The Ogmios Project

Labara 6: a taste of Breton verse
by Meredith Richard

Having looked at some old and new poetry in Welsh and Irish in the last two installments of this series, we'll now look at some verses from a Celtic language likely to be less familiar to most readers of Keltria.

Breton, or Brezhoneg, is the Celtic language of Brittany. Brittany, anciently known as Armorica, is across the English Channel from Britain, just south of Cornwall, and is currently part of the French state.

Breton is a member of the Brythonic branch of the Celtic language family, and is thus closely related to the two other living Brythonic languages, Welsh and Cornish, especially the latter. It has been suggested that the Breton language is the direct descendant of the Celtic language of the Gauls (of what is now present-day France), but the relationship between Breton, Welsh and Cornish is too close to support this hypothesis. All three descend from the Celtic language spoken in early Britain, and developed independently when the various British-speaking communities became isolated from each other as a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

Political history has affected Breton and Breton literature in other ways as well. The last Breton-speaking ruler was in the eleventh century, and Breton thenceforth became a language spoken solely by the common people. As a language without aristocratic support and patronage, Breton did not retain or the sophisticated literary outpourings parallel to those preserved in early Welsh and Irish. Extant Old Breton examples are mostly lists, glosses and names, and the first significant literary texts in Middle Breton are after the fifteenth century, mostly religious material and mystery plays.

Nevertheless, Brittany has made irreplaceable contributions to the legendary and mythic side of the Celtic world. The living folk traditions of Brittany, along with those of Gaelic Scotland, are the most deepest and most intact in the Celtic world. The tales of Arthur and the Matter of Britain, too - one of the more influential elements of Celtic origin on European literature - are due to the Bretons, as it was through Breton bards that the tales came to the attention of the Norman aristocracy, and thence to the consciousness of mainstream Europe.

Some recommended ways to work with Celtic-language verse, in order to help you experience the poetry on as many levels as possible (see Labara 4,  for a more detailed list): 
  • Sound: Learn the verses by heart, paying careful attention to the sound patterns and rhythms, and the energies they create. The pronunications given are approximate, so get experienced help if possible! 
  • Meaning: Learn the meanings of each word and phrase, well enough so that you know what you are saying as you say it. Celtic language learners should keep an eye out for cognate words and familiar grammatical constructions.
  • Visualisation : Practice sensing the images of the verses as you recite them, turning your mind away from mental translation in English. Conversely, meditate on key images, using only Celtic-language words for any mental or physical verbalisation. 
  •  Background: Read up on the major images and/or personages mentioned in the verses, ñ original tales and sources if at all possible.
  • Associations and correspondences: Explore key words and images: what are the Celtic etymological, historical, literary, mythological, folkloric associations of the word?
  • Integrate all you've learned, using the verses as meditation poetry or in an appropriate ritual. 
  • The modern Breton literary revival was stimulated by the publication in 1839 of Barzaz-Breiz , a collection of ballads and songs, by Theodore Hersart de la VillemarquÈ (known in Breton as Kervarker). Although much of its claim to be genuine ancient tradition was disproved, it directly stimulated the study of genuine Breton folksong and folklore by such scholars as FranÁois-Marie Luzel and Anatole Le Braz. More recently, with access to Kerverker's notebooks, it has been shown that while material has been added and rewritten, there is a solid core of genuine folksong and folk tradition. 

    The poetry selection we will be looking at in this article, 'Marzhin-Divinour', is a song from the Barzaz-Breiz collection. It is not known for sure whether this song is solidly based on a nineteenth-century folk original ñ but the closely-related, much longer ballad 'Marzhin-Barzh' (which had in fact been a particular target of the 'debunkers') has now been proven to be

     part of the genuine folk tradition, and 'Marzhin-Divinour' is at least partially based on verses from the longer work.


    Marzhin, Marzhin, pelec'h it-hu
    Ken beure-se, gant ho ki du

    Bet on bet kas kaout an tu,
    Da gaout dre-man ar vi ruz

    Ar vi ruz eus an naer-vorek
    War lez an aod, toull ar garreg

    Mont a ran da glask d'ar flourenn
    Ar beler glas ha'n aour-yeoten

    Koulz hag uhel-varr an dervenn
    E-kreiz ar c'hoad, 'lez ar feunteun


    Working with the Sounds

    The phonetics of Breton is based on French, particularly the vowels. In the following phoneticization, '¸' represents the sound of French u (as in tu) or the German ¸; eu represents the French eu as in fleur; kh represent the 'ch' of 'loch' or 'Bach'; Ò represents a nasalised n, as in French maman. The Breton r is usually rolled (but in some dialects is like the uvular r of French or German).


