Dear Mr Roper,
I have been asked to respond to your request for information regarding Welsh and Breton. I assume that you know that Brythonic Celts from what is now Wales, Cornwall and Devon re-settled Brittany in the period around 400 - 600 AD. So originally the two languages would have been the same. There are historical references to the similarities in the languages - e.g. someone being exiled from South Wales to Brittany around 1,000 AD as a punishment, with the comment that it was not such a terrible ordeal, really, since he would have been able to speak the language of the Bretons.
In the Barzaz Breiz, a collection of old Breton ballads first published in 1840, one of the songs Emgann Sant Cast, tells of a battle between a French and English army. The French army included a number of Breton soldiers and the English army many Welsh soldiers. One group recognised a song sung by the other group as they marched to meet each other. The Welsh and Bretons then laid down their arms, went off to the top of a nearby hill and - according to the song - had a jolly afternoon watching the French and English doing battle. I don’t remember the date of the battle, but I could check it. The Barzaz Breiz also has a song about Bretons going to help Owain Glyndwr in a battle at Cardigan.
There are stories of Breton soldiers - who could not speak French - in the first world war communicating with Welsh speakers who would translate what they said into English for someone to translate further into French so that they could communicate with doctors and surgeons. Only last Autumn I was speaking to a French helicopter pilot who had spent some years flying out of Bristol. He claimed that on one occasion he had been sent to help Breton fishermen in distress out at sea. Welsh fishermen had also arrived at the scene. “They were using my radio,” he told me, “and I can tell you they were not speaking French or English.”
In the late and 60s and early 70s I made an effort to learn Breton - I speak, read and write Welsh fluently. I remember, well before I had started learning Breton having a “conversation” with an old Breton sculptor. We managed to communicate reasonably. On another occasion after I had learnt some Breton having a long discussion with a Breton writer in which we talked mostly about literature in our respective languages. I came to the conclusion that if you have two people - a Breton a Welsh person - with a thorough knowledge of their languages - including the various dialects - and who are literate in their languages could communicate to a reasonable level. I say “literate” because many Bretons, although literate in French, cannot read or write Breton although they can speak it fluently.
So to the Breton onion sellers. I have done a lot of research on them, including writing a book on them (Goodbye Johnny Onion, published by Dyllansow Truran, Cornwall about 1988 but now out of print), written articles on them, helped set up a museum (La Maison des Johnnies in Roscoff) &c. One old lady, Marie Le Goff, who used to come with her family to sell onions in Llanelli and spoke Welsh quite fluently, said she had found her knowledge of Breton a great help. Another ex-onion seller, Michel Olivier, who went to Newcastle Emlyn is still alive and speaks Welsh and Breton fluently said he never noticed any similarities between the languages!
The onion sellers went to all parts of England, Scotland and Wales. Even as far north as Orkney and Shetland and the Hebrides. They also, at one time, went to Jersey and Guernsey. Wherever they went they learnt the language and would speak English, for example, with a Scottish or London or North of England accent. Many started out at a very young age, anything from 9 to 14 years of age. They would go where their fathers went.
But the fact remains that considering the population of Wales a disproportionately large pecentage appear to have been going to Wales. Nevertheless, it was to Plymouth that the first onion sellers went. So I’m afraid, as far as I’m concerned, that the jury is out on that one.
Some months ago, speaking to a local history society in Caerphilly, an old man came up to me and told me a story he had heard from his grandmother. His great-grandmother had come from Cornwall to live in North Cardiganshire, an area which once had a number of lead mines. The story was that his great-grandmother spoke Cornish, his grandmother spoke Welsh, and both once had a conversation with an onion seller, each speaking his/her language, and being mutually intelligible. Since the first onion seller didn’t arrive in Plymouth until 1828, this tale if true knocks on the head the belief that the Cornish language died with Dolly Pentraeth in 1777 (or thereabouts)!
Another tale from my own experience - which in an odd way sheds a little light on the debate. About 15 years ago a TV researcher from London asked me to do a transcript of a series of interviews in which a Breton onion seller, who I think still goes to London, was brought down to Newcastle Emlyn in West Wales to see if he could communicate with the Welsh speakers there. With some trepidation I agreed. When the tape arrived, I found they were certainly communicating very well - but it was almost entirely in Welsh! The onion seller - I discovered years later when I met him face to face - had learnt his Welsh from the Cardiganshire milkmen, many of whom had settled in London between the two wars!
I suppose the answer is that, yes, the Welsh and Bretons can communicate to a certain basic level, but that doesn’t mean to say they can hold a discussion on brain surgery or nuclear science.
Gwyn Griffiths, BBC