|Native speakers||206,000 (2007)|
|Writing system||Latin script|
bre – Modern Breton
xbm – Middle Breton
obt – Old Breton
|Linguist List||xbm Middle Breton|
|obt Old Breton|
50-ABB-b (varieties:50-ABB-ba to -be)
Breton // (Brezhoneg) is a Celtic language spoken in Brittany (Breton: Breizh; French: Bretagne), France. Breton is a Brythonic language, descended from the Celtic British language brought from Great Britain to Armorica by migrating Britons during the Early Middle Ages. Like the other Brythonic languages, Welsh and Cornish, it is classified as an Insular Celtic language. Breton is most closely related to Cornish, as both are thought to have evolved from a Southwestern Brythonic protolanguage. The other regional language of Brittany, Gallo, is a langue d'oïl derived from Latin and is consequently relatively close to French.
Having declined from more than one million speakers around 1950 to about 200,000 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
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), while the nobility, followed by the bourgeoisie, adopted French. As a written language, the Duchy of Brittany used 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 did not concern itself with the minority languages of France spoken by the lower classes, although it did require the use of French for government business. The revolutionary period saw the introduction of policies favouring French over the regional languages, pejoratively referred to as patois. It was assumed by the revolutionaries that reactionary and monarchist forces preferred regional languages in an attempt to keep the peasant masses under-informed. In 1794, Barère submitted to the Comité de salut public his "report on the idioms", in which he said that "federalism and superstition speak Breton". Under the Third, Fourth and Fifth republics, humiliating practices aimed at stamping out the Breton language and culture prevailed in state schools until the late 1960s.
Today, due to the political centralization of France and the important influence of the media, only about 200,000 people are able to speak Breton, a figure down from more than a million in 1950, of which the majority is more than 60 years old. At the beginning of the 20th century, half of the population of Lower Brittany knew only Breton, the other half being bilingual. By 1950, there were only 100,000 monolingual Bretons, and a rapid decline since, with likely no monolingual speakers left today. A statistical survey in 1997 found around 300,000 speakers in Breizh izel, of which about 190,000 were aged 60 or over. Few of the 15–19-year-olds spoke Breton, which is now considered to be an endangered language.
In 1925, thanks to Professor Roparz Hemon, the first issue of the review Gwalarn appeared. During its 19-year run, Gwalarn tried to raise the language to the level of other great “international” languages by creating original works covering all genres and by proposing Breton translations of internationally-recognized foreign works.
In 1946, Al Liamm replaced Gwalarn. Other periodicals appeared and began to give Breton a fairly large body of literature for a minority language.
The Asterix comic series has been translated into Breton. This is notable because, according to the comic, the Gaulish village where Asterix lives is in the Armoric peninsula, which is now Brittany. Some other comics have also been translated into Breton, including Tintin, Spirou, Titeuf, Hägar the Horrible, Peanuts and Yakari.
There is some original media 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) are also 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 as an official or regional language. The French State refuses to change the second article of the Constitution (added in 1994), which states that “the language of the Republic is French”. This means that in spite of long having been the Celtic language with the highest number of speakers, the language 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 the existence of bilingual dictionaries directly from Breton into languages such as English, Dutch, German, Spanish and Welsh demonstrates the determination of a new generation to gain international recognition for Breton. There also exists a monolingual dictionary, Geriadur Brezhoneg an Here, defining Breton words in Breton. The first edition of 1995 contained about 10,000 words, and the second edition of 2001 contains 20,000 words.
Geographic distribution and dialects
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 respectively léonard 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 specificities.
Breton is not an official language of France, despite pleas from autonomists and others for official recognition and for the language to be guaranteed a place in schools, the media, and other aspects of public life.
In July 2008, the French Constitution was amended adding article 75-1, stating les langues régionales appartiennent au patrimoine de la France (the regional languages belong to the heritage of France). This was an important step in the recognition of Breton and other minority languages of France, but it did not give more actual recognition, rights or funds to these languages.
Nevertheless, the regional and departmental authorities do use Breton to a very limited extent, for example in signage. Some bilingual signage may also be seen, such as street name signs in Breton towns, and 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; it must be bilingual or else in French alone. Since commercial signage usually has limited physical space, signage is normally in French alone.
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. It created the Ya d'ar brezhoneg campaign, signed by enterprises, organisations and communes to promote the use of Breton, for example by installing bilingual signage or translating their website.
An attempt by the French government to incorporate the independent Breton-language immersion schools (called Diwan) into the state education system was blocked by the French Constitutional Council on the grounds that, as the 1992 amendment to the Constitution of the 5th Republic states that French is the language of the Republic, no other language may be used as a language of instruction in state schools. The Toubon Law states that French is the language of public education, which means that Breton-language schools do not receive funding from the national government, though the Brittany Region may fund them.