    Note that in the following phoneticization, some of the accents are non-standard, to match the song meter. In most Breton dialects, the accents is on the next-to -last syllable, so you in spoken Breton you would have, for example, "MAR-zin" instead of the song's "mar-ZIN".

    mar-ZIN, mar-ZIN, pe-LEKH it-h¸
    ken BUR-eh zeh, gand o ki d¸

    BED on BED, kass kowt an t¸
    da GAHW-oot DRAY-maÒ ar vee r¸

    ar VEE r¸z UHSS an NIRE (rhymes with fire) VOR-eg
    var LEZ an OWD, tool ar GARR-reg

    MOND a RAHN da GLASG dar FLOHRen
    ar BELL-er glahss hag an OUR YOWT-enn

    KOULZ hag UH-hel VAHR an DAYR-venn
    eh-KRAYZ ar KHWAD, layz ar FEUN-tun

    Working with Words and Associations
    Marzhin The Breton form of Merlin (cf Welsh Myrddin). One of the four Marzhin songs in the Barzaz-Breiz relates the tale of his unusual conception and birth - a king's daughter becomes pregnant by a bird flying about her head and ears while she is in the house of a 'little pagan god'. Her newborn child tells her not to bewail her fate or to call his father an evil spirit, and she exclaims that the child is a marzh, 'a marvel' a folk etymology of the name Marzhin.

    Divinour 'diviner, fortuneteller, wizard' - compare Welsh dewin, covered in "Labara 4: A Taste of Welsh Verse"

    pelec'h 'where'

    it 'go' in the second person 'polite'/plural form, present tense

    it-hu 'you' - a dialect form of the second person 'polite'/plural ; the usual form is c'hwi. Breton, like many other languages, has two forms of the word 'you' - one with a singular meaning and reserved for close friends, children and so forth, and the other used for more formal situations and for addressing more than one person ñ compare French vous and German Sie.

    Ken 'so'

    beure 'morning, early'

    -se 'this', which modifies the preceding word. Put together, this phrase means 'so early this morning'.

    gant 'with', cognate with Welsh gan

    ho 'your' (again, the 'polite' form)

    ki mutation of c'hi, 'dog' Compare W. ci and Ir , 'hound' (as in C? Chulainn). The Welsh Myrddin Wyllt is also associated with a wolf or a dog (among other animals).

    du 'black', cf. W. du, Ir. dubh

    Bet on bet on is 'I am', while bet is the past participle 'been'. On bet is the usual way of expressing 'I have been', and the additional bet here is intensifying the expression

    kas kaout kas is 'to send, to get, and kaout is 'to find', and the two together form an idiom meaning 'to seek'

    an 'the'. There are three words for 'the' in Breton: al (which appears only before words beginning with l); an (which appears before words beginning with vowels or with n, d, t, h), and ar (which appears otherwise).

    tu 'seacoast', as well as more general 'side'

    Da 'to'

    gaout a form of kaout, above

    dre-maÒ 'here, in this place'

    vi 'egg', compare Welsh wy

    ruz 'red' - compare Ir ruadh . Remembering that in Breton, as in the other Celtic languages, the adjective follows the noun, the phrase an vi ruz means 'the red egg'.

    eus 'from'

    naer-vorek naer is 'serpent, and vorek is an adjectival form of mor, 'sea' - another word with obvious cognates in all the Celtic languages.

    War 'on'

    lez 'edge'

    aod 'coast, shore, beach'

    toull ar garreg toull is 'hole, hollow', ar is 'the', as noted above, and garreg is a mutation of karreg, 'rock, stone, reef'. This construction is a possessive - in English terms, it has an undersood 'of': (the) hole (of) the stone. This structure is used several more times here, so keep an eye out for it!

