Language Profiles: Breton (Brezhoneg)

When we think of Celtic languages, we imagine the lush green hills of Ireland, the windswept coasts (and absurdly long place names) of Wales, or perhaps the rugged landscapes of Scotland. But one Celtic language springs from somewhere a bit different: France.

Breton is a Celtic language spoken in northwestern France, first brought to the European mainland by emigrés from the British Isles in the early Middle Ages. It’s most closely related to Cornish, which is spoken in the far south of England (sadly, the last purported L1 speaker of Cornish died in the 19th century, but today there are relatively successful efforts to revive it). It’s also distantly related to Welsh.

Unfortunately, like its Celtic siblings, Breton has quite a sad history as a suppressed minority language. According to the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language, efforts to quash Breton as a spoken and written language began in the 1840s and continued, with official sanction, for over a century. Until 1951, with the passage of the Deixonne Law (note: linked content is in French), children were forbidden from speaking, let alone learning, Breton and other minority languages (such as Catalan, Occitan, and Basque) in French schools. Today, only just over 200,000 people speak it as an everyday language. Only quite recently have there been efforts to promote Breton and encourage children to learn and speak it.

Because Breton is so severely endangered and was suppressed as an everyday language for so long, there isn’t very much mainstream or international media that features it, but it does appear in some unexpected places. The soundtrack to the 2001 film Black Hawk Down included a song in Breton called Gortoz A Ran (I’m Waiting) by the Breton singer-songwriter Denez Prigent, who writes lyrics exclusively in Breton and draws from Breton musical traditions to create and perform songs that comment on contemporary environmental and social problems.

You’ll be heartened to know that thanks to the work of Breton-speaking artists like Denez Prigent and minority language rights activists, Breton is staging a comeback. If you drive through Brittany in northern France, street signs are bilingual. There are now Breton-language television and radio programs, and schoolchildren can now speak and study Breton in their classrooms, though there is a shortage of teachers and many Breton-language programs are losing funding, which has sparked vigorous protests from Breton activists. People are finally beginning to recognize and celebrate Breton, but there’s still a long way to go.

In my last Language Profile, I talked about the Bengali language, and how the passion with which its speakers defended their rights to speak and celebrate it fueled social movements that changed South Asia forever. Breton is another example of how central language is to our political and social identities, and how important language rights are, especially in a rapidly globalizing world where English and a few other “standard” languages dominate.

Note: The research I did on the history of Breton as a minority language in France was incredibly interesting, and I’m hoping to expand that into a companion piece of sorts about the history of minority languages in France and how France’s language policy contrasts with those of other countries.

I’m also trying to figure out if it’s better to keep my sources as hyperlinks within the text of the post, or to list everything as a bibliography at the end. I’m trying out both formats to see which one has a better look and feel.

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