Tag Archives: Breton

Breton oral literature at the Taylorian

We continue the Breton theme with a post by a Breton scholar, Dr Éva Guillorel, who discusses the Taylorian’s wonderful collection of material relating to Breton oral tradition.

In the last ten years, I have had the opportunity to work regularly with three of the best library collections related to Celtic studies in the world. I was based in Brest when I completed my Ph.D. on Breton ballads and their connections with the history of early modern Brittany.

Some of the work of Dr Eva Guillorel held in the Taylorian.

Then I moved to Harvard for a post-doc on the mechanisms of transformation, renewal and transmission of oral traditions in Celtic countries. After a second post-doc in Québec on a totally different topic, Oxford was my final long lasting research experience abroad before obtaining a position as Associate Professor at the University of Caen in Normandy. The Oxford project entitled ‘Song and Social Protest in Early Modern Europe: Acts of Rebellion, Performance of Memory’, funded by the British Academy and supervised by Hertford College Lecturer David Hopkin, was based on a broad geographical area that exceeded Celtic countries. However, Breton oral literature as a source for early modern history has remained at the heart of my interests; that is why the collections of the Taylor Institution Library  rapidly caught my attention. My first reaction as I went down the narrow staircase giving access to the Breton stacks for the first time, was surprise. Breton is usually considered as the fifth wheel on the wagon of Celtic studies outside Brittany: Irish, Welsh as well as Scottish Gaelic are much more studied in Celtic departments, and I was expecting a small shelf dedicated to Breton books. But when I discovered the richness of the collection and the dynamism of acquisitions, I spent much more time in that library for my research.

A particularly rich repertoire of songs has been preserved in Breton-speaking Brittany until the present day. The most fascinating among them are certainly the ancient ballads which relate local historical events – murders, infanticides, rapes and other tragic stories – that took place from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

Gwennole Le Menn, Le vocabulaire breton du Catholicon (1499) (Skol, 2001)


They are known as gwerzioù, a name which appears in old dictionaries like the Catholicon, the oldest Breton dictionary written in 1464 by Jehan Lagadeuc (the Taylorian Library owns four printed editions of this precious dictionary), or the detailed eighteenth-century Dictionnaire de la langue bretonne by Dom Louis Le Pelletier (shown below).


These narrative songs are especially notable for the number of historical details they contain concerning names, events, beliefs or material culture, and for the quality of their oral transmission over several centuries. These songs have been preserved mostly without the support of handwritten or printed documents: contrary to close linguistic areas like French or English, there is very little evidence of written secular broadside ballads or chapbooks in Breton before the French Revolution. For those interested in learning more about gwerzioù and who are neither Breton nor French speakers, I strongly recommend Breton Ballads by Mary-Ann Constantine.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, some educated gentlemen started to get interested in what was not yet called “oral literature” and wrote down folktales, legends and songs heard from oral performance from beggars and poor craftsmen and women in the countryside. Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué’s Barzaz-Breiz, whose first edition was published in 1839, was the first attempt to publish an anthology of such folksongs in France. The Taylorian library owns two of the successive editions of this book, including the last and most complete one in 1867. The anthology had such a success that French writer George Sand compared the “diamonds of the Barzaz-Breiz” to the Iliad and the Odyssey. It deeply influenced the whole wave of song collecting in France, although the methods of his author were criticized. A series of studies about the “controversy of Barzaz-Breiz” followed, and the Taylorian Library holds all major works on this question, mainly three Ph.D. theses completed in Brittany: the first one written by Francis Gourvil in 1960, the remarkable work by Donatien Laurent in 1989 and the more recent analysis by Nelly Blanchard in 2006 (see pictures below).

Following La Villemarqué, many folklorists continued to collect songs, tales and legends in Brittany from the nineteenth century to the present day. In  recent years, the publication of songs in Breton with translations into French has been very active, particularly in the Vannetais area (South-East of Breton-speaking Brittany) with songs collected by Yves Le Diberder, Augustin Guillevic and Jean-Mathurin Cadic or in the Trégor area (North-East of Breton-speaking Brittany) with for example the very recent 2015 publication of Constance Le Mérer’s manuscripts  (Constance  Le  Mérer ; textes et musiques présentés par Bernard Lasbleiz et Daniel Giraudon, Une collecte de chants populaires dans le pays de Lannion (Dastum 2015), a recent Taylorian acquisition.

l'enquete fortoul

L’enquête Fortoul (Rennes, 2010)

Both volumes also of L’enquête Fortoul, edited by Laurence Berthou-Bécam and Didier Bécam, give documented and detailed access to extensive  fieldwork carried out throughout Brittany in the mid-nineteenth century.




