Archive for the ‘ancestors’ Tag

“Drinking with the Ancestors”   4 comments

firegod

photo courtesy Hex Nottingham

Here’s the poem* I read by the fire** at Saturday night’s eisteddfod at ECG ’16. I’m also submitting it to Touchstone so you may run across it there if it’s accepted.

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Drinking with the Ancestors

This poem ain’t no teetotal ritual:
let’s raise each cup, now, individual,
every mug and glass fill up now
and start drinking with the Ancestors.

Chat ‘em up — don’t merely greet ‘em;
the Dead are chummy when you meet ’em.
This good liquor in your tummy
gets you thinking: toast the Ancestors!

By and with the spirits near us —
“Don’t invoke us if you fear us” —
good advice, if we lose focus,
glasses clinking with the Ancestors.

A few more rounds, more pints and glasses,
may find us falling on our asses.
We strive to heed old voices calling
though we’re blinking at the Ancestors.

Yes, when morning comes, perhaps uncertain
if we dreamed or drew some curtain
on a world where it truly seemed
that we were linking with our Ancestors,

good liquor works its own true magic,
so never blame it – downright tragic,
if “hung over” is what we name it:
feel like sinking toward the Ancestors?

They come in all shapes, and in all sizes:
some are heroes, some no prizes
(they’re like us in all our guises)
familiar patterns – star or rose
tattoos we’re inking for the Ancestors.

Listen: they are singing, they are cussing,
they can advise us if we’re sussing
out the paths our lives might take
or leave shivers in their wake
that have us shrinking from our Ancestors.

Before a soul decides to curse them,
mutter charms that will disperse them
foil their harms and then reverse them,
all these stinking, damned Ancestors!

(Ah, do please remember)

we’re their consequence, not moot –
we got their genetic seed and root,
and we’re the payoff, crown and fruit,
we’re their future, built to suit,
so cheers to drinking with our Ancestors!

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*I’d drafted the piece at ECG ’12, with the title/last line echoing in my head all weekend, then revised it a few days before this year’s Gathering.

**Hex remarked when he posted the image, “You have the complete attention of a long horned fyre god here, and it is blessing you with its aura.”

Crossing on a Word   Leave a comment

Perform a Rite of Chocolate: only you and your Guides know how much is too much. (If you need an actual god of chocolate, the Mayan deity Ek Chuah, “Black Star,” patron of merchants and cacao, may serve your purposes; this site includes an image and some ritual details to build on.)

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northalafields

A 21st century mound — Northala Fields, London

Robert Frost makes do for my divination today — words from his too-famous “The Road Not Taken” bumping into each other in my head this morning after a walk: “I saved it for another day, but knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

The Spiral we all walk leads me away and away, until I forget I ever meant to come back at all. Then when I do, I run smack into what I’d “saved for another day.” Now the day’s here. Nothing lost. That inexplicable half-recognition at the arrival of things that we can’t possibly know, that kiss of the strange-familiar we all face once in a while — or many times — washes over me, gift of the Spiral. But oh how the hide-and-seek of it all can last lifetimes. What else did I save long ago “for another day”? No way to know, till it happens again.

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The last few days I’ve been awkwardly mindless.  Today, a little more joyously mindless. Oh, I still think, or maybe more accurately, what passes for thought comes flitting by and makes do, till my brain finds its way home again.

Fortunately this masquerade of consciousness seems to convince everybody else around me right now. I got through a short-term job interview yesterday that seemed to go well enough, I balanced my checkbook, I wrote a note to an old friend.

“Your brain could fit in the navel of a gnat and still rattle around like a BB in a corn-flakes box.” The old high-school insult, embroidered and endlessly recycled, just about sums me up right now. Except it’s insult no longer, just blunt fact.

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Men an Tol

Without warning I feel the power gather on the other side of the Gate. (What Gate? How should I know? But there’s a Gate right now, and power on the other side of it. Ya gotta roll with these things, I tell myself. Mindlessness helps.) A sound, a word, it’s the name of an ancestor who wants to reach me, whose wisdom I need right now, name which is also a pass-key to a world opening like an eye onto a twilight landscape.

