comparing Breton and Irish, part 1 – the inner workings

The Breton language tends to be unheard of outside of France except perhaps among Celtic language enthusiasts. Indeed, I first heard of the language from linguistic literature about the Celtic language family. Not much information was available to me at the time, but I became curious about the only Celtic language still spoken in continental Europe. My first exposure to Breton was through the online Breton language radio station An Tour Tan. I was intrigued from the first moment. The sound of the language was not at all what I was expecting; the heavy phonological influences from French, such as the uvular /ʁ/ sound and many of the vowels, caught me off guard. But there were some familiar things as well: the /x/ sound and something about the rhythm of the language, particularly with older speakers. I wanted desperately to pick out familiar words or phrases, cognates with Irish, but at this early stage no such similarities were apparent. Nevertheless, I was hooked and set about to tracking down materials for learning this low-profile gem of a language.

As I began to study whatever materials I could get my hands on, I started to be able to draw some lexical and syntactic connections to Irish. After visiting Brittany in 2008 and understanding a little more about the sociolinguistic situation there, certain political and cultural parallels became apparent as well. Thus my approach to the Breton language has always been influenced by my perspective as an Irish speaker, and I hope to outline here a few of the parallels that I’ve observed between the two languages.

The modern Celtic languages currently in use are marked in green. By Elevatorrailfan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

COGNATES – mind your P’s & Q’s

The most obvious similarities are found in the cognates that you will find between the two languages. Coming from different branches of the Celtic language family, there are not as many cognates between Breton and Irish as there are between Breton and Welsh, but there are certainly enough to give an Irish-speaker a leg up in learning Breton. Below is a small selection of related words that I’ve noted over the course of my studies.

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 05.21.27 p.m..png

A few additional cognates will point out one major difference between the two branches of modern Celtic languages, Goidelic and Brythonic. Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish-Gaelic, and Manx) can also be classified as Q-Celtic, while the Brythonic languages (Breton, Welsh, and Cornish) can be labeled P-Celtic. This difference refers to a sound change whereby the Q-Celtic languages, in branching off from the other Celtic languages, replaced bilabial stops (represented by “P”) with velar stops (represented by “Q”). Hence, questions words in modern Breton such as pe, pet, penaos, peur are cognates with the Irish cé, cad, conas, and cá huair (who, what, how, when).

The word for “son” in the Gaelic or Q-Celtic languages is mac, commonly known from many surnames such as mine, MacEoghain, is mab in Breton and other P-Celtic languages. Incidentally, there is also a surname found in Breton, Abeozen (the M was lost at some point), which shares the same etymology as MacEoghainEoghan and Eozen both deriving from an old Celtic word meaning “yew”.

Penn is “head” in Breton, and is found in Irish as ceann. By extension, we find two more cognates empenn and inchinn, which both mean “brain”, i.e. “in the head”.


In addition to sound shifts there are also naturally shifts in meaning between cognates of the two languages.

Skuizh and scíth both in fact mean “tired”, though in Irish scíth nowadays has the more common meaning of “rest” and another word tuirseach is used to indicate “tired”.

The pair of antonyms uhel and izel, meaning “high” and “low” respectively, exists in Irish as uasal and íseal. While the meaning of íseal still has a lot of overlap with izel, uasal in Irish is used to mean “high” in the sense of “high-born” or “nobel”, but not in the sense of physically high or tall.

Dorn in Breton is “hand”, while the same word in Irish means “fist”.

Exhibiting another regular sound correspondence GW / F, gwenn meaning “white” in Breton shares its origins with fionn which is generally only used for “fair-haired” or “fair-skinned” in modern Irish.

Tud, “people” in Breton, is a cognate with the Irish tuath, which has the less general meaning of “people” in the sense of “a people” or “tribe” or even “lay people”.

