Breton /ˈbrɛtən/ (Brezhoneg) is a Celtic language spoken in Brittany (Breton: Breizh; French: Bretagne), France. Breton is a Brittonic languagebrought from Great Britain to Armorica by migrating Britons during the Early Middle Ages; it is thus an Insular Celtic language and not closely related to the Gaulish language. Breton is most closely related to Cornish, as both are Southwestern Brittonic languages. Welsh and the extinct Cumbric are the more distantly-related Brittonic languages.
The other regional language of Brittany, Gallo, is a langue d’oïl (a Romance language, thus ultimately descended from Latin, unlike the similarly-named ancient Celtic language Gaulish, also known as Gallic) and consequently very close to French, although not mutually intelligible.
Having declined from more than one million speakers around 1950 to about 200,000 (out of which only 35,000 use it on a daily basis) in the first decade of the 21st century, of whom 61% are more than 60 years old, Breton is classified as “severely endangered” by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. However, the number of children attending bilingual classes has risen 33% between 2006 and 2012 to 14,709.
History and status
The Brythonic community around the 6th century. The sea was a communication medium rather than a barrier
Celtic nations, with Brittany coloured in black at the bottom
Breton is spoken in Lower Brittany, roughly to the west of a line linking Plouha and La Roche-Bernard (east of Vannes). It comes from a Brythonic language community (see image) that once extended from Great Britain to Armorica (present-day Brittany) and which had even established a toehold in Galicia (in present-day Spain). Old Breton is attested from the 9th century. It was the language of the upper classes until the 12th century, after which it became the language of commoners in West Brittany (Breizh Izel: “Lower Brittany”). The nobility, followed by the bourgeoisie, adoptedFrench. The written language of the Duchy of Brittany was Latin, switching to French in the 15th century. There exists a limited tradition of Breton literature. Some Old Breton vocabulary remains in the present day as philosophical and scientific terms in Modern Breton.
The French monarchy was not concerned with the minority languages of France spoken by the lower classes, and required the use of French for government business as part of its policy of national unity. During the French Revolution, the government introduced policies favouring French over the regional languages, which it pejoratively referred to as patois. The revolutionaries assumed that reactionary and monarchist forces preferred regional languages to try to keep the peasant masses under-informed. In 1794, Bertrand Barère submitted his “report on the patois” to the Committee of Public Safety in which he said that “federalism and superstition speak Breton”.
Since the 19th century, under the Third, Fourth and Fifth Republics, the government has attempted to stamp out minority languages in state schools, including Breton, in an effort to build a national culture. Teachers humiliated students for using their regional languages, and such practices prevailed until the late 1960s.
In the early 21st century, due to the political centralization of France, the influence of the media, and the increasing mobility of people, only about 200,000 people can speak Breton. This has dramatically declined from more than a million in 1950. The majority of today’s speakers are more than 60 years old, and Breton is now classified as an endangered language.
At the beginning of the 20th century, half of the population of Lower Brittany knew only Breton; the other half were bilingual. By 1950, there were only 100,000 monolingual Bretons, and a rapid decline has occurred, with likely no monolingual speakers left today. A statistical survey in 1997 found around 300,000 speakers in Breizh izel, of whom about 190,000 were aged 60 or over. Few 15- to 19-year-olds spoke Breton.
In 1925, Professor Roparz Hemon founded the Breton-language review Gwalarn. During its 19-year run, Gwalarn tried to raise the language to the level of a great international language. Its publication encouraged the creation of original literature in all genres, and proposed Breton translations of internationally-recognized foreign works. In 1946, Al Liamm replaced Gwalarn. Other Breton-language periodicals have been published, which established a fairly large body of literature for a minority language.
In 1977, Diwan schools were founded to teach Breton by immersion. They taught a few thousand young people from elementary school to high school. See the education section for more information.
The Asterix comic series has been translated into Breton. According to the comic, the Gaulish village where Asterix lives is in the Armorica peninsula, which is now Brittany. Some other popular comics have also been translated into Breton, including The Adventures of Tintin, Spirou, Titeuf, Hägar the Horrible, Peanuts and Yakari.
Some original media is created in Breton. Radio Kerne, broadcasting from Finistère, has exclusively Breton programming. Some movies (Lancelot du Lac, Shakespeare in Love, Marion du Faouet, Sezneg) and TV series (Columbo, Perry Mason) have also been translated and broadcast in Breton. Poets, linguists, and writers who have written in Breton, including Yann-Ber Kalloc’h, Roparz Hemon, Anjela Duval, Pêr-Jakez Helias and Youenn Gwernig, are now known internationally.
Today, Breton is the only living Celtic language that is not recognized by the national government as an official or regional language. The French State refuses to change the second article of the Constitution (added in 1994), which establishes that “the language of the Republic is French”. Although Breton was long the Celtic language with the highest number of speakers, it is now endangered.
