Bevet Breizh?
Ar brezhoneg
• In Marcus Tanner’s words, ‘the Breton
language has almost vanished over the last
half –century. From one of the most
vigorous and widely spoken Celtic
languages, it has become one of the
weakest, its very survival for the next 25
years is now looking questionable’.
Ar brezhoneg
• As Tanner says in his chapter on Brittany, ‘a
time traveller from a century ago would be
amazed at the speed with which the Breton
language has contracted and seemingly
committed suicide.
• The mass abondonment of breton in the
course of a few decades resembles the
flight from Irish after the Famine of the
Ar brezhoneg
• In Tanner’s words ‘in both cases the
community turned its back on the ancestral
tongue: for them it had become
contaminated with poverty and
• However we should be careful not to see
the decline of Breton (any more than Irish)
as purely economic issues, where Xlanguage is associated with poverty and
lead to adaptation of Y-language.
Ar brezhoneg
• The main factors behind the resilience of Breton language
and culture were the strength of rural society and the
close adherence of the people to the church.
• Poverty was not an abiding issue however. The rural
community was flourishing.
• One of the main reasons for the strength of Breton in the
late 1800s was the fact that many children did not attend
Ar brezhoneg
• Only half of the children attended school in the 1870s
which was in French, consequently the Breton language
remained the language of community, church and
• At the end of the century there were some one million
Breton speakers.
• The towns became more French-speaking but the rural
population rarely settled in the urban areas (Brest).
Ar brezhoneg
• France was seen by the catholic clergy as an
anti-clerical state.
• The Breton-speaking priests were the only
educators for much of the Breton population, and
they emphasized the Christian roots of Breton
culture, and encouraged the Breton language as
a means of creating a wall between the Bretonspeaking masses and French-speaking France
with its anti-clerical ideology.
Ar brezhoneg- and military service
• One element that began to have an impact on
this state of affairs was the question of
compulsory military service.
• All Breton men were required to spend some time
in the French army. As many of these men were
monolingual Breton-speakers, some basic French
was necessary.
• But the army was promoted the State ideology.
Ar brezhoneg
• One result was to eradicate the local
loyalties of many of those from France’s
non-French speaking regions.
• The army was beginning to offer the
freedoms implied in republicanism, quite
unlike the obedience required by the rural
clergy of Breizh-Izel (Lower Brittany).
Ar brezhoneg
• Republicanism of course didn’t speak
Breton, but rather French only, it also
rejected the church.
• It was the First World War which really
impacted Breton society and its culture the
most. (Buez ar Zent)
• Young men were immersed in a new
culture, and often returned transformed in
many ways.
Ar brezhoneg
• Brittany embarked on a huge cultural
revolution. We can see the changes taking
place in Breton-speaking society by
examining some of the many paintings
made between c1870 and c1935.
• French painters had frequently come to
Brittany for an ‘exotic’ setting- as un-French
as could be imagined yet still in France.
Ar brezhoneg
• By the post WWI period Breton-speaking
children were now attending schools where
French was the norm.
• Also the WWI had had devastating effects
on the numbers of Breton-speakers: about
200,000 Breton men died in that war.
• In addition, a large exodus of Bretons
towards the towns, and to Paris took place.
Ar brezhoneg- the impact of emigration
• Between 1920-30, approximately 300, 000
men left the rural environment of western
Brittany for the towns and Paris. Breton did
not develop as an urban language.
• There was a real change in rural areas,
where the old bastion of Breton culture had
• This was bound to bring about a reduction
in the numbers of Breton-speakers.
Ar brezhoneg
• With the growth of nationalism in the 1920s
and 1930s in Brittany, one of the
complaints made was that despite
Brittany’s losses in WWI, no autonomy
had been given to Brittany, and no
recognition to Brittany’s language.
• This was seen in the context of the Treaty
of Versailles which redrew Europe.
Assimilation was the name of the game.
Ar brezhoneg
• For many Bretons the two words ‘yezh’ and
‘feiz’ (language and faith) were not just two
words which rhymed, but an actual reality.
‘le breton et la foi etaient frere et soeur’.
