Breton names explained: the full guide

Breton is a Celtic language from Brittany, the westernmost region of France. It was only in 1532 that Brittany opted to become part of France, and the region has retained a strong sense of cultural identity. The popularity of Breton names is a facet of this cultural identity.

Over the centuries, the use of Breton has decreased. After the French Revolution, Breton and other regional languages were actively discouraged because these were perceived as favoring the monarchy by keeping the masses uninformed.

In recent decades, a movement has emerged to revive the Breton language. Now, in cities throughout Brittany, it is fairly common to see bilingual (French-Breton) road signs and street name signs.

Only a small percentage of Brittany's population can speak Breton. But even among Bretons who speak little or no Breton, there is a relatively strong sense of cultural identity. Many express it by choosing Breton names for their children.

Male Breton names

The original and Frenchified spellings of Breton names

Breton is not a dialect of French. Linguistically, Breton and French are not that closely related because Breton is a Celtic language whereas French is a Romance language that evolved from Latin.

Many Breton names exist in two forms: an original Breton spelling as well as a Frenchified spelling. This is because the rules of Breton pronunciation are quite different from those of French pronunciation, most French speakers would not know how to correctly pronounce a Breton name if it is written in the original Breton spelling.

The Breton suffix “-ig” is a diminutive that adds a sense of endearment to the original name. For example, the name Yannig is obtained by applying this suffix to Yann, and the Annaig is the result of applying this suffix to Anne.

Because the Breton suffix “-ig” is pronounced as “ik”, the Frenchified versions of those names are spelled as Yannick and Annick.

In the Frenchified spelling of Breton names, you might see two dots placed over a vowel. This shows that two adjacent vowels are pronounced separately, rather than being merged together as a diphthong. For example, as seen in the following names: Gaël (Gael), Maël (Mael) and Maëlys (Maelys).

Female Breton names

In French, many female names end with the letter ‘e’, such as Françoise, Pauline, and Céline. However, most Breton girl names don't end with the letter 'e'.

Take for instance, Anne of Brittany, the well-known 15th-century Duchess of Brittany who later became Queen of France. Her name in Breton was Anna.

Several Breton Female names —such as Nolwenn, Gwenn, and Maiwenn— contain the root word “gwenn” which means “white” or “pure”. This root becomes “wenn” when it undergoes a soft mutation. Indeed, Breton —like most Celtic languages— has a linguistic feature of initial consonant mutations.

The Breton word “gwenn” is related to the Welsh word “gwyn” (meaning “white" or “blessed”) which is the root of the Welsh name Gwyneth, for instance.

Breton last names

To most Americans, the most familiar Breton last name is probably Kerouac. The American novelist Jack Kerouac, a pioneer of the Beat Generation wrote about his travels to Brittany in the search for traces of his Breton ancestors. These writings appear in his 1966 novel entitled “Satori in Paris”.

Some Breton names —such as Tanguy and Movan— appear both as first names and as last names.

Many Breton surnames have undergone some degree of Frenchification, in particular, the definite article which is “ar” in Breton being replaced by the French definite article “le”. For example “ar Bihan” became “Le Bihan”.

More Celtic names

Within the family of Celtic languages, Breton is closer to Welsh than to Irish. This is because Breton and Welsh are both part of the Brittonic subgroup of Celtic languages, whereas Irish is in the Goidelic group.

For more Celtic names, see these articles on Welsh girl names and Welsh boy names.

For even more Celtic names, see these articles on Irish girl names and Irish boy names.