Are there still monolingual Breton speakers

Breton language

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Spoken in

Divide Brittany
speaker approx. 150,000 to 170,000

(Research report by Fañch Broudig, Meurzh 2009)

Language codes
ISO 639-1:


ISO 639-2:


ISO 639-3:


The Breton (breton. Brezhoneg) is a Celtic language. Like Welsh, Kumbrian (extinct) and Cornish, it belongs to the subgroup of British languages. It is used in Brittany (France) by the britophones Breton, making it the only modern Celtic language spoken in mainland Europe. The main distribution area is the Finistère department (Penn ar Bed) and the western part of the Côtes-d’Armor (Aodoù-an-Arvor) and Morbihan (Mor-bihan) departments.


Breton is not a successor to the language of the Celtic Gauls who originally lived in the area, but the language of British refugees and immigrants from Great Britain. Breton is closely related to the British sister languages ​​Cornish (Cornwall) and Welsh (Wales). It shares a lot in common with Cornish, with which it is grouped together to form the group of Southwest British languages.

The most important characteristic of South West British compared to West British (= Welsh) is the sound change from the original British long / ɔː / (derived from the ancient Celtic / aː /) to / œː /:

ancient celtic (and so also Gaulish) * māros (large)> Urbritisch * / mɔːr /> Breton. meur / mœːr /, grain. muer / mœːr /; welsh mawr / maur /

However, mutual understanding is not easily possible. In the eastern departments of the distribution area, Breton has been pushed back more and more in the past centuries, partly in favor of Gallo (a Britto-Romanic dialect des langue d’oïl).

The language development of Breton took place in three periods:

  • Old Breton, before the year 1000,
  • Middle Breton, until the 17th century
  • New Bretonic
  • Neo-Bretonic could be seen as a fourth diachronic variant, as this will presumably survive the traditional Neo-Bretonic dialects (see below).

Old Breton

Old Breton is not very well documented, as most of the written sources are likely to have fallen victim to Norman raids on the Breton monasteries (especially in the 9th century). One of the characteristics of the phonology of Old Breton is the position of the accent, which, unlike in Middle and New Breton (with the exception of the Bro-Wened / Vannes dialect), is on the last syllable.

Middle Breton

A number of texts have come down to us from the Central Breton era, above all poems, mystery plays and religious edification literature. In the Middle Breton poetry traces of a very complicated British poetry can still be found, which can be found in Welsh (as cynghanedd) to this day and which is characterized by an interweaving of internal, end and allied rhymes and by repetitions of the consonant structure. In Breton this form of verse is called kenganez designated.

New Bretonic

New Bretonic is characterized by a strong breakdown into dialects. It was not until the 20th century that a standard variety could emerge again - Neo-Bretonic.


The Neo-Bretonic (also pejorative Roazhoneg, see below) is an academic standard created by language enthusiasts from the twentieth century onwards. It was supposed to summarize the widely differing dialects and delete French loanwords. However, since many of the linguists involved were (and are) not native speakers of Breton, Neo-Breton has become a variant that is phonetically (and partly syntactically) much closer to French than the dialects. In particular, the word accent (on the panultima) and the sandhi, which is extremely important in Breton phonology, are often not realized. Lexically the Neo-Bretonic is consciously receltized. For example, "phone" is used in most dialects phone, in Neo-Breton it says pellgomzwhich sounds as unusual to Breton ears as the German one Telephone. Another example is mersi bras ("Thank you very much") which in Neo-Breton - based on the Middle Breton model trugarez vras is replaced.

The lack of contact between speakers of Neo-Breton and the dialect speakers means that some dialect speakers do not want to understand Neo-Breton or reject it («N’eo ket ar memes brezhoneg! » - “It's not the same Breton!”).

Language policy

Bilingual street signs in Quimper

The number of speakers of Breton has decreased dramatically since the 1950s. As the French Republic does not collect the number of speakers of the languages ​​spoken on its territory, all figures are based on estimates. It is generally assumed that in 1950 around 1,200,000 people spoke Breton, some tens of thousands of whom were unable to communicate fluently in French. With the extinction of this monolingual population, a rapid transition to French began, as most Breton-speaking families began to raise their children in French monolingually to avoid discrimination in school and work life. Today the number of brezhonegerien (Breton speakers) estimated to be less than 250,000, about two-thirds of whom are over 60 years old. Only a maximum of half as many people actually use the language in everyday life.

