By Clarice Bourgeois
Even though Brittany is a region with a strong identity, up until the 1980s, regional differences in French baby names were not really apparent. Local name trends followed those of the rest of the country, with a large proportion of French girls being called Marie, Sylvie, Nathalie and Stéphanie and boys named Jean, Philippe, Thomas or Julien. This is still largely the case today : Emma and Lola and Nathan and Enzo top Brittany’s name charts as they do the French popular names tallies.
However, since the 90s, there’s been a strong regional identity upswing: local languages are taught at school, forgotten traditions are being revived. People now want to learn about their roots and keep them alive in any way possible, including naming their children.
That’s why in the past 10 years or so, Breton names have made an impressive comeback : Maél(le) and Titouan are often ranked in the Top 10 charts, and Malo, Loan(e) and Naél are not far behind. One particular example, Nolwenn, a pretty obscure name for most, was put into the spotlight thanks to popular Breton singer Nolwenn Leroy.
Some Breton names have always been included in the broader French culture. In fact, Brittany is actually the only French region that successfully exported its most popular names to other regions in the 70s and 80s, when you could meet Gaél(le)s, Erwans, Loïcs, Yanns and Morgan(e)s in all parts of France.
This exportation explains the different spellings you can find : Lénaig, pronounced Lénaik in Breton, became Lénaic and Yannig’s spelling was changed to Yannick in the rest of France. Also, in Breton, a male or female firstname is not defined by its spelling, the way it is in other regions. That’s why a Gaél born in Brittany can be either a boy or a girl, whereas in other regions, Gaél can only be a boy and Gaélle a girl. The same goes for Morgan and Morgane.
Breton parents also had to address the unique name trend, wanting to keep traditional names, but add a modern twist. That’s how Maéline, Maélan, Maéthan, Erwanaél and so on were created. And contrary to global opinion, Noan, a particularly popular name for a couple of years now, is not a derivative form of Noah. It is a real, ancient Breton name which remained pretty rare until the present.
This is not the case with Titouan : seen as the most emblematic contemporary Breton name, Titouan actually originates from the Basque country ! Its real spelling is Tetouan and is the equivalent of Antoine. Titouan was attributed to Brittany following the popularity of Breton sailor and artist Titouan Lamazou (who was born Antoine, and deliberately changed his name to Titouan).
Since many Breton first names have been unused/lost for decades, even centuries ; most of the French population is not familiar with them. As a result, they can be a source of mockery because of their unusual sounds. Ex : Wiomarc’h (the c’h is a normal ending pronounced ‘k’), Goulwen, Conwoian, Aodrennel… names that could fit in a Game of Thrones episode, but would be hard to live with in real life !
Here are some more Breton names that might be of interest :
Girls : Bleuenn (‘white flower’), Soizic (Breton equivalent for Françoise), Solenn, Léna, Maiwenn (a mix of Marie and Gwen), Enora, Gwénola, Katell, Klervi, Tifenn, Morane (‘the sea’), Sterenn, Naig (equivalent of Anne), Loeiza (equivalent of Louisa), Orégane, Servane, Privela (‘charisma ‘).