Breton (Breizh) is a Celtic language spoken in the Brittany region of France. Although Celtic languages had been spoken widely within Western Europe before the expansion of Germanic and Romance speaking populations, Breton is presently the only Celtic language spoken on the European mainland, thanks to emigration from southwest Britain during the first millennium C.E. As a result, the language is most closely related to Cornish, followed by Welsh. The inhabitants of the coastal region of Brittany have long been closely connected to other Celtic people in the British Isles but Brittany was annexed to France in 1532 and included in the modern state with the French Revolution.
Within the Celtic subgroup of Indo-European languages, Breton is classified as a Brythonic language, together with Cornish and Welsh. The close connection to Cornish and Welsh can be observed from the simple lexical comparisons below (adapted from the Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg).
Breton became a severely endangered language due to decades of suppression at the hands of the French educational system. Today, there are an estimated 500,000 speakers, but this large number is deceptive in that most native speakers are above 60. Press (1986) estimated the number of active users at 50-100,000 over 25 years ago and this number has most likely diminished since.
Language suppression was extreme to the point that parents were not allowed to name their children with Breton names until 1993. The following quotes from various officials of the French state are representative of the language attitudes that led to the decline of Breton (see the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language for further context)
- 1880s: Jules Ferry, the French Minister of Education, proclaims Breton to be “a barbarous relic of another age.”
- 1845: teachers in the western department of Brittany are reminded by the sub-prefecture: “Above all gentlemen, remember that you have no higher purpose than to kill the Breton language.”
- 1972: French President Pompidou states: “There is no place for regional languages in a France destined to mark Europe with its seal.”
Despite a precipitous downturn in language transmission, younger speakers, have now begun to emerge again from the Diwan bilingual schools which were established in the 1970s and are playing a key role in the revival of the language. There are interesting differences in the language of the older and younger generations, as most younger speakers learned the language in school later in life. While the phonology of the language among younger speakers shows a degree of convergence with French, the lexicon has also been purged of many French loan words that exist in the speech of older people.
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Immigration from Brittany began in the beginning of the 20th century and reached its peak between the two world wars. During this time the great majority of French immigrants in New York City were Breton. Today, the Breton Association of New York (BZH-NY) enjoys a large membership and continues to hold cultural events on a regular basis. In collaboration with BZH-NY president Charles Kergaravat, ELA has helped realize several Breton language events:
- Feb 23rd, 2012: An initiation to the Breton language with Fabienne Geffroy (Diwan school instructor), held at the Bowery Poetry Club.
- March 31st, 2012: Threatened Languages of France and Surrounds, held at the CUNY Graduate Center (in conjunction with the CUNY Endangered Language Initiative).
- April 18th, 2012: Breton revitalization through music: lecture + concert by Nolwenn Monjarret and Philippe Le Gallou, held at the Bowery Poetry Club (in conjunction with Bowery Arts & Sciences).
- April 25th, 2012: “Le breton, une langue moderne et vivante. Ar brezhoneg, ur yezh a-vremañ ha bev-birvidik” A lecture by Herve Lossec, held at the CUNY Graduate Center (in conjunction with the CUNY Endangered Language Initiative).
- Sept. 29th, 2012: Celtic panel at the Endangered Language Fair, held at the Schwarzman building of the New York Public Library.
- March 18th, 2013: Breton–Garifuna musical exchange, held at the Bowery Poetry Club (in conjunction with Bowery Arts & Sciences).
- April-June, 2013: Breton Language Classes, taught by Erwan le Bihan at ELA.
We are also in the midst of working on a series of interviews in Breton together with Intercultural Productions. As of now, we have interviewed Fabienne Geoffroy, a veteran teacher at the bilingual Diwan school in Paris, and Rozenn Milin, an important figure in Breton television and director of Sorosoro. Clips can be seen in the playlist at the top of this page. We hope to complete these episodes in 2013.
Immigration from Brittany, the region of northwest France where this Celtic language is spoken, grew substantially in the early 20th century and reached its peak between the two world wars. During this time the majority of French immigrants in New York City may have been Breton, with several thousand having come to work at Michelin Tire Corporation’s factory in Milltown, New Jersey, or otherwise later as dishwashers or busboys at French restaurants, which often had Breton owners. By 1967, there were 12,000 Bretons in the city, representing over a third of the city’s total French population, according to the newspaper France-Amerique. Today, the Breton Association of New York (BZH-NY) still has a large membership and continues to hold cultural events on a regular basis. A newer organization, Breizh Amerika, builds transnational ties between Bretons in Brittany and those in the city, who now number 2-3,000 at most according to the organization’s founder Charles Kergaravat. Major areas of settlement have been Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan and later Astoria and Woodside in Queens.