Breton language

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Breton (Brezhoneg)
Spoken in: France
Region: Brittany
Total speakers: 500,000
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Indo-European

  Insular Celtic

Official status
Official language of: -
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1 br
ISO 639-2 bre
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 descendant of any of the Continental Celtic languages such as Gaulish (though it may have borrowed some features from it), rather, it is descended from the Brythonic branch of Insular Celtic languages brough by Romano-British settlers to Brittany after the Roman departure from Britain in the early 5th century. The modern-day language most closely related to Breton is Cornish, followed by Welsh. (The other regional language of Brittany, Gallo, is an Oïl language derived 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, afterwards 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 favouring French over the "regional" languages, more pejoratively called patois. It was assumed that reactionary and monarchist forces preferred regional languages in an attempt to keep the peasant masses underinformed. According to the defenders of the Breton language, humiliating practices geared towards 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.

Sign in Rennes outside a school with bilingual classes
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 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 Hélias, are now known internationally.

Today, Breton is the only living 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.

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

Bilingual place names in road signage in Brittany
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 Irish, 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 neighbour") ;
  • Me a gomz gant ma amezeg [bep mintin] ("I talk with my neighbour [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 and Irish. Interestingly, French exhibits a similar construction to indicate possession: Le livre, c'est à moi ("The book is mine"); à moi, literally, "to me".

Breton Irish English Literal Translation
ul levr zo ganin tá leabhar agam I have a book A book is with-me
ur banne zo ganit tá deoch agat you have a drink a drink is with-you [sg]
un urzhiataer zo gantañ tá ríomhaire aige he has a computer a computer is with-him
ur bugel zo ganti tá páiste aici she has a child a child is with-her
ur c'harr zo ganimp tá carr againn we have a car a car is with-us
un ti zo ganeoc'h tá teach agaibh you [pl] have a house a house is with-you [pl]
arc'hant zo ganto tá airgead acu they have money money is with-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 Aspirant Mutation Hard Mutation Mixed Mutation
p b f
t d z
k g c'h
b v p v
d z t t
g c'h k c'h
gw w kw w
m v v


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, maen-hir, maen-sav in Breton, and dolmen is a misconstructed word (it should be taol-vaen). Some studies state that these words were borrowed from Cornish.


The first Breton texts, contained in the Leyde manuscript, were written at the end of the 8th century: fifty years prior to the Strasbourg Oaths, considered to be the earliest example of French. After centuries of an orthography calqued on the French model, in the 1830s Le Gonidec created a modern phonetic system.

During the early years of the 20th century, a group of writers known as Emglev ar Skrivanerien elaborated and reformed Le Gonidec's system, making it more suitable as a super-dialectal representation of the dialects of Cornouaille, Leon and Trégor. This KLT (from Kernev, Leon and Treger, the Breton names for Cornouaille, Leon and Trégor) orthography was established in 1911. At the same time writers using the more divergent Vannetais dialect developed a system also based on that of Le Gonidec to represent their own dialect.

Following proposals made during the 1920s, the KLT and Vannetais orthographies were merged in 1941 to create an orthographic system which could represent all four dialects. One of the most salient features of this Peurunvan wholly unified orthography was the inclusion of the grapheme <zh>, which represents a /h/ in Vannetais which corresponds to a /z/ in the KLT dialects. This digraph also provides an alternate name for the orthography: Zedacheg i.e. ZH-ish

In 1955 a new orthography was proposed by François Falc'hun and the group Emgleo Breiz, which had the aim of using a set of graphemes closer to the conventions of French. This Orthographie Universitaire ("University Orthography", known in Breton as Skolveurieg) was given official recognition by the French authorities as the "official orthography of Breton in French education". This orthography was met with strong opposition and is largely only used by the magazine Brud Nevez and the publishing house Emgléo Breiz.

Today the majority of writers continue to use the Peurunvan orthography, including most Breton-language schools.

Differences between OU and Peurunvan

Both orthographies make use of the Latin alphabet, with the supplemental signs â, ê, î, ñ, ô, û, ù, ü, and é which is used only in OU.

Differences between the two systems are particularly noticeable in word endings. In Peurunvan final obstruents which are devoiced in absolute final position and voiced in sandhi before voiced sounds are represented by a grapheme indicating a voiceless sound. In OU they are written as voiced but represented as voiceless before suffixes: braz big, brasoh bigger.

In addition, Peurunvan maintains the KLT convention which distinguishes noun/adjective pairs with nouns written with a final voiced consonant and adjectives with a voiceless one (there is, however, no distinction in pronunciation), e.g. brezhoneg Breton language vs. brezhonek Breton (adj)

Some examples of words in both orthographies:

Peurunvan OU
glav glao
piv piou
levr leor
evit evid
gant gand
anezhi anezi
ouzhpenn ouspenn
bravañ brava
pelec'h peleh


Bilingual signage in Quimper. Note the use of the word ti in the Breton for police station and tourist office, plus the variant da bep lec'h for all directions.
Bilingual signage in Quimper. Note the use of the word ti in the Breton for police station and tourist office, plus the variant da bep lec'h for all directions.

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

degemer mat welcome
deuet mat oc'h you're welcome
Breizh Brittany
brezhoneg Breton (language)
ti, "ty" house
ti-kêr town hall
kreiz-kêr 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
war vor atao always at sea

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