’ g’na wai’ tiw yaw bruva az iz bifaw you av yaw ba'(k)un ‘n ash braans?” (my attempted rendering for non-linguists, which represents the relatively difficult phonetics imperfectly).
There are more speakers like Rajesh in the world than speakers like me. On a far greater scale, we see a strange comparison with Breton. Yet we would like to think that, while English will change like any living languages, the old dialects will continue and change too, and that “international” speakers will, as they mostly do now, hold up native American or British speech in the broadest and crudest sense as something to emulate. If they live in native speech areas, they typically adapt to the first or main one they encounter, sometimes others later. In Breton, we will see the same. The balance of these, however, may be critical for dialect survival.
The nature of the standard
It is alleged that the Breton standard was imposed artificially. This cannot mean the orthography, as orthographies are always imperfect and artificial to some degree. It cannot mean the work starting with Le Gonidec or the KLT agreements of the early 20th century that led ultimately to the once contraversial Peurunvan in Nazi-occupied Brittany. These people must have learned from natives where they were not themselves natives anyway, as those who oppose “neo-Breton” are (like the rest of us) advocating. Breton was then much stronger. The question is, is the alternative that they oppose real or imagined?
Yet it does seem to hark back to some of those historical individuals because at least some of those who argue for the existence of “neo-Breton” associate teachers of the standard KLT register en masse with the linguistic purism and prescriptivism of Hémon and Denez and deny that any such teachers support or teach dialect. This purism, I argue, was just an attribute of the era that these two revivalists lived in. It doesn’t serve much purpose to over-analyse part of the history of the Breton revival that is well known. It’s not been sufficiently clarified whether or not the opponents of “neo-Breton” (whose existence they have created in order to oppose it) are or are not basing the tradition they oppose on history or on the present or both. I have been accused of being an ideologue in this cause but I am not quite clear which cause it is being alleged that I advance. I’m not a fan of Denez’ language courses or fiction. I have only a small historical interest in Hémon at best.
Glanville Price used the pejorative term “Cornic” for neo-Cornish. Here, unlike in Breton, the latter term neo-Cornish is perhaps justified – though considered profoundly insulting by many speakers of today’s revived Cornish – but Breton is not a dead language and native speech has been extensively recorded in the modern era. The two cannot be compared fairly.
The reality of Breton
There is bad Breton. For the most part, it is increasingly based on French idiom and pronounced in a way heavily influenced by French. The ends of words are articulated unclearly, as in French, and the word pauses, external sandhi (i.e. the way the consonants at the ends and beginnings of words affect each other where they are in contact) are more like French. So are mildly annoying features like repeating “kwa” many times per sentence like we use “er” in English, which is an old loan in Breton but was never inserted so freely as a sentence filler on this increased scale hitherto. Dialect features are mostly or entirely ignored.
However, the standard form was not invented for this purpose. Many natives who can write in standard orthographies and who moderate the features of their dialect when speaking to speakers of other dialects can use multiple registers (cf. a Thurrock English speaker who may, according to personal taste, speak more formally than the above example when in a formal situation or when speaking to someone from elsewhere). Many more natives cannot write in Breton but can moderate their dialect if necessary, the extent of this varying per individual. I know a first-language native of Ar Gemene(z) in the Vannes country (Bro Wened) who will speak without the consonant and vowel changes of Gwenedeg when speaking to non-Gwenedeg speakers depending on how well they understand Gwenedeg. Admittedly he is a teacher. We do this semi-consciously in all languages. I do it in Welsh. First-language speakers do it.
Just because a standard exists and is increasingly used to teach bad Breton does not mean that its only purpose is in creating a new, artificial language in place of native Breton, though teaching bad, non-native Breton is of course to be regretted. To say that its origin is as a created language is a revisionist fiction: we can all read the history and see that, despite the purists, this was not in fact so at the time. We can read the literature of many authors and see that some writers were purists but many or most were not, in all dialects.
The divisive nature of the term “neo-Breton”
Here is the reason that I am so animated about opposing the academic construct of “neo-Breton”. Not only is it a catch-all, general observation with little analysis of internal variation, it is in practice used as a pejorative. My own Breton was insulted by a man who, if his claim is believed, heard it for perhaps seconds, but who most likely never heard it. In either event, why would he be so motivated to belittle either me personally or the quality of my Breton? Or that of my former teacher of Breton? I am not involved in Breton language politics by choice and so I am not a member of any cause, unless it is simply the revival of minority languages with a critical focus on their native forms. On this last issue, ironically, we all agree in principle.