I know this word, I say it to open wider, but it’s nothing I can write down, nothing to save for another visit, nothing with a human shape, though I keep saying it. But even as I think this, the inner reassurance comes that when I need to visit again, I’ll be able to. Then the whole thing is gone as quickly as it came. I stand on an endless beach, watching the tide go out all at once. At least that’s how it feels.

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Images: Northala Fields, London; Men an Tol, Cornwall — from a wonderful site of Moon Gates.

Our Honored Dead   Leave a comment

[I’m teaching in a 5-week boarding school summer program this June-July for American (academic enrichment) and international (English as a second language) middle and high school students. The intensity of the pace accounts for the dearth of recent posts here.]

entrance

Egyptian entrance gate, Grove Street Cemetery

 

Tomorrow we have a day off from classes for a visit to the Yale University campus. For the older students, we’ll also make a side tour of Grove Street Cemetery, listed as a National Historic Landmark for its historical interest (its first burial occurred in 1797 after a Yellow Fever epidemic), the names of its famous dead, and its enduring ties to Yale.

In the past year my wife and I’ve discovered our ancestors lived in the same small town (in a different state, near the Canadian border) around the same decade that Grove Street was established, and mostly likely they knew each other. And as we’ve been telling the students this summer, a well-landscaped cemetery can be a peaceful and unique experience, because it can enlarge our sympathies and imaginations beyond the immediate concerns of own lives.

Live long enough, I’m finding, and your sympathies may enlarge so that any dead become part of your honored dead. We share DNA from around the planet (one of my cousins had his DNA tested and found Greek and Central African markers in it), we all face the same challenges of dying and living, and if the dead have any honor in my memory, it’s because I give it to them.

JunglebookCover

cover of the first edition (1894) of The Jungle Book

 

In Kipling’s Jungle Book, the human boy Mowgli says more than once to his animal companions, “We be of one blood, thou and I.” Such simple acknowledgements may at times matter more than many prayers and offerings, if they open our hearts to gratitude and the wisdom we inherit in our bones and our mortal dreams.

So tomorrow in my own way I’ll commemorate the “Grove Streeters” by reading and repeating their names, pouring libations of water (nothing stronger — I’m with adolescents, after all) in their honor, and acknowledging their part in shaping the world as we have it today. And always, I am confident, there will be others who will follow us and do the same, touched through their own sufferings and joys by a similarly enlarged sense of kinship.

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Images: Egyptian entrance gate, Grove Street Cemetery; Jungle Book cover

Growing Down   Leave a comment

greenworldThe green world burgeons all around me, though I fall silent. I don’t grow up like these eager stems, leaves and blossoms that surround this house of self in a blaze of green glory. So early this year, summer already launched in the heart of spring. Not up. No. I grow down.

The word itself brings the action. D o o o w w w n n n. Without thought, something bones and skin and gut do. Are doing. I shudder in a moment of vertigo. One world spins and collapses around me. Then I’m touching another, walls that shape the passage-way around my descent. Something deepens, I sense roots like fingers, fingers like roots, reaching into darkness, into cool earth and colder stone.

sheela-na-gig

I feel them ever so subtly at first, their branching shapes, the strength of this bark-skin, root and claw, fingertip and tendril, things that are somehow both my hands and also the tree roots I find myself grasping.

Then all at once, that subterranean tug of ancestors, my roots their roots, reaching and twining into the dream earth I crawl into each night and pull over me. I shiver, bone-deep. All that they were, I am. All that they feared and love, I too fear and love. In the darkness, a space opens. Water pools at my feet, a faint glow illuminating it, silvering the surface. Ripples die away and all lies still. My own breathing deafens me, too loud. The dark silver still shines with its own light, waiting … for what?

nightlake

I’m jerked upright, to my feet. Want to meet your ancestors? asks an insistent whisper. Look, the whisper says. Look, Pilgrim, in the mirror. The silver surface of the water steams, mist swirls up from it, the fog thickens, then furls back and away. I kneel down to look …

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Singing. I hear singing.

