Keltfacts: Bretons

We laten jullie graag kennis maken met de Keltische cultuur in onze rubriek Keltfacts. In deze blog onderzoeken we het Bretons, de Keltische taal die wordt gesproken in de regio Bretagne, Frankrijk.

What is the history of the Breton language?

Just as Welsh and Cornish, Breton is a descendant from the Brythonic languages, a language family within the Celtic languages. British migrants came to Amorica (now Brittany) during the fifth and sixth century and settled there. They took the Brittonic language with them.

Old Breton was spoken until the eleventh century and can now only be found in sources like names and documents.

Middle Breton was the language form between 1100 until 1650 BC. Textual sources from the fifteenth century like poems, prayer books and other educational religious books are the witnesses that tell us more about the language in this period of time.

Up until the twelfth century Mid Breton was the language of the elite. From that moment onwards the language was also used by the lower classes. After 1200, the elite chose French as their primary language, however, Brittonic lived on until the sixteenth century in written from, until here too, the elite chose French.

The seventeenth century is regarded as when Modern Breton has been established. The Christian scholar Julien Maunoir studied Breton in order to teach the Breton commoners the Christian faith. In 1659 he wrote a dictionary with new spelling.

The French government never took any interest in minority languages, spoken by the lower classes. To establish and preserve one national culture and unity, only French was considered as an official national language. The pursuit of this French unity even led to the prohibition of Breton by the French Republic after 1880. Minorities had to be suppressed. Children were forbidden to speak their native tongue in schools and were punished if they did.

As an attempt to bring Breton back to life, children could choose bilingual courses in school. Around 1900 everyone in Brittany spoke Breton and only half of those people spoke French.

What about Modern Breton now?

Nowadays Breton is an endangered language. Only 500.000 can speak and understand the language. No monolingual speakers are live today. Due to the majority of Breton speakers being older than 60, Brittonic is slowly dying with them. To counter this, the government is promoting bilingual education and 33% more children are attending bilingual classes.

Breton is the only Celtic language that’s not regarded as an official language. According to the French constitution, the only national language for the Republic is French.

Luckily there’s still a lot of literature around. When the process of Breton becoming a dead language cannot be turned around, these textual sources will be the only way to access the Brittonic tongue, just like Old and Middle Breton.

Want to learn a few Breton words?

  • Good day – Demat
  • How are you doing? – Mat ar jeu?  (literally, how is the game going?)
  • Thank you! – Trugarez!
  • Thank you very much! – Trugarez Vraz!
  • Please – Mar plij
  • See you later – Ken arc’hentañ

And in preparation of the new year, you can wish someone a happy new year by saying “Bloavezh Mat!”

Are you familiar with the Breton language? Would you like to learn it to keep the language alive? Let us know!

By Dewi van Zeggelaar

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