Breton is a Celtic language spoken in the region of Brittany (Bretagne) in northwest France. It was brought there by Celts who immigrated to Brittany from Cornwall in the sixth century, a migration that progressed from random groups to the transplantation of an entire population. The Celts arrived in family groups, often accompanied by a religious leader. Records of the language date from the ninth century, when Old Breton held an official position alongside Latin. French eventually surpassed Breton in prestige and use in the twelfth century. When the Duchy of Brittany became part of France in 1532, French was cemented as the language of administration and used to forge national unity through linguistic uniformity. Moreover, French revolutionaries saw the French language as necessary to democratic participation, and in 1793 declared it the language of instruction in schools. During the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, the French government attempted to eliminate regional languages such as Breton by forbidding their use in school and using humiliation and corporal punishment to discipline students who spoke them. Breton was regarded pejoratively as a peasant “patois” and a threat to the creation of a national culture.
Because of the French-only school policy and strong censure of Breton, many Breton speakers believed that the language would hinder their children’s future success and began raising their children in French at the expense of Breton. Without intergenerational transmission, the number of speakers steadily declined from a maximum of 1 million in 1952 to 200,000 currently, 61% of whom are over 60 years old. It is therefore classified as a severely endangered language by UNESCO.
Following the codification of Breton in the early nineteenth century, revival efforts began in the twentieth century, largely outside of the realm of overt governmental policy. In fact, the French state rebuffed these early grassroots initiatives, closing public school programs which taught Breton. Other initiatives included literary production and translation in Breton; the performance of Breton songs, dance, and poetry; and the production of Breton or bilingual plays covering the history and patrimony of the region. The Church also played an active role, printing liturgical works in Breton and teaching the language in religious schools beginning in the mid-twentieth century. Most promising, however, was the establishment of free private Breton immersion schools (Diwan) in 1977. In the Diwan, Breton is the medium of instruction for the first years of elementary school, then transitioning into a bilingual Breton-French model. Just under 15,000 students currently attend Diwan schools. Public schools now also offer courses in Breton, and graduating students can obtain credit for the language through the high school exit exam.
The legal status of Breton and other regional languages of France could be elevated by the country’s ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (drafted in 1992). This flexible legislation with its “cultural approach” emphasizes the rights of languages as if they were independent entities. The core obligations of the Charter encompass recognition, respect, promotion, use, and teaching of the language. Optional provisions promote the use of the language in education, administration, media, cultural activities, economic and social life, and transnational exchanges. France signed the Charter in 1999 but has been at a political impasse concerning its constitutionality since then, leaving it without ratification and force. This national linguistic policy gap, while leaving intact the supremacy of French, has allowed some room for the development of linguistic actions favoring Breton on the ground.