Three awens for the dead, who live again. Three awens for the living, who will die in turn. Three awens for those yet unborn, who know both worlds, who await a third.

O Walker between the worlds, do you wish to remember all you have forgotten? Then stand ready. The nine awens of change wash over you.

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Are you ready?

It’s not a question. Oh, it has the form of one, but it’s not. It’s a choice. I show I’m ready, or not, by what I choose. And by how. Not by thinking of an answer.

It’s a fair choice. It’s always a fair choice, I hear. Because it’s yours. But if I don’t know it’s a choice, if I listen to fear, or doubt, or judgment, or anything else but what I was born listening to, what shaped me while I was a mere thumbling in my mother’s womb, I miss the choice, and think it’s merely a question to answer, one that already has an answer, not one I answer in this moment, right now, by choosing. What will I choose? That’s the real question.

aceofcupsI gift you with a grail, the chalice of your desire, says the short powerful figure before me. I try to make out a face, but nothing other than an outline in this dimness.  And the voice.

What will fill it? Where will you pour it? The gift cannot be given to you until you give it away.

How? I hear myself shouting, how in the name of the Nine Druids do I give away a gift I don’t even have?

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I’m coming back. Ascending, though that’s not exactly it either. One world fades, another gains strength.

A final whisper. Wanderer, you have no other home. Home is where you serve.

Images: greenworldsheila-na-gig; lake at night; grail.

Posted 14 June 2015 by adruidway in ancestors, Druidry, grail, initiation, Ovate

Tagged with , , , ,

A Druid in the Life of a Day   2 comments

sunriseSunrise, are you waiting for that sliver of moon to invite you? This time of year I’m up before you, and waiting in the perfect frozen peace of January pre-dawn.

Slowly our snow-covered fields flower from purple to gray to white, and then bloom golden with light. A cardinal with pinfeathers puffed against the cold ignites the snow when he lands beneath the bird-feeder, all impossible red. Ah, day at last, over the eastern hill you come, and here we are, in the eye of the sun, loving the light though we may forget to say so. I will say so now, while I remember. All praise for light inside and out!

Yes, I can be a Druid in the life of a day. But bring on night and darkness and my Druidry can suffer a sea-change. You know you’re a Druid when death moves you not at all, says a tendril of awareness. When you may not even notice you’ve changed realms. Well, but I’m not there yet, I reply. I have no trouble with death. I drop into darkness each time I fall asleep. It’s dying that troubles me. And others’ deaths that are hard to take, though with the gift of Sight we may know them after and visit them still. It’s the body comfort I miss, voice and touch and the daily-ness of a life lived next door to my own. I know you’re around, Ancestors without your skins on, but I miss you here.

I light this flame to gift the darkness, not contend with it. Each has its place, here in Abred*. “Know all things, be all things, experience all things”: some say this is our destiny, as we move through the circles of existence. Maybe. Not sure yet. Don’t need to be. This circle right now, right here, keeps me plenty occupied.

Nine awens for the day
for the day’s choices
and gifts easy and difficult.

Nine awens for the gods
unknown and known who grace us
with the Breath of Asu,

sound and light both.
Nine awens for you, little soul,
beast, bird or human, watching

at the gates of Abred*
for the flower of destiny
to unfold its next petal

as you become.

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Images: sunrise.

*Abred. The great Revival Druid and brilliant forger, Iolo Morganwg, wrote in his compendium of wisdom and fabrication the Barddas that all beings move slowly from Annwn, the unformed, to Abred, the first world, our present circle, “probation,” and from there to Gwynvyd, the “white world” of the next advance and “perfect freedom,” and on from there to Ceugant, “infinity.”  And the way there is long and full of experiences until, ripe with knowing all things each circle has to teach us, we take a step to the next.

