Endangered Language Alliance



Breton

a Celtic (Brythonic) language of France

Background

Breton (Breizh) is a Celtic language spoken in the Brittany region of France. Although Celtic languages had been spoken widely within Western Europe before the expansion of Germanic and Romance speaking populations, Breton is presently the only Celtic language spoken on the European mainland, thanks to emigration from southwest Britain during the first millennium C.E. As a result, the language is most closely related to Cornish, followed by Welsh. The inhabitants of the coastal region of Brittany have long been closely connected to other Celtic people in the British Isles but Brittany was annexed to France in 1532 and included in the modern state with the French Revolution.

Within the Celtic subgroup of Indo-European languages, Breton is classified as a Brythonic language, together with Cornish and Welsh. The close connection to Cornish and Welsh can be observed from the simple lexical comparisons below (adapted from the Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg).

Breton Cornish Welsh Irish Scottish Gaelic Manx English
ti chy teach taigh thie house
dour dowr dŵr uisce uisge ushtey water
mab map mab mac mac mac son
penn pen pen ceann ceann kione head
ki ky ci coo dog
amann amanyn menyn im ìm eem butter
aval aval afal úll ubhal ooyl apple
amzer amser amser aimsir aimsir emshyr time
gwenn gwyn gwyn/gwen fionn fionn fynn white
skrivañ scryfa ysgrifennu scrí­obh sgrìobh screeu write

Endangerment

Breton became a severely endangered language due to decades of suppression at the hands of the French educational system. Today, there are an estimated 500,000 speakers but this large number is deceptive in that most native speakers are above 60. Press (1986) estimated the number of active users at 50-100,000 over 25 years ago and this number has most likely diminished since.

Language suppression was extreme to the point that parents were not allowed to name their children with Breton names until 1993. The following quotes from various officials of the French state are representative of the language attitudes that led to the decline of Breton (see the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language for further context)

  • 1880s: Jules Ferry, the French Minister of Education, proclaims Breton to be “a barbarous relic of another age.”
  • 1845: teachers in the western department of Brittany are reminded by the sub-prefecture: “Above all gentlemen, remember that you have no higher purpose than to kill the Breton language.”
  • 1972: French President Pompidou states: “There is no place for regional languages in a France destined to mark Europe with its seal.”

Despite a precipitous downturn in language transmission, younger speakers, have now begun to emerge again from the Diwan bilingual schools which were established in the 1970s and are playing a key role in the revival of the language. There are interesting differences in the language of the older and younger generations, as most younger speakers learned the language in school later in life. While the phonology of the language among younger speakers shows a degree of convergence with French, the lexicon has also been purged of many French loan words that exist in the speech of older people.

ELA’s Work

First Breton class at ELA

First Breton class at ELA: learning the sounds

Immigration from Brittany began in the beginning of the 20th century and reached its peak between the two world wars. During this time the great majority of French immigrants in New York City were Breton. Today, the Breton Association of New York (BZH-NY) enjoys a large membership and continues to hold cultural events on a regular basis. In collaboration with BZH-NY president Charles Kergaravat, ELA has helped realize several Breton language events:

  • Feb 23rd, 2012: An initiation to the Breton language with Fabienne Geffroy (Diwan school instructor), held at the Bowery Poetry Club.
  • March 31st, 2012: Threatened Languages of France and Surrounds, held at the CUNY Graduate Center (in conjunction with the CUNY Endangered Language Initiative).
  • April 18th, 2012: Breton revitalization through music: lecture + concert by Nolwenn Monjarret and Philippe Le Gallou, held at the Bowery Poetry Club (in conjunction with Bowery Arts & Sciences). 
  • April 25th, 2012: “Le breton, une langue moderne et vivante. Ar brezhoneg, ur yezh a-vremañ ha bev-birvidik” A lecture by Herve Lossec, held at the CUNY Graduate Center (in conjunction with the CUNY Endangered Language Initiative).
  • Sept. 29th, 2012: Celtic panel at the Endangered Language Fair, held at the Schwarzman building of the New York Public Library.
  • March 18th, 2013: Breton–Garifuna musical exchange, held at the Bowery Poetry Club (in conjunction with Bowery Arts & Sciences).
  • April-June, 2013: Breton Language Classes, taught by Erwan le Bihan at ELA.

We are also in the midst of working on a series of interviews in Breton together with Intercultural Productions. As of now, we have interviewed Fabienne Geoffroy, a veteran teacher at the bilingual Diwan school in Paris, and Rozenn Milin, an important figure in Breton television and director of Sorosoro. Clips can be seen in the playlist at the top of this page. We hope to complete these episodes in 2013.

Podcast #1 with Erwan le Bihan: The sounds of Breton
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References

Academic literature

Bothorel, A. 1982. Étude Phonétique et Phonologique du Breton Parlé à Argol (Finistere-Sud). Atelier National Reproduction des Thèses, Université Lille III Thesis.

Cheveau, L. 2007. Approche phonologique, morphologique et syntaxique du Breton du Grand Lorient (Bas- Vannetais). PhD thesis, Université Européenne de Bretagne.

Elegoët, Fañch. “Nous ne savions que le breton et il fallait parler français” – Mémoires d’un paysan du Léon. (La Baule: Breizh hor bro), 1978

Favereau, F. 1997. Grammaire du breton contemporain. Yezhadur ar brezhoneg a vremañ. Skol Vreizh.

Hingant, J. 1868. Éléments de la grammaire Bretonne. Tréguier: Flem.

Humphreys, H.L. 1993. “The Breton language: its present position and historical background.” In M.J. Ball (ed.), The Celtic Languages. London & NY: Routledge.

Jouitteau, M. 2005. La syntaxe comparée du Breton. PhD thesis, University of Zugl. Nantes, Nantes.

Kuter, Lois. 1990. “Breton vs. French: Language and the opposition of political, economic, social, and cultural values” In Nancy C. Dorian (ed.), Investigating Obsolescence – Studies in language contraction and death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Le Pipec, E. 2008. Etude pluridimensionnelle d’un parler: description, émergence et aspects sociolinguistiques du breton de Malguénac. PhD thesis, Université Europénne de Bretagne – Université Rennes 2.

Lewis, H., Piette, J. R. F., and Meid, W. 1990. Handbuch des Mittelbretonischen, vol. 62 of Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft. Innsbruck: Inst. für Sprachwissenschaft der Univ. Innsbruck.

Ploneis, J.-M. 1983. Au carrefour des dialectes bretons: le parler de Berrien ; essai de description phonématique et morphologique, vol. 2 of Europe de tradition orale. Paris: SELAF.

Press, I. 1986. A Grammar of Modern Breton. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Press, I. 2004. Standard Breton, vol. 440 of Languages of the World : Materials. München: Lincom.

Stephens, J. 1993. “Breton”. In M. Ball (ed.), The Celtic Languages, pp. 349–409. NY/London: Routledge.

Ternes, E. 1970. Grammaire Structurale du Breton de l’Ile de Groix. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Ternes, E. 1992. “The Breton language”. In D. MacAulay (ed.) The Celtic Languages, pp. 371–452. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trépos, P. 1980. Grammaire bretonne. Rennes: Imprimerie Simon.

Wmffre, I. 1998. Central Breton, vol. 152 of Languages of the World/Materials. München: Lincom Europa.

See Glottolog entry on Breton

Websites

BZH NY – Association of Bretons in New York – http://www.bzh-ny.org/

The International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language – U.S. Branch
http://icdbl.org/index.php

Public Office of the Breton Language – http://www.ofis-bzh.org/index.php