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.

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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.

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taken from Ar C’hemmadurioù, Lodenn 4:
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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.

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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 above Irish sentences translate very neatly into Breton as shown below. 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.

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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 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”. 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.


language revitalization and the healing of collective trauma

There is a Sinéad O’Connor song that had a strong impact on me as a young person. It speaks of the loss of language, culture, history, and the effects it can have on a nation.  I revisited this song recently in response to some new information I learned about language revitalization and found new layers of truth in it. The song is called “Famine”:

Famine – full lyrics

The song begins:

Okay, I want to talk about Ireland
Specifically I want to talk about the “famine” 
About the fact that there never really was one
There was no “famine”
See Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes
All of the other food
Meat fish vegetables
Were shipped out of the country under armed guard
To England while the Irish people starved
And then in the middle of all this
They gave us money not to teach our children Irish
And so we lost our history
And this is what I think is still hurting we

The Irish people and language suffered serious losses due to the occupation of Ireland by the English. Starting in the late 18th century, economic pressures and the flourishing of English in Dublin began to erode the security of the Irish language. Emigration and urban jobs were seen as ways out of poverty, and this meant that English, not Irish, was the language of the future. The days of Irish-speaking poets and nobility were long gone. The upper classes in Ireland were now exclusively English-speaking.

Nevertheless in 1800, Irish was still the main language of 85% of the country’s inhabitants. Written accounts by British visitors to Ireland describe the difficulty that many encountered in trying to communicate in English beyond the Pale. This would, however, change drastically over the next century. In 1831 the British established the National School system with English as the sole language of instruction, violently contributing to the decline of the Irish language and the stigma attached to it.

It is often said that the Irish language was beaten out of the people, and this is to be taken quite literally. National School children were forced to wear a small wooden stick hung on a string around their necks in order to monitor their language use. Every time they were caught speaking Irish the schoolmaster would cut a notch in the stick, and at the end of the day they would be beaten or punished that many times.

See we’re like a child that’s been battered
Has to drive itself out of it’s head because it’s frightened
Still feels all the painful feelings
But they lose contact with the memory


Meanwhile, people were forcibly removed from their lands and food became scarce as much of the farmland was used for raising beef cattle for export to England. Other crops and livestock were also sent to England in vast quantities. Furthermore, locals were prohibited from fishing and gathering seaweed, leaving them with little else to eat but potatoes. In 1845, when the Phytophthora infestans blight wiped out much of Europe’s potato crop, the Irish began to lose their main source of food and were simply left to starve.

Widespread death and emigration reduced the country’s population by about 20% over the next 10 years, and those remaining were often coerced to give up their religion and language for scraps of food. The Irish identity became synonymous with poverty, backwardness, shame, and inferiority, and many realised that the quickest way to make themselves seem more “civilised”, i.e. less Irish, was to simply speak English. By 1860 only about 30% of the population spoke Irish, and by 1921 that number was reduced to less than 15%. Almost a hundred years into independence, the stigma attached to Irish is still very real, and the language has never recovered.

So let’s take a look shall we
The highest statistics of child abuse in the EEC
And we say we’re a Christian country
But we’ve lost contact with our history
See we used to worship God as a mother
We’re suffering from post traumatic stress disorder
Look at all our old men in the pubs
Look at all our young people on drugs

In O’Connor’s song, she suggests that Ireland still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. It’s chilling to conceive of a mental health diagnosis on a national level – that a people affected by a trauma collectively suffer the symptoms that come with the inability to process and deal with that trauma, and furthermore, that these symptoms are echoed for generations to come. Recent research has in fact shown evidence of the effects of trauma on DNA – effects that are inherited in the DNA of subsequent generations.

As far as Irish is concerned, I personally have often thought that there is something pathological about Ireland’s relationship to its national language. The shame felt by our ancestors for speaking the language has now been converted into the shame that we feel for not being able to speak it, or for speaking it inadequately. The language has become something that divides us, rather than unites us. Those who speak Irish are often discouraged from using it by the reactions of those who do not. Speaking Irish in public can even be met with hostility, as if one’s use of the language is a challenge to another’s Irish-ness.