Finally there are even occasional compounds or expressions that are shared by both languages:

den ebet / duine ar bith = anyone/no one (literally “a person in the world”)

ouzhpenn / os cionn = above (literally “over head”)

droug-penn / droch-cheann = headache (literally “painfull/evil head”)

buoc’hig-Doue / bóín Dé = lady bug (literally “little cow of god”)

With a little prodding, the surface differences between Breton and Irish begin to melt away and traces of kinship appear. But the lexicon just one aspect. If we look into the grammatical workings of Breton and Irish, we will find many more parallels.

MUTATIONS – ma vamm / mo mháthair

Mutations are another trait found in Breton that will be familiar to Irish speakers. The Breton mutations more closely resemble those in Welsh or Cornish, but there is a definite resemblance to Irish, both in phonology and application. An Irish speaker won’t bat an eyelash at the fact that “woman” in Breton is maouez but “the woman” is ar vaouez. After all, the same thing happens with “woman” in Irish, yielding bean and an bhean (here bh is pronounced as /v/). And the use of the mutation here is no surprise as both languages lenite feminine singular nouns after the definite article.

The only real difficulty for an Irish speaker is that Breton has four varieties of mutation, twice as many as in Irish. But the basic principles of sound change are the same and rules that block mutation in certain situations such as “the dental rule” can apply in both languages.

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 05.28.41 p.m.
taken from Ar C’hemmadurioù, Lodenn 4:
Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 05.29.06 p.m.
taken from Ar C’hemmadurioù, Lodenn 4:


SYNTAX – Penaos eo an amzer? / Conas atá an aimsear?

The word order of Breton presents some interesting challenges. Literature generally labels Breton as a VSO language, like all other Celtic languages, without paying attention to the fact that most sentences in Breton do not follow this pattern. Indeed subordinate clauses and negative statements are strictly VSO, so there is some basis, however underlying, for VSO categorization, but something else is happening on the surface. The pattern that we see most commonly is referred to as verb-second or V2, which is exactly how it sounds. The verb comes second and the first position is occupied by the subject, object, adverbial phrase, etc. Breton speakers tend to put into the first position whatever information is new or intended to be emphasized. As Stephen Anderson points out, the verb actually CANNOT be in the first position in most sentences. Curious for a supposedly VSO language.

This peculiarity didn’t strike me as particularly odd at first though, because I could easily find parallels in Irish to refer to. Irish stays fairly loyal to its VSO structure, but it can also make use of particles to introduce subordinate clauses, exactly as Breton does, in order to create sentences with a similar structure to Breton’s V2 sentences. In Irish this usage is generally limited for the purposes of emphasizing a particular idea.

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 10.31.53 p.m..png
taken from Intermediate Irish: A Grammar and Workbook by Nancy Stenson

The Irish examples still fit the VSO description with the copula is occupying the V position, but the particle a introduces a subordinate clause which contains the main verb (cheannaigh) of the sentence. Likewise, I believe that there may be an unrealised, implied copula of sorts in these Breton sentences that introduces a subordinate clause after the particle a or e and gives the V2 surface result.

The can be rendered into Breton as shown below (though admittedly I switched to the imperfect tense in Breton to preserve the parallel word order and use of particles, so it is…imperfect). The only thing missing is a copula at the beginning of the sentences:

Me a brenen ur c’harr e Doire dec’h.

Ur c’harr a brenen e Doire dec’h.

E Doire e prenen ur c’harr dec’h.

Dec’h e prenen ur c’harr e Doire.

The following passage caught my attention for exactly this reason. In this construction in Irish the copula in the initial position is generally omitted and just implied.

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 10.36.58 p.m.
taken from Intermediate Irish: A Grammar and Workbook by Nancy Stenson

Furthermore, this “do + infinitive” construction is very common in Breton. The above sentences can thus easily be rendered in Breton as:

Torriñ ar prenest a rae. = break-INF. the window PART. do-3SG.FUT.

Kouezhañ a ri! = fall-INF. PART. do-2SG.FUT.