When one works on songs, one must also study legends, folktales, proverbs and other forms of Breton oral literature. The Taylorian  holds  a broad  range of books in this field, like the volumes of  François-Marie Luzel’s tales, legends and letters edited by Françoise Morvan or the Contes et légendes de Bretagne gathered by François Cadic and edited by Fañch Postic.

When I think about my research experiences in the different libraries mentioned above, I realize how different the atmosphere is in each of them. The library of the Centre de Recherche Bretonne et Celtique in Brest has certainly the most complete collection of Breton material, not only books but also exceptional written and sound archives; however it is really focused on Brittany, and the collections on other Celtic countries are poorer. The Widener Library at Harvard is a huge, fascinating place where one can walk for hours among stacks as far as one’s eyes can see: the Breton collections are remarkable, although dispersed in many places throughout the library. When I try to characterize what makes the Taylorian different, two words spring to mind. The first one is “accessibility”. In a space that is compact but freely accessible to researchers, one has access to a very large collection of books all kept in the same room, with a remarkable coherence in the contents. Working in this intimate underground place on the tables near the rolling stacks is one of the great memories I will treasure of my time in Oxford. The second word is “dynamism”, I mean the dynamism of the Celtic department and the librarian in constantly improving the collections by acquiring the best new publications. How couldn’t one be surprised and impressed to discover such good provision for a language, today spoken in Brittany by fewer than 200 000 people,  in a university library across the Channel? Oxford libraries are amazing!  Once discovered, it is certainly difficult not to direct one’s steps to the Breton collections of the Taylor Institution Library…

Dr Éva Guillorel, Université de Caen Basse-Normandie

Breton at the Taylorian

Following on from her popular lecture in the ‘Introducing Endangered Languages’ seminar organised by the Taylor Institution Library in Michaelmas 2015, Dr Holly Kennard gives an overview of the library’s Breton collection from the perspective of a linguistics researcher.


Breton is a Celtic language, part of the Brythonic branch of languages, closely related to Welsh and Cornish. It is spoken by about 200 000 people in western Brittany, in northwest France. It has a long history of folktales and traditional music, much of which has been passed down orally through the generations.

There are no longer any monolingual speakers, and Breton is considered to be an endangered language, with most of its speakers now quite elderly. However, language activists have been campaigning for the future of Breton, and this has seen a resurgence of interest in the language, with the establishment of Breton-medium education, broadcasting, as well as an increase in material published in Breton.

Breton linguistics

I have had an interest in Breton for a number of years, beginning first as an undergraduate studying French and Linguistics, and continuing through to my DPhil, where I focused on Breton morphosyntax in contrasting groups of older and younger speakers. Breton presents an opportunity to study an endangered minority language as well as language revival, which I find fascinating, but I am also interested in aspects of its grammar – for my thesis I examined word order patterns and initial consonant mutation, and I am about to embark upon a project looking at grammatical gender and metrical stress.


The particular strengths of the collection at the Taylor are its breadth – it has a wide range of both books and periodicals – and its combination of classic texts (like early descriptions and dictionaries) and very up-to-date publications. I often use the ‘classic’ linguistics texts such as Kenneth Jackson’s Historical Phonology of Breton and Roparz Hémon’s Historical Morphology and Syntax of Breton.



Although written from a historical standpoint, these seminal works provide detailed and valuable descriptions of Breton, as well as explaining a range of regional variation. The collection houses a number of dictionaries from different periods, and with different foci: early dictionaries such as Grand dictionnaire franҫais-breton, as well as more modern editions such as the Elementary Breton-English & English-Breton dictionary, which is likely to be more accessible to a beginner. There is a large monolingual Breton dictionary, Geriadur brezhoneg gant skouerioù ha troiennoù, and then there are the more specialist works such as Per Denez’s dictionary of the Breton of Douarnenez, a dictionary of Old Breton, and even a dictionary of Breton place-names, Albert Deshayes, Dictionnaire des noms de lieux bretons and family names, Albert Deshayes, Dictionnaire des noms de famille bretons.

Geriadur brezhoneg gant skouerioù ha troiennoù ( An Here, 1995)

Geriadur brezhoneg gant skouerioù ha troiennoù (An Here, 1995)

I find the selection of Breton grammars particularly useful. The classic is Kervella’s Yezhadur bras ar brezhoneg, but as it is written in Breton, it is perhaps less accessible to a general audience. My default choice for a reference grammar is Favereau’s Grammaire du breton contemporain, as well as Press’s book, A grammar of modern Breton, which is written in English.