The Diwan schools were founded in 1977 to teach Breton by immersion. They taught a few thousand young people from elementary school to high school. They gained more and more fame owing to their high level of results in school exams.
In 2012, 14,709 pupils (about 1.63% of all pupils in Brittany) attended Diwan, Div Yezh and Dihun schools, a number growing yearly. Several years ago, the president of the Regional Council, Jean-Yves Le Drian wanted the number to be 20,000 by 2010, though this has not been accomplished.
Some 4,500 to 5,000 adults followed a Breton language course (evening course, correspondence, ...) in 2007. The family transmission of Breton in 1999 is estimated to be only 3%.
Evolution of the percentage of pupils in bilingual education.
Percentage of pupils in bilingual education per department.
The ten communes with the highest percentage of pupils in bilingual primary education, listed with their total population.
The ten communes of historic Brittany with the highest total population, listed with their percentages of pupils in bilingual primary education.
Other forms of education
Next to bilingual education (including Breton-medium education), there are "initiations" of Breton in the primary education, primarily in the department of Finistère. These initiations are 1 to 3 hours per week and consist of songs and games.
There are also schools in secondary education (collèges and lycées) offering courses of Breton (given as either foreign language or option, instead of e.g. German or Spanish), and there are about 5,000 students at the universities in Brittany who take 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).
|Close||i /i/||u /y/||ou /u/|
|Close-mid||e /e/||eu /ø/||o /o/|
|Open-mid||e /ɛ/||eu /œ/||o /ɔ/|
|Open||a /a/||a /ɑ/|
Diphthongs are /ai, ei/.
|Nasal stop||m /m/||n /n/||gn /ɲ/|
|Plosive||voiced||b /b/||d /d/||g /ɡ/||gw, gou /ɡʷ/|
|voiceless||p /p/||t /t/||k /k/||kw /kʷ/|
|Fricative||voiced||v /v/||z, zh /z/||j /ʒ/|
|voiceless||f /f/||s /s/||ch /ʃ/||c’h /x/||h, zh /h/|
|Approximant||lateral||l /l/||lh /ʎ/|
|central||y /j/||u /ɥ/||w /w/|
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:
|Me zo o komz gant ma amezeg||"I am talking with my neighbour"||"Táim ag labhairt le mo chomharsain"||"Dw i'n siarad â fy nghymydog|
|Me a gomz gant ma amezeg [bep mintin]||"I talk with my neighbour [every morning]"||"Labhraím le mo chomharsain [gach maidin]"||"Siaradaf â fy nghymydog [bob bore]|
|ul levr zo ganin
a book is with-me
|yma lyver genev||mae llyfr gennyf||tá leabhar agam||tha leabhar agam||ta lioar aym||I have a book|
|un died zo ganit
a drink is with-you
|yma diwes genes||mae diod gennyt||tá deoch agat||tha deoch agad||ta jiogh ayd||you have a drink|
|un urzhiataer zo gantañ
a computer is with-him
|yma amontyer ganso||mae cyfrifiadur ganddo||tá ríomhaire aige||tha coimpiutair aige||ta co-earrooder echey||he has a computer|
|ur bugel zo ganti
a child is with-her
|yma flogh gensy||mae plentyn ganddi||tá leanbh aici||tha leanabh aice||ta lhiannoo eck||she has a child|
|ur c'harr zo ganimp (or ganeomp)
a car is with-us
|yma carr genen||mae car gennym||tá gluaisteán/carr againn||tha càr againn||ta gleashtan/carr ain||we have a car|
|un ti zo ganeoc'h
a house is with-you
|yma chi genowgh||mae tŷ gennych||tá teach agaibh||tha taigh agaibh||ta thie eu||you [pl] have a house|
|arc'hant zo ganto (or gante)
money is with-them
|yma mona gansans||mae arian ganddynt||tá airgead acu||tha airgead aca||ta argid oc||they have money|
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.
|m [m]||v [v]||v [v]|
|b [b]||p [p]||v [v]||v [v]||d [d]||t [t]||t [t]||z [z]|
|p [p]||b [b]||f [f]||t [t]||d [d]||z [z]|
|g [ɡ]||k [k]||c’h [ɣ]||c’h [ɣ]||gw [ɡʷ]||kw [kʷ]||w [w]||w [w]|
|k [k]||g [ɡ]||c’h [x]|
- Some words that passed into French and in English
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 foreign tongue : 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 Le Gonidec created a modern phonetic system.
During the early years of the 20th century, a group of writers known as Emglev ar Skrivanerien elaborated and reformed Le Gonidec's system, making it more suitable as a super-dialectal representation of the dialects of Cornouaille, Leon and Trégor. This KLT (from Kernev, Leon and Treger, the Breton names for Cornouaille, Leon and Trégor) orthography was established in 1911. At the same time writers using the more divergent Vannetais dialect developed a system also based on that of Le Gonidec to represent their dialect.
