Date of this Version
20th & 21st Century French and Francophone Studies International Colloquium, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, March 26-28, 2020. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/ffsc2020/
In December 1946, a young professor of lettres at the University of Rennes, Pierre Jakez-Hélias, accepted a new, non-academic professional appointment. Hélias, a native Breton speaker born in the pays bigouden in southwest Finistère in 1914, had worked his way up the echelons of French academia before accepting the position of director of “émissions en langue bretonne” at radio Quimer’ch (Hélias, 143). A year later, Hélias voluntarily abandoned his position at the University of Rennes to relocate to Quimper in western Finistère. Though he continued to teach at the Ecole Normale d’Instituteurs de Quimper, this role was secondary to his recent transition to radio. This move from Rennes to Quimper allowed Hélias to re-immerse himself in his native Breton language, fulfilling his desire to:
[…] résider en pays bretonnant, tout près de mon village natal, en mesure de parler breton tous les jours et en contact permanent avec des jeunes gens dont la plupart étaient d’origine populaire et bretonnante (147).
Living once again among Breton speakers and developing a weekly radio program in the Breton language for the increasingly aging, Breton-speaking population became Hélias’s primary professional endeavor for the next fourteen years, until 1959. These radio programs put him on the map, making Pierre Jakez-Hélias or Jakez, as he was known on the air, something of a local celebrity. In 1975, with the publication of his memoires, Le Cheval d’Orgueil, Hélias’s name became synonymous with the Breton language and culture and captured national and even international attention. By the second half of the 20th century, Hélias came to represent nostalgia for a presumably dead or dying culture and language, the remanence of the Breton language and civilization which, during the industrialization and modernization of France in the 1970s, captivated the nation’s imagination. Per Jakez’s memoires became a national bestseller and were translated into eighteen languages and even adapted for the silver screen, creating a portal into a culture of an earlier time that seemed far enough removed from the present to be foreign and even exotic.