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Breton Language Primer

History and development
Whilst perceived in many quarters as a legacy of pre-Roman Gaul, Breton is in fact a much more recent arrival. Although a Celtic language, it is instead descended from the Celtic languages on the British Isles and was brought from there to Brittany by settlers some time in the late 3rd, early 4th century AD. It established itself in Lower Brittany and was the language of the elite until the early middle ages when French began to make inroads.

Over the following centuries, Breton fell foul of a series of French state policies that began to marginalize it, initially banning it from being used in public life. This process began with the 1539 Villers-Cotteręts Ordinance, in which King Francis I made Parisian French the official State language. Later governments, including the revolutionary governments, actively sought to root out the language using the school system in an attempt to indoctrinate the masses.

Due to these constraints and the absence of an educated Breton speaking class, there was very little in the way of a literary tradition until the early 20th century. This changed in 1925 with the launch of a review entitled Gwalarn. During its 20-year run, this publication not only brought to the fore a large amount of original material but also stimulated the translation of major international works into Breton, thereby deepening the language’s cultural base.

Related languages
Breton is most closely related to Cornish and Welsh and distantly related to Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic but mutual intelligibility would generally be low.

Status today
Breton is the only surviving Celtic language not to be officially recognised and protected. To its credit, the French government did make a belated recent attempt to fund bilingual schools in Brittany but it fell foul of the French Constitutional Council who, rightly, noted that it would contravene Article 2 of the French Constitution which states that French is the language of the Republic. The French state does not seem to have any intention of amending the Constitution out of a fear that it would lead to the country’s eventual break-up.

Despite centuries of oppression, Breton is still a living language with somewhere near half a million people using it on a daily basis and over a million claiming knowledge of the language. That said, it has lost some of its vitality in recent decades and language use in daily life is down over 50% on what was reported in the 1930s. The launch of a regional TV station, TV Breizh, has given new impetus to Breton amidst growing regional demand for increased recognition of the language.

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