A TV Series on TG4, Ireland’s Irish language television station, tackled the question of what exactly would happen if someone simply went about their daily life in Ireland speaking only in Irish outside the Gaeltacht, or designated Irish-speaking regions. In No BéarlaManchán Magan took a road trip around the country speaking only in Irish and was met with a wide variety of reactions, ranging from curiosity to hostility, but almost never nonchalance. It’s as if speaking Irish is the least natural thing that Irish people could do with each other.

More recently, a column in the Irish Times written by Rosita Boland last May, sparked a heated national debate over the usefulness of Irish. Boland declared, “I do not like having my national identity pinned to a language I never use and cannot speak.” She laments the dry, lackluster way the language is taught in schools, and I agree that this is a tragedy. However she seems to equate her own lack of interest in the language to Irish being a completely useless language altogether. Her bitterness towards having had the language imposed on her in school is all too common.

In September of last year Cormac Ó Bruic, an Irish-speaker from the Kerry Gaeltacht, was forbidden from speaking Irish at his job in a Cork pub. The pub owner claimed that it was not about the Irish language itself but rather about practical communication, citing that he had an international staff of native speakers of several languages who all spoke English on the job. The difference that seems to elude Ó Bruic’s boss regarding the use of Irish in his pub is that his pub is in, well…Ireland.

Stories like this are by no means unusual, and Irish-speakers often have to take an almost apologetic approach to using the language. The country is clearly suffering some kind of linguistic identity crisis. Polls show that people feel favourably about the Irish language and believe it is an important part of Irish culture, but when it comes to actually engaging with it, all affection disappears and dysfunction reigns. Is this the PTSD kicking in?

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It’s perhaps not entirely useful to draw such a literal connection between the state of the Irish language and actual symptoms of PTSD in a human – I wouldn’t want to erase the experiences that individuals have with immediate trauma – but a few points of comparison are worth noting. “Efforts to avoid thoughts and activities” that are reminders of trauma could certainly describe much of Ireland’s disinterest or reluctance towards the language. Cormac Ó Bruin’s boss could be said to have had a sort of “exaggerated startle response” to Irish being spoken by his employees. Irritability and anger are not unheard of reactions to the use of Irish either. A bartender once snarled “Who do you think you are?!” at me for ordering a pint in Irish…in a Gaeltacht. This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of Irish people out there who support the language, but non-supporters do seem to harbour an inordinate amount of hostility towards it.

So how do we heal? Or do we, as so many suggest, just be done with the language and put it  out of its misery? Revivalist linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann would argue that there is strong evidence in support of holding on to our heritage language, particularly for the sake of mental health. I recently took his online AdelaideX course entitled “Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages” in which he presents evidence gathered in Canadian and Australian aboriginal communities that links language revitalization with improved mental health on the community level. Communities that have retained their native languages or are engaged in the process of language revitalization are likely to have lower suicide rates and better overall mental health as compared with communities who have lost their languages. In essence, people thrive when they have a strong sense of identity and a strong sense of place in the world. The pride, sense of belonging, and well-being that can come with linguistic decolonization is not to be underestimated. This is what it means for a community to heal.

I think that O’Connor was really onto something with “Famine”, and I think that Ireland’s  complicated relationship with her language can be healed. Irish needs to be a source of pride rather than shame. The language has to be normalized again. We have to stop associating Irish with the isolated, rural Gaeltacht, and realise that the language is relevant anywhere in Ireland. We also have to work through our collective shame around our language’s decline and rediscover its value in the world of today. Then perhaps we can create a more hospitable environment for those who want to make Irish an active part of their every day lives.

And if there ever is gonna be healing
There has to be remembering
And then grieving
So that there then can be forgiving
There has to be knowledge and understanding

seal snot and god’s tears

It’s very difficult to give an answer when asked what my favourite language is. It seems cruel to have to pick one, given the endless beauty and idiosyncrasies of each language…or dialect…or sub-dialect. However, my answer is usually Irish because there is one, clear reason I can readily cite for the inevitable follow-up of “Why?”: the imagery.

Every language uses visuals in descriptive expressions, often in ways that are completely unique. The image of raining cats and dogs is unlikely to turn up in any other language; it is truly an English notion. However there is something about the imagery in Irish that strikes me as particularly special, especially when it comes to describing the natural world.

