ICDBL.org© Breton Language

The Breton Language - Challenges and Hope

Lois Kuter

The following is a revision of a presentation I first prepared in 2004. The following skims the surface of a complex history, but I hope it will be useful in getting an understanding of why the Breton language is a threatened language today. And, I hope it will also show not only the challenges that remain, but also the extraordinary work of Bretons to make the Breton language part of the future.

Table of Contents

The Breton Language is a Celtic Language

The Breton language is one of dozens of "lesser used" languages in Europe It is a Celtic language. There are five others: Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, and Cornish (yes, it is alive contrary to many things one will read). Some people also include Galicia and Asturias (in Spain) in the family of Celts. While these regions have a Celtic identity based on history and traditional culture, they do not have Celtic languages, although the languages spoken in those regions today are unique.

When you hear the word "Celtic" today in the U.S., it is mostly thrown about to sell something Irish or Scottish, a music CD or festival. The noun "Celt" or adjective "Celtic" is more precisely used to apply to people, places or things where there is a link to a Celtic language. More broadly it refers to the cultures of the places where those languages have been found.

Just how many people speak the Breton language?

The French government has never included questions about languages in its census so until recent times when some fairly reliable surveys have been taken, it has been difficult to know exactly how many people spoke Breton at any given period of history.

In 1914 it is said that over 1 million spoke Breton west of the border between Breton and Gallo-speaking regions, i.e. roughly 90% of the population of the western half of Brittany. In 1945 it was about 75%.

A survey conducted during the summer of 2018 showed that some 207,000 people (5.5% of the population of Brittany - all five departments) speak Breton, with an average age of 70. Ninety percent of Breton speakers are in western Brittany where Breton has historically been centered. When you break down numbers from surveys conducted in 1977, 2007 and 2018 to show actual use of the Breton language, the numbers are a bit different and show a continuing decline.

Estimated number of those who use Breton effectively (daily or at least once a week)

1997 - 233,000

2007 - 153,000

2018 - 140,000

Why have the numbers of Breton speakers dwindled?

Image is everything, and this has to do with why Bretons at a certain period in history decided they must speak French and discourage their children from learning the Breton language.

Image No. 1: Breton is a rural, backward-looking, un-modern language fit only for the barnyard.

Fañch Elegoët, a Breton sociologist, did an extensive study of rural Breton speakers in northwestern Brittany in the 1960s and 70s, primarily through oral histories. He found that Bretons had internalized the following view of Breton:

Breton is a peasant patois, unable to insure communication even with the neighboring village, even more incapable of expressing the modern world - the world of tractors, automobiles, airplanes and television. A language only good enough to talk to cows and pigs. From that you get the refusal to transmit this language to children - a language considered to be a burden, a handicap in social promotion, a source of humiliation and shame (Elegoët 1978)

Because Bretons learned to feel that the Breton language was vastly inferior to French, many parents in post World War II Brittany made the decision to do everything possible to insure that their children spoke French - that meant using French when at all possible to speak to children in the home. This resulted in households where grand parents spoke only Breton, parents spoke Breton and some French, and children spoke only French (although they could understand some Breton even if discouraged from speaking it themselves, for their own good). Thus children were being cut off from grandparents and older relatives. Imagine a family gathering where all the adults are conversing and telling funny stories in Breton. You're 12 and you can follow a little bit of it, but feel very much left out of the fun because you can't get the jokes and you can't express yourself in Breton.

But parents firmly believed that social and economic progress for their children was dependent on mastering French and abandoning Breton.

How did that conviction come about? - The schools played a big role

In 1863, one-fifth of people of France spoke no French at all. You didn't need it. You stayed in school only a very short time and then worked on the farm and rarely traveled far enough to use anything but the local lingo. Compulsory attendance at school was introduced in 1882. Jules Ferry, the French Education Minister at the time considered Breton to be "a barbarous relic of another age."

The impact of compulsory schooling was not immediate since in Brittany children still left school at a pretty young age to work on farms or go off to sea. But long before this, teachers had a mission which they took very seriously. In 1845 teachers in Finistère, the western department of Brittany, were reminded by the sub-prefecture: "Above all gentlemen, remember that you have no higher purpose than to kill the Breton language."

Image No. 2: Breton is a hindrance to good citizenship

Not only was Breton considered a worthless language, it was also a hindrance to becoming a good citizen of France. It was the role of the teacher to turn children of France into good French citizens. That meant making them French speakers. Non-French languages were seen as a threat to national unity. There's an often quoted line from 1927 by the Minister of National Education at that time that states: "for the linguistic unity of France, the Breton language must disappear."