Do I “believe” it? That’s not the important question to me, or to many Druids. How well does it explain things? What can I learn from it? Those are the important questions. Whether it’s “true” or not is quite beside the point. I’m not interested in creedal religion; that’s one reason I’m a Druid, after all. I don’t have a statement of faith; I have a practice that includes various beliefs that evolve as I do. I don’t want to sit in the restaurant and wait to be served from another’s choice, to use Philip Carr-Gomm’s image (go to 4th paragraph). I want to work in the kitchen, help it come together for myself. This is Abred, the world of probation, after all — of proving and testing and trying out.  So I’m game — I try it out, try it on for size.

Updated 4 August 2015

Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1   Leave a comment

mallorybkI’ve mentioned my obsession with Indo-European (IE) in previous posts, and given samples of a conlang I derived from IE and use in ritual. One of the many fascinations of this reconstructed language that’s the ancestral tongue of 3 billion people — half the people on the planet alive today — is the glimpses into the culture we can reconstruct along with the language. (Here’s a visual of the IE “family” and many of its members.) How, you thoughtfully ask, can we really know anything about a culture dating from some 6000 years ago – the very approximate time period when the speakers of the IE proto-language flourished? A good question — I’m glad you asked! – and one hotly contested by some with agendas to push – usually a nationalist or religious agenda intent on serving a worldview that excludes some group, worldview or idea. Hey kids, let’s define our club du jour by those we don’t let in!

But the most reasonable and also plausible answer to the question of IE language and culture is also simpler and less theatrical. Indo-European is the best and most thoroughly reconstructed proto-language on the planet — and it’s true there’s much still to learn. But after over two hundred years of steady increases in knowledge about human origins and of thoroughly debated and patient linguistic reconstruction, the techniques have been endlessly proven to work. And if a series of words that converge on a cultural point or practice can be reconstructed for IE, then the cultural practice or form itself is also pretty likely. Notice I don’t say merely a single word. Yes, to give a modest example, IE has the reconstructed word *snoighwos “snow” (the * indicates a reconstruction from surviving descendants — see footnote 1 below for a sample) – and that possibly suggests a region for an IE “homeland” that is temperate enough to get snow.  After all, why have a word for a thing that’s not part of your world in any way? But wait — there’s more!

Here’s an uncontested (note 2) series of reconstructions – *pater, *mater, *sunu, *dukter, *bhrater and *swesor – all pointing to an immediate family unit roughly similar to our “nuclear family,” with father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister all in place. It’s fairly safe on the basis of this cluster of reconstructed words – and others, if you still doubt, can be provided in painfully elaborate detail – that with a high degree of probability, an IE family existed all those millennia ago that would also be recognizable in modern times and terms.

[Side note: almost every reconstructed IE word listed in this post has a descendant alive in modern English. Want proof? Post a comment and I’ll be happy to provide a list!]

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - nothing shocks me - I'm a linguistThings understandably get touchier and more contentious when we move on to words and ideas like *deiwos “god”; *nmrtya “immortality”; *dapnos “potlatch, ritual gift-exchange”; *dyeu + *pater “chief of the gods” (and Latin Jupiter); *sepelyo– “perform the burial rites for a corpse”; and a few whole phrases like *wekwom tekson, literally “weaver of words, poet” and *pa- wiro-peku, part of a prayer meaning something like “protect people and cattle.”

What else can we conclude with considerable confidence about the IE peoples? Many lived in small economic-political units governed by a *reg– “king, chieftain” and lived in *dom– “houses.” Women *guna, *esor left their families at marriage and moved to live with their husbands *potis, *ner, *snubhos. A good name *nomen mattered then just as it does today – even with social media both exalting and trashing names with sometimes dizzying speed – though small-town gossip always filled and fills that role quite well, too. Heroes dominated the tales people told round household and ceremonial fires *pur, *ogni in the village *woikos, *koimos at night *nokwti. The most powerful and famous *klewes– heroes succeeded in slaying the serpent or monster of chaos: *oghwim eghwent “he slew the serpent” and thereby earned *klewos ndhghwitom “undying fame” (note 3). Special rites called for an *asa altar and offerings *spond-, because the universe was a place of an ongoing re-balancing of forces where the cosmic harmony *rti, *rta needed human effort to continue.