• There was also an element of ‘shame’
increasingly associated with speaking
• The school system attempted to eradicate
the language-
The ‘simbol’ or ‘buoc’h’
• This was usually a clog (wooden shoe) hung around the
neck of a child caught speaking breton at school (19th
• At the end of the day the child with the ‘simbol’ would be
punished. Compare the WN (Welsh Not) in Wales for the
same period.
• Parents were not necessarily scandalized by such
Ar Brezhoneg- the attitude of the Bretons
• We can gauge the attitude of the Bretons themselves to
the beginnings of language-shift.
• Tanner quotes Jean Bothorel who wrote Un Terroriste
breton (Paris 2001).
• He mentions how the clergy had been forced to use
French in churches in place of Breton in an attempt to
keep young people.
• Bothorel talks of how many Bretons saw the language –
shift as a ‘liberation’:
Ar Brezhoneg
• ‘cette volunte d’eradication de la language bretonne leur
semblait des plus legitimes, et ils ne la percevaient pas
comme une agression’.
• It was also a way to be modern, and the road to a better
• The schools ignored Brittany and its long history; this only
changed in 2000. (too little too late?)
Ar Brezhoneg- the major language shift
• This can be dated to the period 1950-1970. Within this
period parents made the decision not to transmit the
Breton language to their children.
• The last generation of native speakers belong largely to
the 1950s (ie born between c1950 abd 1970).
• The events during the WWII only go so far in explaining
• Societal change was clearly a far greater element in this
decision. Education (in French); the decline of the Church,
secularization, economic reforms that undermined
tradition ways of life.
Ar Brezhoneg- the numbers
• 1886- approx 2 million speakers
• 1920s- approx 1.15 million speakers
• 1952- approx 700,000 speakers
• 1960s- approx 600,000 speakers
• 1997- approx 240,000
• 2002-7- approx. 268,000 speakers
• 2012- approx 130,000 speakers ??
• However it is the profile of these speakers which is most
Ar Brezhoneg
• Of the 268,000 in 2002, three-quarters are over 60.
• Less than 1 per cent are under the age of 30.
• There are second-language speakers of Breton as well.
• As Tanner notes, the post-WW2 period saw a ‘cessation
in language transmission’ (parents not teaching the
language to their children).
Ar Brezhoneg
• This process was taking place in the post WW2 years (c
1944-1950), and means of course that the generation
born during that period would not obviously be able to
teach Breton to their children (c 1970-80s).
• Clearly then, Breton has reached the point where it is no
longer a community language.
• Today less than 10% of the Breton population speaks the
Ar Brezhoneg
• Unfortunately those remaining speakers are widely
dispersed. As Tanner points out, there is no longer one
specific area or small town where the language
• The lack of any legislation to protect and promote Breton
isalso an issue.
• Such an idea goes diametrically against the centralist
ideology of the French State. Socialist governments are
less centrist.
Ar Brezhoneg
• Pride in speaking the language is sometime absent.
Tanner mentions how little Breton is heard on the streets
or in the stores in the small Breton villages of the west.
Those who have learned the language are not always
‘my mother didn’t like it and wouldn’t answer me when I
spoke in Breton’.
‘At school we were punished for talking that!’
For that grandfather, the use of Breton brought back
memories of pain, and a sense that Breton was useless.
New Pride in the Language
• However, old attitudes are tending to recede. Many
Bretons today are in favour of seeing Breton flourish and
• If there are still some 200,000 speakers (albeit mainly
over the age of 60), it can be argued that it is not too late
to reinvigorate Breton.
• But it will never be as before.
• The main difference is that within 20 years probably most
Breton speakers will speak it as a second language.
Regional Council for Brittany
And the Breton
Regional Council for Brittany
• There are in fact 22 administrative regions in France, of
which Brittany Region is one.
• It is a local council divided into two ‘assemblies’:
• The Regional Council- which decides on regional policy
• Regional Social and economic Council, which acts as a
kind of ‘thinktank’ for the Council.
Regional Council for Brittany
• The Council has 83 councillors.
• The areas of responsibility are:
Co-operation with
High school
Professional training
Economic development
Culture (includes
Saxony (Germany)
Wales (since 2004)
Voivodia (Poland)
Basque Country (Spain).
