We are not French!:
Language, Culture and Identity in Brittany

Maryon McDonald

Routledge 1989
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007 https://dannyreviews.com/
We are not French! is a study of Breton identity in modern Brittany, focusing on the Breton movements and on language and education. It shows some signs of its origin as a thesis, and has four sections with different focuses.

Part one is a history of the place of Breton language in the education system, going back to the Revolution. Central decrees were given local gloss, and it was often locals who did most to push Breton out of the schools. Support for Breton was originally associated with clericalism and right-wing politics, but after the Second World War and especially May 1968, came to have left-wing associations. When Breton was accepted as a formal second language, following a "Cultural Charter" in 1978, the number of students studying it dropped. And for most of the period, a bigger concern for most was getting education to everyone, and improving its quality.

Part two surveys the world of Breton militants, which has a large number of organisations with small and often overlapping memberships. Their goals vary, but language is a central preoccupation. Some of the topics McDonald covers include the aspirations of Unvaniezh Demokratiel Breizh (UDB) to being a serious political party, the construction of "Celtic" and links with Welsh and Irish Gaelic, the existence of rival Breton Departments at the universities of Rennes and Brest, and the insistence on a unitary "Breton", overriding the reality of local dialects.

Brittany contributed disproportionately many soldiers in the First World War, which was for many of them their first contact with broader France. The collaboration of one Breton group with the Germans during the Second World War has left divisions. Demonstrations and festivals are a key part of Breton activism, which has connections to alternative music and progressive causes. There is an often uneasy relationship with traditional Breton-speakers, who are much less assertive about language use. Broader Breton identity is defined in contrast to "France" and "French" and is strongest and most unified in the presence of an external threat such as a proposed nuclear power plant.

McDonald includes observations based on her own experiences as a student at Rennes University and as a resident with a "Breton" family (with whom she pretended not to know French).

Part three is a case study, covering the history, finance and structure of the organisation Diwan, which has set up Breton schools, beginning with nurseries and progressing to a primary school. Conflicts have arisen over its anti-authoritarian emphasis, Freinet-inspired pedagogical approach, funding problems, and management style, and over the status of teachers and the role of UDB. Diwan leaders and parents are mostly intellectuals and their schools have attracted some poorer parents because of their social status. Actual language use in Diwan schools is not what one might expect, with students' choices between French and Breton often used to manipulate parents and teachers.

Part four is an ethnographic study of the commune of Plounéour-Ménez in central Finistère. This is a "red" mountain commune, with a strongly anti-clerical administration, and conflicts between 'ecole laique' public schools and 'ecole libre' church schools have overshadowed the small Diwan school. Breton-speaking locals are proud of having learnt French and uninterested in Breton schooling; Diwan students and staff are dismissed by some as counter-culture riff-raff.

Women and peasants are associated with Breton and opposed to French, but actual peasant women aspire to French as a sign of cultivation and urbanity. Breton is spoken by men in bars, where French is considered "stuck up", but Breton is not used at polite tea parties.

"The world of the peasant women and that of the educated sophisticates are, in some ways, in mutual pursuit, each chasing the virtue seen to inhere in the other. ... Just when the militants are aspiring to a certain ruggedness and naturality, to the countryside, Breton, and grass-roots authenticity, local women are looking to femininity, the towns, and French."

There is no systematic treatment of Breton sociolinguistics in We are not French!, but there is material scattered throughout on topics such as neologisms and family relationships.

"in a family where I stayed for a week during my research, the mother spoke French to her own two teenage daughters — and then Breton to cows, but French to calves, and Breton to hens, but French to their chicks, and Breton to pigs and sows, but French to piglets."

We are not French! covers events down to about 1980. A conclusion briefly surveys the following decade, and also the reception of an earlier thesis version of the book.

McDonald doesn't venture into comparisons with other minority language movements, but students of those — or participants in them — may find much of We are not French! relevant anyway. And for anyone wanting to understand Breton and Brittany it offers a wealth of material.

November 2007

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Related reviews:
- Patrick Galliou + Michael Jones - The Bretons
- books about France + French history
- books about linguistics
- more social history
- books published by Routledge
%T We are not French!
%S Language, Culture and Identity in Brittany
%A McDonald, Maryon
%I Routledge
%D 1989
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0415006325
%P 384pp