I must admit that I am motivated by some level of cultural bias, as the names of plants, animals, and herbs abound with vivid imagery referencing perhaps more than a thousand years of folklore, mythology, and oral traditions to which I am personally connected. However, I think that anyone will appreciate this aspect of the Irish language, and perhaps gain some insight into how inseparable the landscape and natural environment is from the Irish culture, language, and psyche.

Below is a collection of some of my favourite nature-related words in Irish and some explanation, where possible, of the origins of these terms.

Smugairle Róin

Let’s start by explaining the title of this post a bit. Smugairle róin is the Irish word for jellyfish. Smugairle literally means “spit” or “snot”, and róin is “of a seal”, hence “seal snot”. I love the image of seals joyfully gliding through the water, hocking loogies and spawning slimy, transparent creatures off the coast of Donegal. It’s absurd and gross and beautiful all at the same time.

Lus an Chromchinn

Daffodils in Irish are called “Herb of the Bowed Head”. Lus is herb and chromchinn comes from crom, “bowed” or “bent”, and ceann or “head”. The name obviously describes the posture of the flower gracefully bowing its head. There is another, much less graceful name for Daffodils, though, and that is Lus an Aisig, more or less “vomit herb” in English. This comes from the fact that daffodils are highly toxic, vomiting being one possible result of a human or an animal accidentally ingesting them. A friend of mine suggested that the second, more graphic name might also be in reference to the posture of someone bending over to vomit, though I think most will prefer the more demure, poised “bowed head”.

Lus na mBan Sí

Foxglove, itself a beautiful and fitting plant name in English, has a few versions in Irish, two of which relate to the banshee. The first is simply Lus na mBan Sí, “Banshee Herb”. The other, more in the line of “Foxglove”, is Méaracáin na mBan Sí, meaning “Thimbles of the Banshee”. The purple, thimble-sized flowers are the most obvious feature of this plant, and the reference to the banshee may be a warning of the potentially toxic nature of this plant. It seems that an inordinate amount of plants whose Irish names reference the fairies, banshees or other spirits from the Irish pantheon are poisonous. The fairy folk, or an t-Aos Sí, are powerful and not to be toyed with. So are their plants.

Caipíní Púca

This link between poisons and the fairy world can be seen as well in Caipíní Púca, the Irish name for a kind of psychedelic mushroom, meaning “Little Goblin Caps/Hats”. Ingesting these will certainly bring on aisling-like visions and possibly access to na daoine maithe, “the Good People”.

Mac Tíre

Irish sometimes has a curious way of using mac (son) in creating words. The word for wolf is mac tíre (son of the country/countryside). Some have thought that this is in reference to old beliefs about the shapeshifting abilities of wolves, who are encountered in human form in many tales.

Another curious usage of mac can be found in the word macalla (echo).  This word comes from mac (son) and aille (of the cliff). Thus an echo is the son of a cliff, i.e. a sound being reproduced off of the side of a cliff.

Caisleáin Óir

Cumulus clouds in the sky are referred to as “castles” in Irish. Large and imposing, they tower high like castles of ancient lore, clouds and castles incidentally both being fairly common in Ireland. Taking the image one step further, the golden-orange-pink vision of clouds in the sunset is known as caisleáin óir – castles of gold.

Deora Dé

Finally, one of my favourites, is actually not a native plant to Ireland. Fuchsia is the result of planted hedges that outgrew their intended confines and is now commonly seen gfuschias-955966_960_720rowing wild particularly in the southwest of Ireland. Because of this, there is not any old folklore to be found regarding the plant, yet it has still managed to acquire a very beautiful Irish name: Deora Dé (God’s Tears).

The drooping flowers and stamina are the most graceful of tears, and their electric colour is perhaps their godly quality. I haven’t been able to find information on the origin of the name Deora Dé, but it isn’t surprising to me that the flower found such a striking name in Irish.

The above is just a smattering of the imagery that Irish has to offer. The language casts vivid scenes and stacks layer upon layer of meaning, often onto some of the most simple or common objects or ideas.  This is what I miss when I don’t get to speak Irish for an extended period of time. These types of words are the real heart of the language. So the next time someone corners me into answering why Irish is my “favourite” language, I’ll simply reply, “Seal snot and God’s tears.”



Forey, Pamela & Lindsay, Ruth. Luibheanna Leighis, 1997.

Ó Dónaill, Niall. Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, 1977.

Williams, Nicholas. Díolaim Luibheanna, 1993.