The first Breton dictionary, the Catholicon, was also the first French dictionary. Edited by Jehan Lagadec in 1464, it was a trilingual work containing Breton, French and Latin. Today bilingual dictionaries have been published for Breton and such languages as English, Dutch, German, Spanish and Welsh. A new generation is determined to gain international recognition for Breton. The monolingual dictionary, Geriadur Brezhoneg an Here (1995), defines Breton words in Breton. The first edition contained about 10,000 words, and the second edition of 2001 contains 20,000 words.
In the early 21st century, the Ofis ar Brezhoneg (“Office of the Breton language”) began a campaign to encourage daily use of Breton in the region by both businesses and local communes. Efforts include installing bilingual signs and posters for regional events.
Geographic distribution and dialects
Regional statistics of Breton speakers, in 2004.
Dialects of Breton
Breton is spoken mainly in Western Brittany, but also in a more dispersed way in Eastern Brittany (where Gallo is spoken alongside Breton and French), and in areas around the world that have Breton immigrants.
The four living dialects of Breton, as identified by Ethnologue, are (named in Breton)leoneg, tregerieg, gwenedeg, and kerneveg. In French these are respectivelyléonard spoken in the Breton county of Léon, trégorrois spoken in the Trégor,vannetais spoken around the city of Vannes, and cornouaillais spoken in the Breton Cornouaille). A fifth guérandais dialect was spoken up to the beginning of the 20th century in the region of Guérande and Batz-sur-Mer.
There are no clear boundaries between the dialects because they form a dialect continuum, varying only slightly from one village to the next. Compared to the other dialects, the Gwenedeg dialect is somewhat more distinct, due to several pronunciation details.
Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg, the Breton language agency, was set up in 1999 by the Brittany region to promote and develop the use of Breton
As noted, only French is an official language of France. Supporters of Breton and other minority languages continue to argue for their recognition, teaching in public schools and place in public life.
In July 2008, the legislature amended the French Constitution, adding article 75-1: les langues régionales appartiennent au patrimoine de la France (theregional languages belong to the heritage of France). This acknowledged the significance of the languages. The government has not provided official recognition, rights or funds to support use of these languages.
Bilingual sign in Vannes (Gwened)
Regional and departmental authorities use Breton to a very limited extent, for example in signage. Some bilingual signage has also been installed, such as street name signs in Breton towns. One station of the Rennes metro system has signs in both French and Breton.
Under French law (the Toubon Law), it is illegal for commercial signage to be in Breton alone. Signs must be bilingual or else in French. Since commercial signage usually has limited physical space, most businesses have signs only in French.
Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg, the Breton language agency, was set up in 1999 by the Brittany region to promote and develop the daily use of Breton. It created the Ya d’ar brezhoneg campaign, to encourage enterprises, organisations and communes to promote the use of Breton, for example by installing bilingual signage or translating their websites into Breton.
Sign in French and Breton in Rennes, outside a school with bilingual classes
In the late 20th century, the French government considered incorporating the independent Breton-language immersion schools (called Diwan) into the state education system. This action was blocked by the French Constitutional Council based on the 1994 amendment to the Constitution that establishes French as the language of the Republic. Therefore, no other language may be used as a language of instruction in state schools. TheToubon Law implemented the amendment, asserting that French is the language of public education.
The Diwan schools were founded in Brittany in 1977 to teach Breton by immersion. They taught a few thousand young people from elementary school to high school. They have gained fame owing to their high level of results in school exams. Breton-language schools do not receive funding from the national government, though the Brittany Region may fund them.
Another teaching method is a bilingual approach by Div Yezh (“Two Languages”) in the State schools, created in 1979. Dihun (“Awakening”) was created in 1990 for bilingual education in the Catholic schools.
In 2012, 14,709 pupils (about 1.63% of all pupils in Brittany) attended Diwan, Div Yezh and Dihun schools. Their number has increased yearly. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the president of the Regional Council, had a goal of 20,000 students by 2010, but is encouraged by their progress.
In 2007, some 4,500 to 5,000 adults followed a Breton-language course (such as evening course, correspondence, or other.) The family transmission of Breton in 1999 is estimated to be 3%.
Other forms of education
In addition to bilingual education (including Breton-medium education), the region has introduced Breton language in the primary education, primarily in the department of Finistère. These “initiation” sessions are generally 1 to 3 hours per week, and consist of songs and games.
Schools in secondary education (collèges and lycées) offer some courses of Breton (given as either foreign language or option, instead of e.g. German or Spanish). In 2010, nearly 5,000 students in Brittany were reported to be taking this option.
Vowels in Breton may be short or long (see Vowel length). All unstressed vowels are short; stressed vowels can be short or long (vowel lengths are not noted in usual orthographies as they are implicit in the phonology of particular dialects, and not all dialects pronounce stressed vowels as long).