    The hollow of the stone is where the sea-serpent has laid the red egg, and the red egg of this serpent is a Breton version of the talisman found across the Celtic cultures in both time and space: from Pliny's classical reference to the "serpent stone" (ovum anginum), through the gleiniau found in living Celtic folk traditions, including Wales and Scotland. They are variously connected with divination, healing, and protection.

    Mont a ran Mont is 'going', ran is 'I do, I am doing', and a is a particle that connects the two. The phrase can be literally understood as "[It is] going [which] I am doing" - that is, "I am going".

    glask 'to look for, to search'

    flourenn 'grass, meadow'

    beler 'cress', an edible plant often mentioned in Celtic poetry and folklore

    glas A color word with cognates in all Celtic languages. It includes shades of blue, green and grey, specifically shades of these colors which are found in nature ñ 'wild' colors.

    ha'n 'and the'

    aour-yeotenn aour is 'gold', like Irish Ûr and Welsh aur, and yeotenn is 'herb, plant'. The 'golden herb', in Breton folklore, is a legendary plant with solar assocations, found only when it shines on St. John's Eve (June 23, the Midsummer festival), which must be harvested only while barefoot, clad only in a shirt, and with ritual observances and charms. The special properties of this herb are said to include giving understanding of the speech of dogs, wolves and birds.

    Koulz hag 'as well as'

    uhel-var 'mistletoe' cognate with W. uchelfar. The first element of the word means 'high', and it is high in a tree that mistletoe grows.

    dervenn 'oak' (compare Welsh derwen, Irish dair) This term is actually a 'collective' noun, where the basic word refers to oaks as a group or class in general, from which the word for any specific element of the group is formed by adding a suffix, dervenneg (compare sÍr in Labara 4). Mistletoe and oak have been long associated with the Druids, as in Pliny's famous account of the Druidic rite of cutting the mistletoe of the oak on the sixth day of the new moon.

    E-kreiz Kreiz is 'center, middle', and e-kreiz is 'in the middle'

    c'hoad a mutation of koad, 'forest' (compare Welsh coed)

    'lez 'edge'

    feunteun 'fountain' This fountain must be Baranton (or Barenton), in the forest of Brekelien (or BrocÈliande), in Brittany. The Welsh Myrddin, too, is also said to live near a spring or fountain in the forest of Celyddon, in what is now Scotland.


    A full translation is left as an exercise for the reader  but if you run into severe problems, a free translation of these verses was used by Mary Stewart in her novel The Crystal Cave.

    Similar lines from the Marzhin-Barzh verses, from known folk tradition, make an interesting comparison to the lines above. Marzhin is asked, "Marzhin, Marzhin, where are you going, with your trousers torn on both sides, and with your holly stick, like a countryman?" Marzhin answers, "I am going to look for my harp, which was worth its weight in silver, and which was my consolation in this world."

    While working with this song and the figure of Marzhin, it is necessary to remember that the familiar character Merlin from later non-Celtic literatures, from Malory to T.H. White, have become very distanced from the Marzhin and Myrddin of native Celtic traditions. In addition to the Breton songs and legends of Marzhin, one may also look at the early Welsh poetry connected with Myrddin, and the accounts of Merlin related by Geoffrey of Monmouth (which though in Latin, was not yet far removed from Welsh tradition, and may have been based directly on a native Welsh source as Geoffrey claimed) to begin to connect with the native Celtic tradition The Irish Suibhne Geilt and Scottish Lailoken are also closely related.

    Since Kervarker undoubtedly was familiar with both the Welsh Myrddin legends and contemporary theories about Druidism (he was a member of the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain), this pleasing song cannot be regarded as a independent, pristine survival of a Breton version of the Merlin legend. However, Kervarker was deeply immersed in Breton and other Celtic culture and folklore, and his work was an essentially harmonious development within the Celtic cultural matrix - which is illustrated by the fact that both the genuine and the invented material from the Barzaz-Breiz have become entirely re-incorporated into the living folksong and tradition of Brittany, and is a beautiful and vital part of the living Celtic tree of today.

    Next time: A Taste of Scottish Gaelic verse
    (1) Barzaz-Breiz: Chants Populaire de la Bretagne, Hersart de la VillemarqÈ (Librarie AcadÈmique Perrin, Paris, 1963 reprint) Thanks to Alexei Kondratiev for translation into standard Breton.

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    ©Meredith Richard, 1998. All rights reserved.