It’s all in the name: road signs and language memory in Brittany

Dick Vigers

Discarded in the hedgerow on a minor road in western Brittany, France was a signpost to Goulitquer; three metres away by the road, upright and mounted on a shiny new pole, emblazoned with a tiny coat of arms a sign to Goulitkêr. ‘Goulitquer’, ‘Goulitkêr’ are the same place of course, but the change of ‘q’ and ‘u’ for a ‘k’ and a circumflex? They are the orthographic alchemy that transforms the name from ‘French’ to ‘Breton’ and is a symbolic redress for the marginalization of the regional language in the past. Similar schemes for replacing local signs have proliferated throughout the region and tourists are surprised by the abundance of bilingual Breton/French signs, even on major roads, perhaps learning in the process that the frequent hamlets called ‘Croissant’ are not the birthplace of the buttery breakfast roll but a kroashent or crossroads. The inhabitants of Brittany now live in a visual environment occupied by Breton, for the first time in the language’s history.

Paradoxically while Breton is more visible than ever before, its everyday oral practice has declined drastically. Recent surveys (there are no language questions in the national census) indicate that fewer than 200, 000 can speak the language (of a total population of 4.5 million) and two thirds of speakers are aged 60 or over. When in 1837, the writer, Prosper Mérimée, visited the region, he noted; ‘it is quite remarkable at Lanleff [a village], where nobody, except perhaps for the priest, understands French, that all the signs are in that language’.  Now, however, what was once invisible is ubiquitous; most public signs are bilingual, but very few people are.

Following the story of the abandoned road sign was an opportunity to examine another aspect of linguistic landscape studies that I had collaborated on earlier with researchers in Croatia, Hungary and the Czech Republic using data from Wales. In south-western Brittany it led to an exploration of the responses of the local community to how their relationship with French and Breton was represented in the landscape around them, not only in the form of the names themselves but also in terms of what past language practices signify now. Several similar renaming schemes had met with fierce opposition with ‘guerrilla raids’ on council depots to rescue and re-erect old signs. At stake in the implementation of this language revitalization policy were issues of ownership of memory and authenticity, as well as practical matters like parcel deliveries, addresses and GPS.

In the commune around Goulitkêr the re-signing project was finished without disruption, to the relief of the mairie. Consultation and flexibility had resolved differences, pointing towards a useful model for the future. Although there was little optimism about the survival of Breton in their locality, at least it would be remembered ‘correctly’: “Les noms sont fixés, ils sont écrits sur les panneaux.”

Dick Vigers