Atlas 2

Of course, the collection goes far beyond reference works such as the above. From my perspective as a linguistics researcher, the descriptions of dialects are very valuable – often, researchers have published detailed doctoral research into an individual dialect, which is really interesting. Le breton de Léchiagat, by André Sinou is one such example. Of course there are also the Linguistic atlases, which deal specifically with regional variation – compiled over the twentieth century, they also allow a glimpse of language change in progress, and are a valuable reference point for linguistics researchers. This is particularly important for an endangered language like Breton, since documentation of regional forms while they are still being spoken is vital.


The collection also contains Middle and Early Modern Breton texts, as well as dictionaries of Old and Middle Breton, and etymological works, allowing researchers to document longer-term language change, and study how Breton differs from its closest neighbours, Cornish and Welsh.

Léon Fleuriot, A Dictionary of old Breton : historical and comparative = Dictionnaire du vieux Breton (Toronto, 1985), pp. 242-43

Léon Fleuriot, A Dictionary of old Breton : historical and comparative = Dictionnaire du vieux Breton (Toronto, 1985), pp. 242-43

The Catholicon is a particularly famous work – first published in 1464, it was not only the first Breton dictionary, but also the first French dictionary, and gives words in Breton, French and Latin.

Le Catholicon de Jehan Lagadeuc : dictionnaire breton, français et latin (Lorient : E. Corfmat, [1868?]

Le Catholicon de Jehan Lagadeuc : dictionnaire breton, français et latin (Lorient : E. Corfmat, [1868?])

In my own work, I am obviously interested in the above, along with other linguistics works. I also frequently refer to the Breton journals that the library holds; in addition to the Journal of Celtic Linguistics, which is a more general journal, I use La Bretagne linguistique and Klask, which is the Celtic journal produced in Rennes. However, there is also a wide range of Breton-language literature available in the Taylor. LiteratureIn addition to books written entirely in Breton, there are also bilingual (French-Breton) texts, and a range of translations, which are helpful for language learners.

Danevelloù divyezhek, An Here-Al Liamm, 2002

Danevelloù divyezhek, (An Here-Al Liamm, 2002)


Not only is this interesting as a mark of how much publishing in Breton (at one time very rare!) has increased, it also constitutes in itself a valuable corpus. I hope to draw on this as I begin my next project, when I will be looking at the Breton of younger speakers/writers.




Dr Holly Kennard,  Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, University of Oxford

Breton –  Book Display for Endangered Languages Seminar 4th November 2015

All shelfmarks relate to the Taylor Institution Library

Language history and bilingualism

Abalain, Hervé. 1995. Histoire de la langue bretonne (Paris: Editions Jean-Paul Gisserot) C.6501.112

Broudic, Fañch. 1995. La Pratique du Breton de l’Ancien Régime à nos jours (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes) C.9400.91

Gwennig, Youenn et al. 2002. Danevelloù Divyezhek / Nouvelles Bilingues (An Here – Al Liamm) C.6640.63

Linguistic Atlases

Le Dû, Jean. 2001. Nouvel atlas linguistique de la Basse-Bretagne (Brest: CRBC, Université de Bretagne Occidentale) X.OUT.C.27

Le Roux, Pierre. 1924-1963. Atlas linguistique de la Basse-Bretagne (Paris: Champion) L.ATL.A.FR.7

Dictionaries and Grammars

Croix, Alain and Jean-Yves Veillard. 2013. Dictionnaire du patrimoine breton 3rd edition. (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes) DC611B847 DIC 2013

Favereau, Frañses. 1993. Dictionnaire du breton contemporain (Morlaix: Skol Vreizh) REF.M.21.BRE.2 (BT)

Favereau, Francis. 1997. Grammaire du breton contemporain (Morlaix: Skol Vreizh) C.6501.111

Press, J. Ian. 1986. A Grammar of Modern Breton (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter) C.6501.90

Hemon, Roparz. 1975. A historical morphology and syntax of Breton (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) C.6501.41

Humphrey Lloyd Humphreys. 1995. Phonologie et morphosyntaxe du parler breton de Bothoa en Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem (Côtes-d’Armor) (Brest: Ar Skol Vrezoneg) C.6501.105

Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone. 1967. A historical phonology of Breton (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) C.6501.24


Favereau, Frañses and Hervé Le Bihan. 2006. Littératures de Bretagne: mélanges offerts à Yann-Ber Piriou (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes) PB2858.L48 LIT 2006

La Villemarqué, Théodore Hersart, Vicomte de and Kemener, Yann-Fañch. 1999. Barzaz Breiz: Chants populaires de la Bretagne (Paris: Editions du Layeur) C.9400.107

Madeg, Mikael. 2011. Nan heb e dad (Brest: Emgleo Breizh) PB2905.M28 N36 MAD 2011

Gibson, Jacqueline and Gwyn Griffiths. 2006. The turn of the ermine: an anthology of Breton literature (London: Francis Boutle) PB2873 TUR 2006