Breton language

From Academic Kids

This page is about the Breton language. For the author, see Andr Breton.
Breton (Brezhoneg)
Spoken in: France
Region: Brittany
Total speakers: 500,000
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Indo-European


Official status
Official language of: -
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1br
ISO 639-2bre
See also: LanguageList of languages

Breton (Brezhoneg) is a Celtic language spoken by some of the inhabitants of Brittany in France.



Breton is not thought to be a modern-day descendant of any continental Celtic language such as Gaulish, though evidently it has borrowed some features from it, but it is rather descended from insular Brythonic. The other regional language (Gallo) derives from Latin.

Breton is traditionally spoken in Lower Brittany, roughly to the west of a line linking Plouha and Vannes. It comes from a language community between Britain and Armorica, present day Brittany. It was the language of the elite until the 12th Century. However, afterward it was only the language of the people of West Brittany (Breizh Izel), and the nobility, then successively 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. It should be noted that Old Breton has left some vocabulary which has served in the present day to produce philosophical and scientific terms in Modern Breton.

The French Monarchy never really concerned itself with the minority languages of France. The revolutionary period really started policies favoring French over the "regional" languages, more pejoratively called patois. It was assumed that reactionary and monarchist forces favored regional languages in an attempt to keep the peasant masses underinformed. According to the defenders of the Breton language, humiliating practices geared toward stamping out Breton lingered in schools and churches until the 1960s.

Today, despite the political centralization of France and the important influence of the media, Breton is still spoken and understood by about 500,000 people. This is, however, down from 1.3 million in 1930. At the beginning of the 20th Century, half the population of Lower Brittany knew only Breton, the other half being bilingual. By 1950, there were only 100,000 monolingual Bretons.

In 1925, thanks to professor Roparz Hemon, the first issue appeared of the review Gwalarn. 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.

Missing image
Sign in Rennes outside a school with bilingual classes

In 1977, Diwan schools were founded to teach Breton by immersion. They taught thousands of young people from elementary school to high school. Another proposed teaching method was a bilingual approach, Div Yezh (two languages).

In 2004, the Asterix comic series were translated into Breton, and into Gallo. This is notable because, according to the comic, the village where Asterix lives is in Brittany.

Some poets, linguists, and writers who wrote in Breton, for example Yann-Ber Kalloc'h, Roparz Hemon, Anjela Duval and Per-Jakez Hlias, are now known internationally.

Today, Breton is the only Celtic language which is not recognized as an official language. The French state has refused to change the second article of the Constitution added in 1994 which states that "the language of the Republic is French". The number of protesters demanding the repeal of this article is growing year by year.

The first Breton dictionary, the Catholicon, was also the first French dictionary. Edited by Jehan Lagedec 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, German and Spanish demonstrates the determination of a new generation to gain international recognition for Breton. There also exists a monolingual dictionary, defining Breton words in Breton.


Breton, along with Cornish and Welsh, is a member of the Brythonic languages, a subgroup of the Insular subgroup of the Celtic branch of the Indo-European language family.

Geographic distribution

Breton is spoken mainly in Western Brittany, but also in a more dispersed way in Eastern Brittany, and in areas around the world which have received Breton emigrants.

Official status

Missing image
Bilingual place names in road signage in Brittany

Breton is not an official language of France, despite calls 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.

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 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.

Nevertheless, the regional and departmental authorities do use Breton to a very limited extent insofar as they feel able: for example, in signage (especially for tourism-related reasons). 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. On the other hand, few shops or other private entities in Rennes have any Breton-language signs.


The dialects of Breton as identified by ethnologists are Leonard, Tregorrois, Vannetais and Cornouaillais. There are no clear borders between those dialect areas; the language changes slightly from one village to the next.



Verbal Aspect

As in English and Gaelic, there are grammatical aspects for verbs in a particular tense, detailing whether or not an action is habitual. As in English, there is a distinction between the habitual form and progressive aspect:

  • Me zo o komz gant ma amezeg ("I am talking with my neighbor") ;
  • Me a gomz gant ma amezeg [bep mintin] ("I talk with my neighbor [every morning]") ;

"Conjugated" Prepositions

As in other modern Celtic languages, Breton pronouns are fused into preceding prepositions to produce a sort of "conjugated" preposition. Below are some examples in both Breton (Lon dialect) and Irish.

Breton Irish English Literal Translation
ur levr zo ganin t leabhar agam I have a book A book is at-me
ur banne zo ganit t deoch agat you have a drink a drink is at-you
un urzhiataer zo ganti t romhaire aige he has a computer a computer is at-him
ur bugel zo ganta t piste aici she has a child a child is at-her
ur c'harr zo ganeomp t carr againn we have a car a car is at-us
ur stilo zo ganeoc'h t teach agaibh you [pl] have a house a house is at-you [pl]
arc'hant zo ganto t airgead acu they have money money is at-them

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.

Consonant Mutation in Breton
Unmutated Consonant Soft Mutation Spirant Mutation Hard Mutation Mixed Mutation


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 in Breton, and dolmen is a misconstructed word (it should be daol ven). Some studies state that these words were borrowed from Cornish.

Writing system

Breton is written using the Latin alphabet. The Breton alphabet doesn't contain the c letter alone, and contains a special one: ch, which is pronounced between the Spanish jota and a loud h. Diacritics used are , , , , , .


Visitors to Brittany may encounter words and phrases (especially on signs and posters) such as the following:

deut mad oc'h welcome
Breizh Brittany
brezhoneg Breton (language)
ti, ty house
ti-kr town hall
kreizkr town centre
da bep tu all directions
skol school
skol-veur university
bagad pipe band (nearly)
fest-noz ceilidh, traditional concert/dance
kenavo goodbye
krampouezh pancakes
chistr cider

About the word "Welcome", in many places one can see signs with "Degemer mat", but actually it's a completely wrong phrase in this context, for it means "good reception". When a Breton speaker needs to say "Welcome!" to someone, he says "deut mad oc'h", "come well you(-are)".

war vor atao = always at sea

External links


br:Brezhoneg cs:Bretontina cy:Llydaweg da:Bretonsk de:Bretonische Sprache eo:Bretona lingvo es:Idioma bretn fr:Breton ga:Briotinis id:Bahasa Breton it:Lingua bretone ja:ブルトン語 kw:Yeth Vretonek li:Bretoens nl:Bretons pl:Język bretoński ro:Limba bretonă sv:Bretonska zh:布列塔尼语


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