Ofis ar Brezhoneg
Ofis ar Brezhoneg
• Founded in 1999 by the Regional Council of Brittany.
• Funded by the Council, the Ministry of Culture,the five
Breton departements , and the main cities of Brittany.
• In 2006 it had 20 full-time employees, and 100 volunteers.
Ofis ar Brezhoneg
Ofis ar Brezhoneg
• The work of the office for the Breton Language covers a
wide range of linguistic activities.
• Its major roles are the promotion of Breton in Breton
communities, as well as research and proposals for
language planning to be discussed by the Regional
Ofis ar Brezhoneg-tasks
• The Breton language ‘observatory’: studying the use of
Breton in society, and producing scientific socio-linguistic
• Translation service: assistance in promoting Breton in
public life, bilingualism in signs etc, editing of translations
by other organisations. Translation service.
Ofis ar Brezhoneg- tasks
• The management of TermBret, the Breton language
terminology bank. This service exists to produce Breton
terminology in a wide range of spheres: education,
business, media, signage, computer science).
• The ‘heritage service’ (service patrimoine). The collecting
and dissemination of oral and written materials especially
with regard to place-names. Normalisation of Breton
names (eg first road map of Brittany in Breton)
Ofis ar Brezhoneg
• The OAB development agency. Their work is to promote
the use of Breton in all sections of society, encourages
businesses, and organisations to put in place a bilingual
• Their most important campaign was Ya d’ar Brezhoneg!
(Yes to Breton!)
• This very visual and mediatized campaign brought the
question of the language back to many Bretons.
Ofis ar Brezhoneg
• One of the major results of work of the Ofis ar Brezhoneg
was the publishing of an extensive report and creation of
a strategic plan for the revitalisation of Breton.
• This their second report was called in French ‘La langue
bretonne à la croisée des chemins’.
Ofis ar Brezhoneg
• This wide-ranging report and proposed language
revitalisation strategy is the most detailed study to date of
the state of the Breton language.
• The study examined between 2002-7 the state of
Breton in the following fields:
• Education, social and private life, publishing in
Breton, media (tv and radio), new technologies,
Breton in the workplace.
Ofis ar Brezhoneg
• Although accepting that Breton was truly at a crossroads,
the report did see some positive changes in attitude, and
some optimism.
• There was greater support for Breton (92% of Bretons
thought it should be ‘kept’,and 82% recognized it as their
‘regional language’.
• This was a major change since the early 1990s.
Ofis ar Brezhoneg
• Bilingual education in Breton was on the increase.
Adult classes in Breton (DAO: Deskin d’ar Oadurien).
Oulpan courses.
Publications in Breton were at a constant 80-100 per year.
Television and radio still provided a small number of
programmes in the language, but the internet provided
greater diffusion.
An Taol Lagad
Ofis ar Brezhoneg
• An important element in the report was the sense that
much would be improved if the regional languages of
France were given legal status.
• The report estimated that between 6000-6500 Breton
speakers will die each year, a number it will not be easy to
Facebook e brezhoneg!
• A campaign run by Fulup Jakez successfully obtained in
March 2012 over 5000 names of those who want
facebook to have a Breton version.
• http://www.ofis-
• Suppotred by Ofis ar Brezhoneg
• The Breton-medium education movement began in 1977
in a place called Lampaul-Ploudalmegean (near Brest).
Based on similar schools in ireland, Wales and the
Basque Country, the first Diwan schools were
kintergartens, and primary schools (1980).
• By 1988 they had established a Breton-medium college,
and then a lycee in Lorient in 1994.
• The teachers and the curriculum of the Breton-medium
schools follow closely that of the State schools (French is
introduced from the age of seven).
Official recognition for France’s regional
• Clearly, a legal status for France’s regional languages
would go a long way towards ensuring a future for such
• For constitutional reasons, France has not been able to
ratify the EU’s European Charter for Regional and
Minority Languages.
• A major political demonstrations are planned to take place
in France on the 31st March. 2012 to demand official
status for such languages in France.
• Quimper\ Kemper. (Toulouse, Perpignan. Bayonne,
Ajaccio, Strasbourg, New York,…)

The Breton Language - University of Ottawa