With Thanksgiving in the wings, it’s a good time for reflection (is it ever not?). Ways of being human have not changed as much as we might think or fear or be led to believe. Family, relationships, good food and drink, a home, meaningful work, self-respect – these still form the core of the good life that remains our ideal, though its surface forms and fashions will continue to shift, ebb and flow. Hand round the *potlom cup and the *dholis, the portion each person shares with others, so that all may live, and we can still do as our ancestors did: give thanks *gwrat– and praise for the gift *donom of life *gwita.

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1. Linguistic reconstruction involves comparing forms in existing and recorded languages to see whether they’re related.  When you gather words that have a strong family resemblance and also share similar or related meanings, they help with reconstructing the ancestral word that stands behind them, like an old oil portrait of great-great-great grandma in the hallway. Some descendant or other probably still walks around with her characteristic nose or brow or eyes, even if other details have shifted with time, marriage — or cosmetic surgery.

For *snoighwos, a sample of the evidence includes English snow, Russian snegu, Latin nix, niv-, Sanskrit sneha-, and so on.  The more numerous the survivals in daughter languages, the more confident the reconstruction usually is. After a while you see that fairly consistent patterns of vowels and consonants begin to repeat from word to word and language to language, and help predict the form a new reconstruction could take.

A handful of reconstructed words have descendants in all twelve (depending on who does the counting) of the main IE family groups like Italic (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, all the Romance languages, and others), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx, etc.), Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Frisian, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian), Slavic (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovene, Polabian, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), Greek (Doric, Macedonian, Attic, etc.), Tocharian (A and B), and Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Pali, Avestan, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Baluchi, Gujerati, etc.) and so on, to name roughly half of the families, but nowhere near all the members, which number well over 100, not counting dialects and other variants.

2. “Uncontested” means that words with approximately these forms and meanings are agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars. If you dip into Indo-European linguistics journals and textbooks, you’ll often see algebraic-looking reconstructions that include details I exclude here — ones having to do with showing laryngeals, stress, vowel length and quality, etc. indicated by diacritics, superscripts and subscripts.

3. Even without the details mentioned in note 2 above, some reconstructions can still look formidably unpronounceable: I challenge any linguist to give three consecutive oral renderings of the second element in the reconstructed phrase *klewos ndhghwitom! The point to remember is that these are usually cautious reconstructions. They generally “show what we know.” Vowels tend to be much more slippery and fickle than consonants in most languages, and so they’re also less often completely clear for IE than the consonantal skeleton is. Several people, me among them, have worked on versions of “Indo-European for daily use”!

Images: Mallory; Indiana Jones the linguist.

Corrected 18 Dec. 2014

Ieth Gelteg — a Celtic Language?   Leave a comment

wflagI’m sitting here in nerd rapture with an interlibrary loan copy of Ranko Matasovic’s Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic.  There — I may just possibly have driven away 99% of my readership with a single sentence.

On the off-chance you’re still with me, let me explain.  In “Talking Old”  I tried to convey my delight in the sounds and shapes of our ancestral language — I say “our” because over half the planet speaks an Indo-European language, itself a pretty remarkable fact.  Proto-Celtic is a daughter of Indo-European and mother of the six modern Celtic tongues:  Manx, Breton, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic.  So Indo-European is our “grandmother tongue,” or maybe great-grandmother. Beyond the nerd appeal that only Celticists, conlangers and a few other assorted dweebish types can comprehend, Proto-Celtic is a window into Celtic history and culture, a fragment of our human past — and a potential source for a ritual-liturgical-magical language in the Celtic tradition.

