Many of us may not realize or think about it, but French is far from the only language spoken in modern-day France. From Euskara (also known as Basque) in the southwest to Alsatian in the northeast to various other Romance languages such as Catalan, Occitan, and Franco-Provençal, France is home to a large number of regional languages and dialects—each with its own traditions and heritage. Breton (or Brezhoneg in the language itself) is yet another example of this, and is especially unique in that it is a Celtic language related to Welsh and Irish Gaelic. Spoken in the region of Bretagne in western France, Breton’s distinctive history and contributions to French culture have helped to shape France’s unique linguistic heritage for centuries.
The area that is today the French region of Bretagne was invaded and conquered by the Romans—who called it Armorica—in the first century BCE. The fifth and sixth centuries CE saw a great deal of migration by the Celtic peoples of Britain to Armorica, eventually leading to the change of the region’s name to Brittany (or Bretagne in French). The various principalities that composed Bretagne were united in the ninth century by Nominoë—the first Duke of Bretagne and a figure known to Breton nationalists as Tad ar Vro (‘Father of the Country’). It was at this point that the Breton language was at its most robust, particularly in western Bretagne. Those living in the east spoke primarily Gallo, a Romance language that had developed from Late Latin. Breton independence was not to last, however, as Bretagne was annexed to France in 1532 while retaining some vestiges of independence. But with the French Revolution in 1789, Bretagne was officially made part of the French nation—an event that would cause French to formally take precedence over Breton.
Over the years that followed, schoolchildren in Bretagne were routinely humiliated and punished for speaking Breton rather than French. As has also been true of Basque and other minority languages of France, Breton came to be increasingly regarded as a language of the uneducated; forgetting it and learning the French language was how one got ahead in life. It was not until the passage of the Loi Deixonne in 1951 that Breton began to be slowly reincorporated into public education in France; according to this law, Breton language and culture could be taught for between one to three hours a week in any school, provided that an instructor was willing and able to teach it. As we will see in more detail later, revitalization efforts have continued since that point, but the process has been neither an easy nor a fast one.
Breton on the language family tree
On the most general of levels, Breton—like English, French, Russian, German, Hindi, and many others—is an Indo-European language. More specifically, it belongs to the Celtic family—related closely to Cornish and Welsh, and more distantly to Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Although Celtic languages were once spoken across much of Europe, centuries of conflict between the Celts and the more powerful Anglo-Saxons has led to their slow decline. With this loss of power has come a loss of status for the Celtic languages—which have been associated with poverty, ignorance, and social inferiority over the centuries. Although revitalization efforts today are ongoing, Welsh remains the only Celtic language not classified as “endangered” by UNESCO. This is due to the substantial amount of literature (particularly religious texts) that has always been available in Welsh, as well as to the continued insistence of many Welsh speakers that an effort be made to preserve their language.
As a result of geographic proximity and contact with Latin and especially French throughout its history, Breton’s vocabulary has also been heavily influenced by those two languages. Words such as salud (related to Latin salus and French salut), pesk (related to Latin piscis and French poisson), and others now form an integral part of its lexicon.
Today, Breton revitalization efforts are flourishing and have no doubt begun to change the stigmas associated with the language. New educational opportunities for both children and adults, as well as the use of various media outlets in order to increase awareness, have significantly increased Breton’s relevance in the public sphere.
The first major success in incorporating Breton into French schools was the establishment of the Diwan system in 1977. The Diwan (‘seed’ in Breton) schools are based on full immersion in order to ensure that children master Breton and can use it not only in academic, but also in social environments. They have been highly successful in terms of students’ test scores and developing their actual proficiency in Breton, but are often under-funded and are thus supported in large part by parents’ fundraising efforts.
In addition to the Diwan schools, there exist several bilingual programs (with classes taught half in French and half in Breton) at both public and private schools. Combined, bilingual and immersion schools in Bretagne currently enroll over 8,000 students; while this accounts for only 1% of the region’s children, it does mean that there is hope for Breton’s passage to future generations.
Outside of the classroom, one can find several Breton-language radio stations, recently-published books, magazines, and websites. Public television in Bretagne also airs five minutes of news daily and one weekly 45-minute program in Breton, and campaigns for this amount to be increased are ongoing. In short, although the process has not been an easy one, support for the preservation of Breton in the public sphere continues to grow.
How are you? – Mat an traoù?
Welcome – Degemer mat
Please – Mar plij
Thank you – Trugarez
Goodbye – Kenavo