When learners around me have been told they are not speaking the “real Welsh” or the “real Breton” because one teacher dislikes the methods of another, the result is usually swift and total disengagement with the language. This is one among many major reasons why so few speakers go on to fluency. Another is frustration with the lack of opportunity to speak, a particular minority language issue. Some learners, like all of us, are simply lazy. The list could go on, however. But this basic allegation is contained succinctly in the term “neo-Breton”.
Opposing views on dialect teaching
Some people, like myself, believe that the standard is a natural development, a necessity, and that it has an important role in preserving the dialects as they weaken, by providing the means by which speakers of others can find a bridge towards mutual comprehensibility. They can also use it as a stepping stone in acquiring fluency in an unusual dialect with limited currency. The ideal, of course, as pointed out by the self-appointed opponents of the so-called “neo-Breton”, is learning that dialect directly. But in reality, this idea has two serious flaws:
(1) The speakers will find themselves in a tiny dialect world within an already tiny language without sufficient ability to communicate with speakers of other dialects. Often these dialects are now basically dead or moribund, so you could with equal fairness use a term like “neo-Haut-Vannetais” or drill down even further by village. You can teach solely Cenarth or Cricieth Welsh but what will happen when learners are respectively in Caernarfon or Tregaron? You can teach only Leoneg but that will be no use in Bro Wened and vice versa. “Balkanisation” results, ironically in a way that it does not in the Balkans: they can broadly understand each other across the South Slavic diasystem of languages! They too like to over-estimate linguistic divisions for political reasons. I submit that the same happens in dialect snobbery too.
(2) The teaching materials have to be generalised on at least some level. In Welsh, for example, we have so-called “North Welsh” and “South Welsh”, which both encompass massive variation and many dialects as different from the container description as from any other dialect (particularly “South Welsh”). This is just shifting the problem from “standard Welsh” to “standard spoken South Welsh”, just as artificial in practice. We can substitute Leoneg and Gwenedeg or several geographically separated varieties of Kerneveg etc.
There is a third problem that often occurs:
(3) It leads people to denigrate and avoid the formal standard register in its wide variety of forms, which leads to functional illiteracy in Welsh. Written Welsh today is known by a few. All can use written English to a massively greater level of competence, which is socially expected. The same problem will occur where a teacher focusses exclusively on Tregerieg, Gwenedeg or any other dialect. People then denigrate the standard written form, sometimes linking it to superficial orthographical matters, and write dialect in a way others cannot easily read. It is then impossible to use the language in certain prestige sociological functions, where in this case French in any case dominates. Welsh, by contrast, is used in these roles and this is one of the reasons that it is stronger within society than Breton as a result.
The unresolved issue: Gwenedeg
There are varieties of Breton that are so different from the standard that none of the usual orthographies represent them well. But this is also true of varieties of English. Given the variability, not all can be as fortunate in being closest to the standard. This doesn’t mean that people can’t or shouldn’t choose forms and structures that best represent what they say. It also doesn’t mean that they need to change how they speak. Some speakers of Gwenedeg use two orthographies, one of which is purely for Gwenedeg alone. Compare Hindustani where a range of related dialects and languages are represented in several writing systems, which are entirely unreadable by other groups. Yet Hindu-Urdu is clearly a mutually intelligible idiom with a multitude of internal variations and dialects that can be and are written.
The alternative: a middle way
The only working alternative is to teach some form of colloquial standard (focussed broadly on a natural dialect) that minimises variation enough to be able to teach a single class effectively and without massive disruption and endless tangents in discussing dialects with beginners who aren’t yet capable of putting this into context within their knowledge of the language as it stands at this stage. On the other hand, a teacher is failing in her/his duty if s/he fails to prepare students for dialect variation since they will immediately need to speak to those who have other dialects. While “North Welsh” and “South Welsh” are constructs, the teacher must be open with students about this while not allowing too many tangents during class time. Likewise, KLT and Gwenedeg are also constructs: these are containers for many variations between real dialects and idiolects.
