Tag Archives: Breton

The sounds of historical English

A couple of weeks ago, I did an “English language time machine” piece for The Week. This week, it’s up as a podcast, for those who prefer to listen:

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like


English language time machine

Hop into a time machine to travel back in the history of the English language! How do you think it will go? Step out and talk with people from olden times who use quaint words and a bit of thou and –eth? Heh heh. Find out what’s really waiting for you as you travel back through the history of England in my latest article for The Week:

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like

Complete with video clips!

(And yes, before you say it, “the English of King Arthur” is, shall we say, a trick question.)


Sometimes, in the middle of what seemed charted waters, an island will appear from nowhere. I will discover in my literary or musical peregrinations a door into a new world, another wing of the house of the world that had theretofore been terra incognita, an unknown unknown.

For instance, in the bargain bins at Disc Diggers near Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts, in the later ’90s, I discovered two languages – and musical forms – previously unknown to me thanks to two CDs I decided to take a chance on. One was the group Ziskakan, from the island of Réunion, near Madagascar; much of their music is sung in Réunionnais, a creole surprisingly similar in many ways to Haitian creole (listen to “Somin paradi”). The other was a project called Dao Dezi, and they were singing sometimes in French and sometimes in a language that seemed altogether unexpected to me and was not identified (listen to “Ti Eliz Iza”).

This was before one could simply Google a few phrases and find the whole answer. I had to do some real digging in Boston-area academic libraries to discover that the language was Breton – a Celtic language still spoken in just that part of northern France where the Asterix comics were set. Unlike Irish, a Celtic language with which I was by then quite familiar, Breton uses the letter k quite a bit, which really makes it stand out in its French surroundings. For those who enjoy discovering languages, I recommend it – you will find that there are even Breton lessons on the web now.

More recently, I stumbled – I can’t even remember how – on a really quite sizeable island that I had never heard of in a corner of the word I did not know had an island in it. Or, rather, it’s an archipelago with one large island and several much smaller ones orbiting it: the Kerguelen islands. They are, like Réunion, in the Indian Ocean (but much farther south), and, like Réunion (and Brittany), they belong to France. And their name is Breton.

Yep. They take their name, in fact, from the man who discovered them in 1772, Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec. He was from Brittany. The name Kerguelen, I learn from a paper by Gary D. German, is Breton for “holly farm” (my little Breton phrasebook tells me that kêr means “city” or “home” or, I guess, “farm” but is silent on the topic of holly).

I don’t imagine there’s any holly growing on Grande Terre (the main island, 6675 square kilometres and with mountains reaching 1850 metres high) or any of the other Kerguelen islands. The flora are limited to grass, lichens, moss, and cabbage. Yes, indigenous cabbage. There are various animals – some of which introduced by humans – but it’s not really very welcoming. There are birds, of course. And in fact the outline of the island even looks a bit like a large, ragged bird diving to the left. And people? Only 70 to 100 people live there, and they’re all researchers.

And how do you pronounce Kerguelen? Well, if you’re speaking French (or Breton), it’s sort of like “care gay len.” If you say in the English way, it rhymes with “gurglin’.” It also reminds me a bit of Coeur d’Alene, the name of a town in Idaho. I’d like to be able to say that Coeur d’Alene is antipodean to the Kerguelen islands, but it’s actually about 400 km off; the Kerguelen islands are right on the other side of the planet from the southeast corner of Alberta. They certainly are antipodean, a terra australis, a real areal discovery – but Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec talked them up rather a bit much to the king of France, and, after coming back empty-handed from a subsequent expedition, was jailed. Oops. (He was freed after the revolution.)

Such an unexpected name, Kerguelen, for such an unexpected island, in such an unexpected place. With a dormant volcano and France’s largest glacier. A name you pronounce with e’s but don’t figure out with ease, and an island that can be reached only by ship. If for some reason you wanted to go there. But it’s there, just 5,000 km due south of the Chagos Islands.