So many sentences can be translated nearly verbatim from Irish to Breton, leaving out only the initial copula where it appears in Irish. I would have to look more into the structure of Old Breton to know if in fact there ever was a copula used in that position, but at the very least it is striking that two now distantly related languages still share a common flexibility in word order and that beneath the surface, their structures are not all that different.

Another characteristic shared between Breton and Irish is the behaviour of their prepositions. First of all, they both “conjugate” their prepositions, as do all other Celtic languages. That is, prepositions have specific inflected forms for each person, such as the Breton ganin, ganit, ganti (with me, with you, with her) which derive from the preposition gant (with). Not only that, but the usage of these prepositional forms is quite similar, even if the prepositions themselves differ. For example, possession or ownership is often expressed with prepositions:

Irish: Tá leabhar agam(lit. A book is at me.)

Breton: Ul levr a zo ganin. (lit. A book is with me.)

Both of these mean “I have a book” in one sense or another. Whereas both of the following mean “The book is mine”:

I: Is liomsa an leabhar. (lit. The book is with me.)

B: Din eo al levr. (lit. The book is to me.)

The past perfect is also expressed with personal prepositions in conjunction with the past participle:

I: Tá sé críochnaithe agam. (lit. It is finished at me.)

B: Echu eo ganin. (lit. It is finished with me.)

Both of these mean “I have finished it.”

Certain idiomatic expressions even hold up in both languages, such as in these two sentences which both mean “He succeeded (at it)”:

I: D’éirigh go maith leis(lit. It rose well with him.)

B: Dont a rae brav gantañ(lit. It came well with him.)

PERSPECTIVE – Is glas iad an cnoic i bhfad uainn.

Finally there are a few other details that I think beautifully illustrate both the linguistic and cultural ties between the Irish and the Bretons. The existence of the word glas in both languages is one example.

Glas in both Breton and Irish is the colour of nature, basically. In Irish I’ve heard it defined as “the natural colour of plants or things in nature”, and in Breton one teacher of mine defined it as “the colour of the sea”. In both languages, this means that glas could be translated into English as blue, green, grey, or even black depending on what is being described. Plants, trees, the sea, the sky, horses, wool, or someone’s eyes could all be glas. It’s a colour that includes a quality of vitality and nature. It is often translated as “green”, but both languages actually have words to describe things that are green but artificial or not found in nature: gwer in Breton and uaine in Irish. Your t-shirt may be green, but the grass is always glas.

Compass directions are another very interesting thing in Celtic languages. This summer the directional parallels between Breton and Irish became clear to me when a Breton teacher pointed out that in nautical terms kleiz (left) is used to mean “north” and dehoù (right) is used to mean “south”. So ar mor kleiz is the sea to the north of a ship and ar mor dehoù is the sea to the south, indicating a directional orientation towards the east. This reminded me of Irish, which uses the word soir (east) to mean “forward” or “ahead” and the word siar (west) to mean “back”. So if you ask someone to bog siar, you want them to move back, but you’re literally saying “move west”. The actual direction in which they move is irrelevant, but the language still reveals an orientation towards the east. Furthermore, the Irish word for south(ward), ó dheas, comes from the word deas, meaning “right”, though the same logic does not apply to “north(ward)” which is ó thuaidh instead of something related to clé (cf. kleiz).

artist: Isaac Emrick,

So here you have a brief introduction to some of the elements shared between Irish and Breton. The more Breton I learn, the more I see the similarities with Irish and the more I rely on Irish-language logic to speak and formulate ideas in Breton. Given their geographic separation and independent development, the amount of common ground that modern Irish and Breton share is astounding, though it may not be immediately apparent.

Aside from the linguistic richness that they share, though, they also sadly share many societal obstacles. In my next post, I will take a step back from the inner workings of Breton and Irish and focus more on the social and political challenges that these two languages face in the modern world.


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