To date, the language has not been officially recognized by the French state and was rigorously suppressed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The phase of active repression lasted until the 1960s. Even today, a letter, if addressed in Breton, is not accepted at the post office, even if bilingual place-name signs have been set up in the bilingual area for some years, but this must come from the respective municipality and does not change the fact that only the French versions continue to be used the place names are officially recognized. The language is promoted by a strong national Breton movement. There are a number of brittophones (Breton-speaking) divan schools. Also in the area of ​​Catholic private schools (Verein Dihun) and at some state schools (Verein Div Yezh) there are now classes with some Breton as the language of instruction. Currently (2005) there are 2896 students from Divan, 3,659 students in Catholic private schools and 3,851 students in bilingual classes in public schools compared to 360,000 students in purely French-speaking classes.

It has been around since 1999 Ofis publik ar Brezhonegthat works to preserve the Breton language and culture.

In December 2004, the Breton regional government announced that it wanted to promote the continued existence of Breton, which was a sensation in post-revolutionary France. Above all, the number of places in Breton immersion classes (based on the model of Divan) will be increased to 20,000 in the next few years.

Todays situation

Percentage of speakers in Brittany

In 2005, Breton is only understood by fewer than 290,000 people.[1] The number of people who can actually speak it is estimated at 250,000.[2] The majority of those who still have native language skills are over 60 years old. According to a study by Fañch Broudig (Qui parle breton aujourd’hui?, 1999) there were still 240,000 speakers, a large number of whom no longer used the language in everyday life.

The problem with surveys with questions like “Do you speak Breton?” Is that the respondent's competence is not (always) taken into account. Language enthusiasts who cannot really converse in Breton give “yes” as an answer, not least by increasing the percentage of Breton speakers. On the other hand, many of the older native speakers suffered from inferiority complexes during their school days and are ashamed of Breton, so that honest answers cannot always be expected from this section of the population.

Only in a few families are children currently growing up with a Breton mother tongue. Even if these - because they are regionally widely dispersed - should form a network of speakers, the extinction of Breton as the colloquial language of a region can no longer be stopped. Although the extremely repressive laws aimed at eliminating Breton have been abolished for about two decades, the language is already so endangered that no further action is required to finally destroy it. Although there are tens of thousands of speakers who have consciously learned the language in order to preserve Breton, hardly any of them have a knowledge that equals that of a native speaker. The Breton media (TV programs on FR3 Ouest and TV Breizh, radios, magazines) are for the most part run and moderated by non-native speakers with very different levels of competence.

Bilingual street sign in Rennes

From 1985 onwards, bilingual street signs were introduced in numerous areas of Brittany following pressure from the population. This is especially true for the area west of Guingamp.

UNESCO classifies the Breton language as "Seriously endangered language".


The Breton language is divided into four dialects: Leoneg, Tregerieg, Gwenedeg and Kerneveg.

  • Kerneveg (French Cornouaillais ) is spoken around the town of Kemper (Quimper) and is the largest Breton dialect, accounting for 41% of the total number of speakers. Cornouaillais (Cornish) is most closely related to Cornish, the extinct language of Cornwall on the opposite bank of the English Channel.
  • Leoneg (French Léonais) is spoken in Bro Leon (Pays de Léon), which includes the northern part of the Penn ar Bed (Finistère) department, and is the second strongest Breton dialect with 24.5%.
  • Tregerieg (French Trégorois) is used around the town of Landreger (Tréguier) by 18% of Breton speakers.
  • Gwenedeg (French Vannetais) is spoken around the town of Gwened (Vannes) and is the least common Breton dialect spoken by only 16% of all Bretons.

