Breton for dummies

My first Breton lesson was yesterday. There are 31 students enrolled in this week-long program and I am one of six in level one. The classes are held in the village of Pl├ęsidy’s Breton school, which is of course empty during the summer.

Breton is a Celtic language and is related to Welsh and Cornish, yet comes from a different branch of the Celtic language family tree that Manx, Irish and Scots Gaelic stem from. Since I have no knowledge of any Celtic language prior to this, everything I hear sounds foreign. It is impossible to guess what a Breton word might mean just by looking at it, unless the word has been borrowed and “Bretonized”.

Breton is an Object-Verb-Subject language and already I have fallen into the trap of English word order when I did my homework translations last night. I should have known better, since the OVS word order of Breton was well-known to me before I even got here. For example, the sentence: “My nose is red” translates to Ruz eo ma fri, which literally means “Red is my nose”.

However, if one really wanted to emphasize that it was *my nose* that was red (and not anything else) you would place “My nose” in the first position but would also have to change the verb: Ma fri zo ruz.

For the point of this introductory lesson let’s conveniently ignore that I am using the copula verb “to be” when I talk about objects. Breton puts the new information, or the major information, at the beginning of the sentence. If you alter this word order, as I did with the sentence “*My nose* is red”, then you have to change the verb. This can get very confusing. The short sentence “That’s clever” is translated as Fin eo se (literally, “Clever is that”) however if you wanted to emphasize the “that” being clever then the translation would be Se zo fin.

My level 1 class is not using a textbook, however the teachers are giving us photocopies from an introductory-level grammar. Our first lesson was numbered “Kentel 0”, which translates to “Lesson zero”. That really dug the knife in deep, making us feel below even the most basic of introductory language exercises ­čÖé

I used the plural “teachers” in the preceding paragraph because each of the four parts of our daily lessons is taught by a different instructor. The instructors revolve through all four classes each day. Class starts at 09.30 until 13.00, with a fifteen-minute break in between. Lunch is from 13.00 to 14.30 then classes resume until 17.30, with a fifteen-minute break in the afternoon as well. All classes have a different instructor before and after each break. The instructors’ names are Ma├» (the only woman), Fulup, Ja├▒-Mai and Visant. Unlike in the Romansch course where it is very rare to find anyone enrolled whose native language is English, this course has seen many native-English speakers, however I am the only one this year. Most of the English-speaking students come from Great Britain or Ireland, and they study Breton in order to learn another Celtic language. The language of instruction in the level one class is advertised as French, yet all four instructors have spoken far more Breton in their lessons than French. They still do some instructions in French though. With my Finnish and Romansch courses, the language of instruction was the target language from day one. I would prefer that the instructors teach only in Breton, yet explain things to us in French (or English) only if we can’t understand. Three of my instructors have spoken to me privately to let me know that I could ask them questions in class in English, or receive an English translation of a French explanation, but I have not needed to take them up on their offer.

It is typical in language courses that the women students outnumber the men. Of the 31 students I counted only nine men when we sat down to lunch. Thus so far I have not had to share my three-bed dorm room with anyone. Some rooms have as many as seven beds yet when I arrived on Sunday night I made sure I grabbed a room with the least number of beds. The other two beds in my room are bunkbeds so you can guess that that was the bed I did not choose. I am sure this will change as later on this week the Breton dancers and musicians will arrive for their courses. So of the six nights I am sleeping here, I can’t really complain if I have to share for three or four nights when I expected to share for all six.

Pl├ęsidy is a veritable ghost town with one restaurant that’s dark all the time, a library that’s open only two hours a week and a grocery store that sells food but neither postcards nor stamps. Now why would I be buying stamps at the grocery store? Because the village’s post office is closed until the second week of August.

Closed? Don’t do this to your best customer. Therefore the postcards I had intended to mail from Pl├ęsidy will have to wait until Saturday before they see a mailbox. I want to stop off in Guingamp again this coming Saturday before I commence my tour of northern Brittany in order to check out the town’s three bookstores, all of which were closed from Saturday night to Sunday.

So I have an involuntary postcard break for the next five days: nothing to buy to write on and nothing to stick on them to mail them. I will be kept busy writing during my last week of holidays when I finish this course.

Lunches here have been heavy on my least-favourite (otherwise known as my most-hated) vegetable, zucchini. I have not been eating as much as I did over the past two weeks during the Romansch course. One thing that this course has which the Romansch course didn’t have during meals is red wine. This is France, after all, and there is even wine during the break before lunch. I had one very small glass yesterday and it made me drowsy in the afternoon, so I did not have any today.

Official Scrabble content: the next time you play polyglot Scrabble, you will be pleased to know that there are four Breton words that are rear hooks to the English board-blocker ae: aer, aes, aet and aez.

Thanks to those who replied with the proper terminal information for my departure from Paris, and thanks as well to those who wrote that the first train I boarded when I left Charles de Gaulle Airport was an RER, not a metro. I was led to believe it was a metro because the route map the information guide gave me indicated it as a metro map.

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