Following proposals made during the 1920s, the KLT and Vannetais orthographies were merged in 1941 to create an orthographic system that could represent all four dialects. One of the most salient features of this Peurunvan ("wholly unified") orthography was the inclusion of the zh digraph, which represents a /h/ in Vannetais, which corresponds to a /z/ in the KLT dialects.
In 1955 a new orthography was proposed by François Falc'hun and the group Emgleo Breiz, which had the aim of using 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". This orthography was met with strong opposition and is largely only used by the magazine Brud Nevez and the publishing house Emgléo Breiz.
Between 1971 and 1974 a new standard orthography has been devised — the etrerannyezhel or interdialectale. This system is based on derivation of the words.
Today the majority of writers continue to use the Peurunvan orthography, including most Breton-language schools.
Breton is written in the Latin script. Peurunvan, the most commonly used orthography, consists of the following letters:
- a, b, ch, c'h, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u, v, w, y, z
- â, ê, î, ô, û, ù, ü, ñ
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 with nouns written with a final voiced consonant and adjectives with a voiceless one. There is, however, no distinction in pronunciation, e.g. brezhoneg Breton language vs. brezhonek Breton (adj).
Some examples of words in the different orthographies:
|Etrerannyezhel (1975)||Peurunvan (1941)||Skolveurieg (1956)|
- Hon Tad,
- c'hwi hag a zo en Neñv,
- ra vo santelaet hoc'h ano.
- Ra zeuio ho Rouantelezh.
- Ra vo graet ho youl war an douar evel en neñv.
- Roit dimp hizio bara hor bevañs.
- Distaolit dimp hon dleoù
- evel m' hor bo ivez distaolet d' hon dleourion.
- Ha n' hon lezit ket da vont gant an temptadur,
- met hon dieubit eus an Droug.
Words and phrases in Breton
Visitors to Brittany may encounter words and phrases (especially on signs and posters) such as the following:
|deuet mat oc'h||you're welcome|
|da bep lec'h||all directions|
|bagad||pipe band (nearly)|
|fest-noz||lit. "night fête", a fest deiz or "day fête" also exists|
|krampouezh||pancakes (a pancake = ur grampouezhenn)|
|war vor atav||always at sea|
|kouign amann||rich butter and sugar cake|
|Breton language edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia|
- Gaelic revival Irish language revival
- Julian Maunoir, 17th century Breton language orthographer
- List of Celtic-language media
- Fañch Broudic, 2009. Parler breton au XXIe siècle – Le nouveau sondage de TMO-Régions. (including data from 2007: 172,000 speakers in Lower Brittany; slightly under 200,000 in whole Brittany; 206,000 including students in bilingual education)
- Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
- (French) Données clés sur breton, Ofis ar Brezhoneg
- ICBL information about Breton at breizh.net
- Fañch Broudic, Qui parle breton aujourd'hui? Qui le parlera demain? Brest: Brud Nevez, 1999
- Simon Hooper. "France a 'rogue state' on regional languages". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
- "Ofis ar Brezhoneg". Ofis-bzh.org. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
- (French) Diwan FAQ, #6.
- (French) Interview with Jean-Yves Le Drian, the president of the Region Council.
- (French) Ofis ar Brezhoneg: Enseignement bilingue 2009 (année scolaire 2008-2009)
- (French) Populations légales 2007
- Those figures include some cities in the department of Loire-Atlantique, which today is not technically in the region of Brittany but Pays de la Loire, although it was originally. See for example Brittany (administrative region).
- (French) L'option de breton
- Hemon, Roparz; Everson, Michael (2007). Breton Grammar (2 ed.). Evertype/Al Liamm. ISBN 978-1-904808-11-4.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Breton language|
|Breton edition of Wikisource, the free library|
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Breton language|
|The Wikibook Brezhoneg has a page on the topic of: Breton|
|Wikiversity has learning materials about Topic:Breton|
|For a list of words relating to Breton, see the Breton language category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg official website.
- France 3 breizh, FR, the public Breton TV channel.
- Endangered, Breizh net: an essay about the situation of the Breton language.
- 100 Breton Internet-related words, Breizh
- Amsez Wask Breizh, Agence bretagne presse: news in Breton.
- Breizh (blog): Brittany information, articles about Breton.
- A Taste of Breton Verse, Summerlands.
- Breton, Omniglot.
- English online dictionary and grammar for Breton
- A multilingual dictionary containing many Breton words alongside those of other languages
- Breton site including online lessons
- Breton site with learners' forum and lessons (mostly in French with some English)
- extensive Breton grammar (in French), with glossed examples and typological comparisons.