nedmandrellThe Celtic languages today are struggling.  Manx has been brought back from the last edges of extinction — with the last native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell (image to the right) passing in 1974.   Take a look-listen at this short video of Manx children and a couple of teachers talking in and about the language.  Cornish died out about 200 years ago, but has been revived and has, depending on your source, a few thousand speakers, and along with the other Celtic languages, a cultural fire banked under it to keep it alive.  Scottish Gaelic is threatened but has speakers in the tens of thousands, and Welsh and Irish are also at risk, but have active communities of speakers.  Breton struggles against an official French-only policy, and retreats annually, as older speakers die, and younger people turn to French to get ahead.  If you’re interested, check out these links to some short clips of speech in these languages.*

prceltbrillThe Etymological Dictionary I’m currently drooling over, confirming everyone’s worst impressions and stereotypes of nerds, provides linguistic reconstructions of Proto-Celtic words — something like a museum restoring missing portions of an old painting or piece of furniture.  As the restoration proceeds, the face of one of your ancestors takes shape before your eyes, and you hear a whisper on the wind of a voice speaking a language gone for over a thousand years.  That’s the closest I can come to the sensation of reading and pronouncing slowly to myself the restored words.

But while you shake your head at one more poor fool taken in by cultural seances and linguistic necromancy, I’m wandering mist-covered hills and listening to ghosts reincarnate in dream, as long as I hold the book open.  I make my very own Samhain-on-the-spot, the veil between the worlds thins, and I converse with the dead, with the Otherworld, with the generations stored in my DNA and blood and bone.  Perhaps you could call it racism in the best sense of the word — a celebration of all who have gone before me and who, by living, have delivered me to this moment of my own life, as I write these words.  It doesn’t last, but it also endures forever.

As a linguist and conlanger it wouldn’t be hard for me to reconstruct a couple of different usable versions of  a Celtic language.  One version could be a somewhat simplified Proto-Celtic, another a sister tongue to Welsh, Breton and Cornish, ieth gelteg, a Celtic language.  Would it be “authentic”?  About as authentic as I am, descendant of so many bloodlines that like everyone else on the planet, I’m a mongrel.  Who would want to speak such a mongrel tongue?  That’s not my concern — I’d restore it for some of the same reasons a museum sets about a restoration: for what it can tell us about our past, and about ourselves as preservers of our past, and for its “thingliness,” its solidity and existence in our world.  These are potent magical reasons on their own.

Why not learn a living and threatened Celtic language instead?  Do something more practical!  I can hear the critics and naysayers.  Can’t you best connect with your supposed past through those alive today, speaking a descendant tongue just as you are a descendant person?  Well, I have.  I know a fair bit about the Celtic languages, as I do about some other endangered and dying languages. And I look at them as I look at the branch of my own ancestral line, destined to die out because my wife and I have no children.  Half of all our current languages are destined to die before the end of this century, along with a comparable number of plant and animal species.  Some have seen a reflection of one in the other.  Given how closely tied human rights, tribal survival and environmental degradation are, it’s not a stretch to see human languages and ecosystems as mirrors for each other.  “What we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

The analogies of blood and speech start to break down, the Samhain door of linguistic reconstruction begins to shudder shut, and I’m back in my diminutive study, holding the hardbound book, more than an inch thick, and shivering a little.  I stand up and step into the living room to stoke the fire in our soapstone woodstove which has subsided to embers during my extended reverie.  And I wonder and remember and plan and dream again.  Celtic twilight is not the same as Celtic dawn, though at any point the light level might look the same.

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Images: Welsh flag; Ned Mandrelldictionary.

*Here are short Youtube clips of Irish (a 2-minute weather report), Welsh (a Welsh teenager talking in both languages), Cornish (a story in English and two varieties of Cornish, with a strong English accent), Irish again (4 minutes, this time showing how Manx and Irish speakers can understand each other), Scottish Gaelic (2:14; also a weather report) and Breton (2:10 — short interviews, subtitled in French, that you might mistake at first for French, so strong is the French influence on Breton pronunciation).

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