Introduction to Breton
The official Region of Brittany consists of the four departments of Finistère (Pen-ar-Bed), Morbihan (Mor-Bihan), Côtes d'Armor (Aodoù-an-Arvor), and Ille-et-Vilaine (Il-ha-Gwilun) with a total population of 3,306,529as of January 1, 2016. The administrative capital of Brittany is the eastern Breton city of Rennes (Roazhon). A more inclusive and traditional definition of Brittany also includes a fifth department, Loire-Atlantique (Liger-Atlantel) which contains the historic city of Nantes or Naoned in Breton. The population of the five departments of Brittany was 4,687,381 as of January 1, 2016.
For a thousand years the city of Nantes in Loire-Atlantique was one of the seats of the Breton parliament and de facto capitol of the independent Duchy of Brittany.
The Breton language
Breton is the only Celtic language still spoken on the European continent. It is not however a derivative of ancient Gaulish, the Celtic tongue of ancient France and much of central Europe. Breton is rather, as its name implies, an import from Britain having being brought to what is now Brittany by various waves of refugees and immigrants from Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries who were dislocated by the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain during this period. Breton remains closely related to Welsh and Cornish and more distantly related to Scottish-Gaelic, Irish and Manx.
During the Middle Ages, even when Brittany was entirely independent, much of the Breton nobility and clergy adopted French because of its greater currency in Europe at this time. From this period also, many of the towns became largely French in speech though not exclusively because Breton retained its hold on the agricultural hinterland, and urban merchants and tradesmen could not ignore this.
From about the year 1100 onwards, Breton slowly yielded ground to Gallo and retreated westwards. It is estimated that by 1881 about 2,000,000 people out of 3.2 million in Brittany spoke Breton. By 1914 it is estimated that out of 3.1 million inhabitants of Brittany at least 1,300,000 were still Breton speaking. In addition, several hundred thousand Breton speaking emigrants were to be found in Paris, northern France, Belgium, Canada and the United States so that the Breton speaking world at this time probably encompassed some two million souls, and it is clear that Breton was the most widely spoken Celtic language in 1900.
Few would have predicted in 1900 that the twentieth century would witness the most massive erosion ever experienced in the sixteen century long history of the language.
There are today probably about 400,000 Breton speakers in western Brittany with another 50,000 to 100,000 in eastern Brittany.
It must be remembered that a significant part of eastern Brittany has never been Breton speaking. In eastern Brittany (particularly in the two very important cities of Rennes/Roazhon and Nantes/Naoned) the Latin speech eventually evolved into Gallo, a language which should be regarded as a parallel development with French and not a dialect of French.
Keit ma vimp bev - And now ? Death or survival ?
Breton language activists have established a network of Breton medium schools across Brittany which are expanding rapidly. They have launched a Breton language television service. They have launched several Breton language radio stations. Numerous new periodicals and books in Breton are now being published to serve a clearly increasing market. A concerted effort to strengthen both youth and adult literacy in the language has been mounted. Municipality after municipality in Brittany has adopted a policy of Breton/French bilingualism. A region-wide agency, Ofis ar Brezhoneg/the Office of the Breton Language, has been established to carry out and monitor both status and corpus planning for the language in the future.
While it may not at once be apparent, eastern Brittany is in many ways just as important for the future of the Breton language as is western Brittany. Due to its greater urbanization in centres such as Nantes and Rennes, about 2.5 million of Brittany's 4.7 million people are now to be found in eastern Brittany as opposed to the 2.2 million inhabitants of western Brittany today. This is in contrast to the situation a century ago when about 60% of the population lived in the Breton-speaking west. In the long run, Breton must establish a foothold for itself in such places as Rennes and Nantes if Breton is really to put itself on an equal footing with French in the everyday life of Brittany.