Kerneveg, Leoneg and Tregerieg (the so-called KLT dialects) are comparatively close to each other. The Gwenedeg differs considerably from these. This dialectal difference in particular made the development (and acceptance) of a uniform written language very difficult. Several spelling systems exist side by side; the most common is that Peurunvan (French Orthographe Unifiée), also Zedacheg named because of the typical use of the letter combination zh (French Zed Ache), which is pronounced as [z] in the KLT dialects, but as [h] in Gwenedeg. Another important difference lies in the word stress, which is on the penultimate syllable in KLT dialects, but on the last syllable in Gwenedeg (e.g. brezhoneg: KLT [breˈZonek], Gwenedeg [brehoˈNek]).

The traditional dialects are rapidly losing importance due to the decline in the number of speakers, while a new standard is emerging in radio and television. Since this is mainly used by non-native speakers, it is phonologically strongly influenced by French, but uses less vocabulary of French origin than the dialects. For example, traditional speakers would use the (originally French) avion use - emphasized on the penultimate syllable, mind you -, while in the standard the new creation nijerez (lit .: "Fliegerin") is preferred. Since a large part of the speakers of this learned standard, which is not passed on in their mother tongue, come from the area around and for the University of Roazhon (Rennes), this variant of Breton is also called Roazhoneg designated. This is to be understood pejoratively: since Breton was traditionally never spoken in Roazhon, dialect speakers emphasize the “artificiality” of the standard. The French influence on phonology is most noticeable in prosody: native French speakers often replace the Breton word accent (on the penultimate syllable of each word) with the French phrase accent (on the last syllable of each sentence).


The most important and productive process in Breton phonology is sandhi, i.e. assimilation processes across word boundaries. The basic phonological domain in Breton is not the word, but the phrase, the end of which is marked by hardened final voices. Within the phrase, consonants at the end of the word, followed by a vowel initial sound, are systematically lenited (softened):

Emaon e Breizh. (“I am in Brittany.”) [Eˈmaon e ˈbrejs], but

E Breizh emaon. (ditto) [e ˈbrejz eˈmaon]

In addition, there is also sandhi through provection, i.e. desonization or hardening:

Demat deoc’h! ("Good day to you!") [Deˈmateɔx]

Bennozh Doue! ("God's blessing!" = "Thank you!") [ˌBɛnosˈtuːe]


stl.sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth.
Plosivespb         td     kG      
Nasals   m         n         ɲ            
Vibrants                               ʀ        
Taps / flaps                                      
lateral fricatives                                        
Approximants                     j ɥ   w            
lateral approximants               l         ʎ              


  front nearly
central nearly
ung.ger. ung. ger. ung. ger. ung. ger. ung. ger.
closed i ĩy ỹ         u ũ
almost closed              
half closed e ẽø ø̃         o õ
half open ɛœ         ɔ
almost open              
open a             ɑ ɑ̃

Vowels can be short or long. Unstressed vowels are always short, as are nasal vowels. Stressed vowels before voiceless consonants and before certain consonant sequences are short. In orthography, other short vowels are expressed by doubling the following consonant letter. Otherwise stressed vowels are long.

In addition to the simple vowels, there are the diphthongs [aj], [aw], [ɛw] and [ɔw].[3]


In the KLT dialects, the penultimate syllable is usually stressed. The exceptions are mostly compositions. In Gwenedeg, the last syllable of a word is usually stressed.[3]

The phrase intonation differs depending on the dialect; the Tregerieg, for example, is characterized by a continuous rise in pitch up to the main accent of the phrase, after which the pitch falls again, just as continuously, to the end of the phrase. Most Neo-Bretonic speakers who are native French speakers use intonation patterns borrowed from French - mostly flat phrase intonation with a rising final syllable.


The Breton grammar has a number of features that are characteristic of the island Celtic languages ​​as a whole: initial mutation and the sentence position verb – subject – object.

Initial mutation

A characteristic of the island Celtic languages ​​are the initial mutations (Bret. kemmadurioù). These were created from historical sandhi.

The following table is intended to give an overview of the system of initial mutations in Breton. Where the respective mutation does not occur, the phrase is put in brackets.

