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
- Yann: A famous French person by this name is the musician and composer Yann Tiersen. His music can be heard in the soundtrack of the French movie “Amélie”. He was born in Brest, Brittany.
- Tangi (Tanguy): The original Breton spelling of this name is “Tangi”, but the Frenchified spelling “Tanguy” is more common. The name has associations in French popular culture due to the French movie titled “Tanguy” directed by Étienne Chatiliez which narrates the story of an over-educated 28-year-old still living in his parents' home.
- Fanch (Fañch): The original Breton spelling of this name features the letter “ñ” (n with a tilde) which exists in Breton but not French. As a result, for a long time, this name could not be officially registered with the French government.
- Elouan: This is more generally a Celtic name, rather than a strictly Breton name. But Brittany is one of the main places where it is encountered.
- Gwendal: This name is composed of the Breton words “gwen” and “tal”. The first one, “gwen” means “white” or “pure”, and the word “tal” means “forehead”. The word “tal” becomes “dal” when it undergoes an initial consonant soft mutation.
- Ronan: This Breton name comes from the Celtic word “rón” meaning “seal”, the sea mammal which is often seen along the coast of Brittany. Together with the diminutive suffix, this name means “little seal”.
- Tristan: This name is associated with the Celtic tale of “Tristan and Iseult”
- Malo: This Breton male name is best known for its association with Saint-Malo, a city on the northern Brittany coast that has fortified walls and ramparts.
- Caradec (Karadec): This name contains the Breton root word “kar” which refers to a relative or a friend. That root itself is related to an Old Breton word “car” meaning “dear”. For instance, the Breton verb “karout” means “to love”.
- Konan (Conan): Konan
- Gaël (Gael)
- Armel: One hypothesis for the origin of this name is that it may come from the Breton words “arzh” (meaning “bear”) and “mael” (meaning “prince” or “strong”).
- Yannig (Yannick)
- Denez: A famous person with this name is Denez Prigent, a renowned Breton folk singer. His rendition of “Gortoz a ran” has reached a large audience because it is featured in the soundtrack of the movie “Black Hawk Down”.
- Gwenole (Guénolé)
- Mael (Maël): From the Breton word “mael” meaning “prince”. The Frenchified spelling of this Breton name is “Maël”.
- Corentin (Kaourentin)
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.
- Maiwenn (Maïwenn): This name is the fusion of the names Mari and Gwenn.
- Gwenn: This is the feminine form of the masculine name Gwen.
- Maelys (Maëlys)
- Enora: from the Breton word “enor” meaning “honor”.
- Mari: This is the Breton equivalent of the French name Marie (Mary in English).
- Lénaïg (Lenaig)
- Louane: This name can be of Breton origin when it is the feminine form of the masculine name Elouan. But it can also be simply a French name, in which case it is a fusion of the names “Lou” (short for “Louise”) and “Anne”.
- Gwenaëlle: Gwenaëlle is the feminine counterpart of the male name Gwenaël. Its etymology is linked to the Breton words “gwenn” (meaning “white” or “pure”) and “hael” (meaning “noble” or “generous”).
- Alwenna (Alwena)
- Annaig (Annick): This name is formed by adding the affectionate diminutive suffix -ig to the name Anna.
- Rozenn: From the Breton word for “rose” (the flower)
- Katell: This is the Breton equivalent of the name Catherine.
- Soazig (Soizic): Soazig is the original Breton spelling of the name, whereas Soizic is the Frenchified version. These originated as the shortened form of the name Frañsoazig, which is the Breton equivalent to the French name Françoise.
- Azenor: from the Breton word “enor” meaning “honor”.
- Riwanon: The root of this name is the Breton word “ri” which means “king”
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”.
- Floc'h (Floch, Le Floch): The Breton word “flocʼh” means “squire” or “horseman”
- Le Bihan: The Breton word “bihan” means “small”. Morbihan, a department in Brittany comes from the Breton “Mor-Bihan” which means “small sea”.
- Le Gall: This is a very common Breton family name. It comes from the Breton word “Gall” which means “French”. In old Breton, the term “Gall” meant “stranger”.
- Caradec: from the Breton word “karadek” which means “friendly” or “amiable”.
- Lagadec: may be related to the Breton word “lagad” meaning “eye”.
- Le Goff: from “goff” a middle Breton word meaning “black-smith”.
- Le Braz (Le Bras): The Breton word “bras” means “big”.
- Guivarch: This last name is related to the name Guyomarch. They both mean “worthy of having a good horse”. The Breton word “marcʼh” means “horse”.
- Riou: The root of this surname is the ancient Breton word “ri” which means “king” or “ruler”.
- Le Guen
- Le Guennec
- Le Garrec
- Le Bris
- Calvez: This family name comes from the Breton word “kalvez” which means “carpenter”.
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.