Most learning is not done in the classroom. It occurs afterwards in students’ heads, when they are practising, flicking vaguely through the class materials, thinking about the language or its social context in their lives etc. They then reprocess what they have learned little by little and contextualise it. The teacher must lead them, encourage them and give them what they need to do this. There are better authorities on this than me, but this is basic educational theory.
In every lesson, I teach the standard written form of Breton but pronounce it like native Breton and discuss the variations between, on the one hand, my Breton or that of the speakers on the audio materials and, on the other, what is written on the page. We are always highlighting small differences. This helps the learners develop a critical ear for the sounds of Breton and its dialects, preparing them to speak with people of all dialects.
Personally, I speak a variety of KLT, not exactly the same as the base Leoneg but fairly close with some diphthong and vowel modifications, some loss of /z/, some different word forms and contractions etc. I have not lived in Brittany but I have learned from near-natives and natives, preferring for example recordings of native dialect speakers. In class, of course, I will be a little more standard. One of my learners has lived in Bro-Leon and playfully spurns any other forms, so I encourage her in this. The others make other choices. In Welsh, I speak North Welsh despite never having lived far from Aberystwyth, the result of personal and social connections when I was first learning Welsh. Yet I can write high formal Welsh, office Welsh etc and I can speak a range of registers including a type of North Cardiganshire standard Welsh that I tend to switch to when teaching, because I have learned and taught in Aberystwyth.
Strong languages have registers that have particular, non-competing roles. They are not mispronounced except by foreigners, but we don’t call this neo-[name of language], just non-native or sometimes poor [name of language]. We would advise more contact with natives but we wouldn’t suggest that a person learns, for example, exclusively the speech of the Black Country, which would be a major hindrance in understanding anybody else. At the same time, if they live in the Black Country or love its dialect, it’s great to become a dialect speaker! This person will of course need, in time, to be able to switch register and to moderate that dialect form in order to be comprehensible to the others who s/he meets.
We must not be blinkered in insisting on dialect and only dialect, yet we must advise all learners to speak natively and dialectically in the spoken register.
We must give learners the tools to learn to speak in whatever dialect form that they choose and to to understand other dialects, in accordance with their growing critical ability.
When learners get fluent, we should seek to turn them into near-native speakers. In the meantime we must always expose them to dialect speech of all kinds but focus on them speaking in one particular form consistently.
The ability to switch registers must grow with speaking confidence, whether in the case of learners or in the case of native speakers whose confidence and ability in, for example, the written or formal register is insufficient for their personal needs.
Written ability is important but it has to be securely based in spoken ability. It is a higher language skill that needs to develop with time and ability in switching registers.
Why is Breton different – well, it isn’t!
In the case of Breton, all of these apply in principle. In practice, exposure to native and/or good near-native speech is critical. Where Breton teaching is bad, this is the reason. It is not because teachers have been wittingly or unwittingly enrolled into a secret cause promoting “neo-Breton”, whichever ill-defined party or parties may be alleged to be responsible for promoting it or having created it. “Bad” usually means heavily altered by French in practice.
There is a possible single exception in that Breton is taught in Wales, most frequently Aberystwyth. Here we may run the risk of anachronism, speaking too similarly to Welsh, purism etc. However, we are aware of these dangers, in my experience, and we use native and near-native recordings, not just our own voices as teachers. We invite real native Bretons. We do whatever we can, limited by not actually being in Brittany.
The bottom line is that Breton is not different. Its circumstances are unique but all the same things about native-type speech, educational practice and multiple registers exist as the do for any language. Where these start to evaporate or become separated, it is a classic sign (seen to a lesser degree but still strikingly in Welsh, for example) that the language itself is weaker. To argue against the standard is to argue against multiple registers and thus for the weakening of a language, i.e. its eventual fragmentation and death.
This is why “neo-Breton” not only does not exist as a single entity but is also a destructive idea that must never be expressed or described in these terms in front of those learning or improving their Breton. What is required is a positive focus on dialects and the standard (in that educational order), which can complement each other. We ought not to submit to divisive dialect snobbery that will weaken the language still further when it is already under extreme threat from French. This is playing language politics to denigrate sections of the linguistic community. Like all political philosophies it is partial, simplistic, narrow and damaging.