Basic form Lenition (softening) Aspiration Provection (hardening)
penn - "head" there benn ma fenn (ho penn)
tad - "father" there dad ma zad (ho tad)
ki - "dog" there Gi ma c’hi (ho ki)
breur - "brother" there vreur (ma breur) ho preur
dant - "tooth" there zant (ma dant) ho tant
Ghe - "word" there c’hhe (ma Ghe) ho khe
gwele - "bed" there wele (ma gwele) ho kwele
mamm - "mother" there vamm (ma mamm) (ho mamm)

There is also a so-called "mixed" mutation, which only affects voiced consonants after certain verbal particles:

Basic form Mixed mutation
bezan - "I am (usually)" e vezan
dougen - "carry" O teyes
Goulenn - "ask" O c’houlenn
gwelout - "see" O welout
mont - "go" O vont


Historically, Breton is a VSO language (verb-subject-object). The development of Modern Breton is moving towards the second position of the verb: in almost all constructions the conjugated verb is now in the second position of the sentence.An additional tendency, namely to put the subject at the beginning, is also noticeable and is explained by the generalization of old relative constructions that served for topicalization:

Me a zebr kalz bara. ("I eat a lot of bread." <"I eat a lot of bread."

In general, topicalization is expressed by fronting a part of a sentence, i.e. by bringing it forward to the beginning of a sentence:

Kalz bara a zebran. ("I eat LOTS OF BREAD."

What emerges from the two example sentences is the distinction between the so-called "non-conjugated" verb form (= third person singular), which comes after the subject, from the conjugated (here: first person singular), which is in a sentence without an explicit subject . The “non-conjugated” form has historically emerged from a relative construction. The Breton verb morphology is basically simple, but its use is greatly complicated by several morphosyntactic rules.

spelling, orthography

The following pronunciation rules refer to the most common orthography (Peurunvan), which in most publications, dated Ofis ar Brezhoneg (the semi-official standardization and language planning body of the region), the DivanSchools and the University of Roazhon (Rennes).

The pronunciation of b, d and g corresponds more to the North German pronunciation of German.

  • a [a] as in German
  • ao [ɔ, aɔ] monophthonged in most dialects
  • aou [ɔʊ] like ow in engl. low
  • b [b] as in German
  • ch [ʃ] like German sch
  • c’h [x, ɣ, h] like German ch in book; between vowels like H in Eagle owl
  • d [d] as in German
  • e [e] like Germane in path, but also briefly (never as in fat)
  • ae, ê [ɛ] like Ä in Bears
  • eu [œ] like German ö in monk
  • f [f] as in German
  • G [g] like German G (never like in Director)
  • gn [ɲ] like gn in champagne
  • H [h, Ø] as in German H, seldom silent as in French
  • i [i] like German i in dear, but also briefly (never as in chin)
  • ilh [iʎ] about like ij
  • j [ʒ] like voiced sch (j in journal)
  • k [k] as in German
  • l [l] as in German
  • m [m] like m, however, a preceding a or o is nasalized
  • n [n] like n, however, a preceding a or o is nasalized
  • ñ is not pronounced itself, but nasalizes the preceding vowel
  • O [ɔ, o] as in German
  • ou [u] like German u in courage, but also briefly (never as in round), sometimes like English w
  • [u, o, ow, œɥ] in the standard like German u
  • p [p] as in German
  • r [r, ɾ, ʁ] mostly rolled
  • s [s, z]
  • sh [s, h] rare, variant of "zh", in KLT dialects such as [s], in Vannetais [h]
  • t [t] as in German
  • u [y] like German ü in sweet, but also briefly (never as in rubbish)
  • v [v] like German w, at the end of the word like German u
  • w [w] like engl. w
  • y [j] like German j
  • z [z] like voiced German s in to travel; mute between vowels in most dialects
  • zh [z, h] in the KLT dialects [z], in Gwenedeg [h]

Be at the end of the word b, d, G, j, z, zh pronounced voiceless (so how p, t, k, ch, s) unless the following word starts with a vowel. These assimilations across word boundaries (Sandhi, see above) are extremely important in all Breton dialects, as they are - similar to the German final hardening