All vowels can also be nasalized, which is noted by appending an ‘n’ letter after the base vowel, or by adding a combining tilde above the vowel, or more commonly by non-ambiguously appending an ‘ñ’ letter after the base vowel (this depends on the orthographic variant).
Diphthongs are /ai, ei/.
As in English, and the other Celtic languages a variety of verbal constructions are available to express grammatical aspect, for example showing a distinction between progressive and habitual actions:
As in other modern Celtic languages, Breton pronouns are fused into preceding prepositions to produce a sort of ”conjugated” preposition. Below are some examples in Breton, Cornish, Welsh, and Irish.
Note that in the examples above the Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx) use the preposition meaning “at” to show possession while the Brythonic languages use “with”. The Goidelic languages, however, do use the preposition “with” to express “belong to” (Irish “is liom an leabhar”, Scottish “is leam an leabhar”, Manx “she lhiam yn lioar” The book belongs to me).
Note also that the above examples of Welsh are the formal written language. The order and preposition may differ slightly in colloquial Welsh (Formal “mae car gennym”, North Wales “mae gynnon ni gar”, South Wales “mae car gyda ni”).
Initial consonant mutations
Breton has four initial consonant mutations: though modern Breton lost the nasal mutation of Welsh, it also has a ‘hard’ mutation, in which voiced stops become voiceless, and a ‘mixed’ mutation, which is a mixture of hard and soft mutations.
The English words dolmen and menhir have been borrowed from French, which supposedly took them from Breton. However, this is uncertain: for instance, menhir is peulvan or maen hir (“long stone”), maen sav (“straight stone”) (two words: noun + adjective) in Breton. Dolmen is a misconstructed word (it should be taol-vaen). Some studies state that these words were borrowed from Cornish. Maen hir can be directly translated from Welsh as “long stone” (which is exactly what a menhir or maen hir is).
To jabber in a foreign language: French baragouiner from bara ’bread’ and gwin ’wine’.
Sea gull (big one): French goéland from gwelan same root as gull (Welsh gwylan).
The first Breton texts, contained in the Leyde manuscript, were written at the end of the 8th century: fifty years prior to the Strasbourg Oaths, considered to be the earliest example of French. After centuries of orthography calqued on the French model, in the 1830s Jean-François Le Gonidec created a modern phonetic system for the language.
During the early years of the 20th century, a group of writers known as Emglev ar Skrivanerien elaborated and reformed Le Gonidec’s system. They made it more suitable as a super-dialectal representation of the dialects of Cornouaille, Leon and Trégor (known as from Kernev, Leon and Treger in Breton). This KLT orthography was established in 1911. At the same time writers of the more divergent Vannetais dialect developed a phonetic system also based on that of Le Gonidec.
Following proposals made during the 1920s, the KLT and Vannetais orthographies were merged in 1941 to create an orthographic system to represent all four dialects. This Peurunvan (“wholly unified”) orthography was significant for the inclusion of the zh digraph, which represents a /h/ in Vannetais and corresponds to a /z/ in the KLT dialects.
In 1955 François Falc’hun and the group Emgleo Breiz proposed a new orthography. It was designed to use a set of graphemes closer to the conventions of French. This Orthographie Universitaire(“University Orthography”, known in Breton as Skolveurieg) was given official recognition by the French authorities as the “official orthography of Breton in French education.” It was opposed in the region and today is used only by the magazine Brud Nevez and the publishing house Emgléo Breiz.
Between 1971 and 1974, a new standard orthography was devised — the etrerannyezhel or interdialectale. This system is based on the derivation of the words.
Today the majority of writers continue to use the Peurunvan orthography, and it is the version taught in most Breton-language schools.
Breton is written in the Latin script. Peurunvan, the most commonly used orthography, consists of the following letters:
The circumflex, grave accent, trema and tilde appear on some letters. These diacritics are used in the following way:
See  for an introduction to the Breton alphabet and pronunciation.
Differences between Skolveurieg and Peurunvan
Both orthographies use the above alphabet, although é is used only in Skolveurieg.
Differences between the two systems are particularly noticeable in word endings. In Peurunvan, final obstruents, which are devoiced in absolute final position and voiced in sandhi before voiced sounds, are represented by a grapheme that indicates a voiceless sound. In OU they are written as voiced but represented as voiceless before suffixes: braz (big), brasoc’h (bigger).
In addition, Peurunvan maintains the KLT convention, which distinguishes noun/adjective pairs by nouns written with a final voiced consonant and adjectives with a voiceless one. No distinction is made in pronunciation, e.g. brezhoneg Breton language vs. brezhonek Breton (adj).
Some examples of words in the different orthographies:
Pronunciation of the Breton alphabet
Words and phrases in Breton
Bilingual signage in Quimper/Kemper. Note the use of the word ti in the Breton forpolice station and tourist office, plus da bep lec’h for all directions.
Visitors to Brittany may encounter words and phrases (especially on signs and posters) such as the following:
Published - March 2014
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