Teachers used ridicule and humiliation and corporal punishment to convince little children that they should not use Breton at school or anywhere near the schoolyard. Breton parents who made the decision not to speak Breton to their children in the 50s and 60s often cited their memories of humiliation in school as one reason.

Image no. 3: Breton is a language of the powerless

For men who spoke no, or very little, French, serving in the army was a rude awakening.

Military service for Breton speakers was a lesson in what it is like to be powerless to take charge of your own life. There are some famous stories (possibly true) of how Bretons were thought to be extremely brave because they would cry out what was heard as "à la guerre" (in French "to war") when in Breton they were pleading "d'ar ger" ("to home"). There's another story set in World War II where a soldier unable to speak French uses the word "Ya" ("yes" in Breton). This reinforces the idea that he must be speaking German and for his resistance he is executed. Beyong the word "ya" Breton really doesn't sound at all like German, but it is unintelligible to a monolingual French speaker.

The army definitely made an impact on Breton speakers. Both World War I and II presented a bigger world where to be modern was to speak French. Men brought not only this idea back home, but also changes in clothing, manners and music. They also remembered that French was the language of those in charge. Sociologist Fanch Elegoet found in his oral history work that the army experience totally reinforced Bretons' negative view of their own language. He quotes an 80-year old: "If you cannot defend yourself in French, what can you do? You can only keep quiet and let others step all over you."

Image No. 4: To get ahead in the world, you must speak French

In the post war period Breton farmers were increasingly drawn into a wider market where French was spoken. It was no longer sufficient to travel to the local market. Exposure to a wider world was slowed in Brittany with the isolation of land travel. Railroads changed that, reaching the far west of Brittany in the 1860s and smaller rural outposts in the 1880s. While roads were poorly developed, the trains opened things up a great deal.

It is important to note that when it came to the sea, Bretons had long been world travelers as explorers and as fishermen, and as a strong component of the French Navy. Thus coastal towns were also places where French might be heard.

Getting ahead in the world meant learning French. The need to emigrate to larger cities or out of Brittany to find work or a better job required learning French, but not necessarily abandoning Breton.

Image No. 5: The "littleness" of Breton. Breton is not a true language

It is one thing to want to improve your life by learning another language, but it is quite another to reject the language you grew up with or that your parents and grandparents speak.

Media like books and newspapers, as well as schools and military service all brought Bretons in contact with a particular attitude about non-French languages in France. These media all gave you the message that Breton was a "patois." Indeed the word "baragouin" which is used in French to note a jumble of incorrect or incomprehensible language is rooted in the Breton words "bara" for bread and "gwin" (wine) or "gwenn" (white). French people of any social standing looked at the Breton language as baragouin. It was (and still is) very easy for Bretons to get the idea that Breton is a "little language" of the "past," not worth the effort of learning. In speaking of the teaching of regional languages in French schools, a Professor at the University of Paris III in 1975 questions "...is it wise or opportune to urge little French children towards a bi- or trilingualism turned not toward the future of the planet, but towards the past of a little country?"

Image No. 6: The grandeur of French

French has been promoted not only as the language of modernity and good citizenship for French patriots, but it alone can bring France world esteem and grandeur. French President Pompidou stated in 1972: "There is no place for regional languages in a France destined to mark Europe with its seal."

French is the language of civilization itself. Here's a wonderful quote from 1967 by Waldimir d'Ormesson, member of the Académie Française and President of the administrative council of the ORTF (Organization for French Radio and Television).

"All Frenchmen are conscious of the importance of the language that is common to them. When they remember the role it has played for ten centuries in the slow formation of the nation, they feel a great respect for it. Secondly, French is not only our language: it was, it is, and it must remain one of the instruments of civilization. In this respect it represents an international public service." (Haut comité pour la défense et l'expansion de la langue française 1967)

And it was this kind of thinking that the French took to every part of the world they colonized. In a 1969 article called "Francophonie: The French and Africa" Pierre Axedandre sums it all up as follows:

"Whether in Indochina or in North Africa or anywhere else, little was left for the local languages, which were expected to be eventually as thoroughly obliterated by French as Breton, Basque or Provençal. French was taught not so much as a more efficient instrument of modern, wide-ranging communication: it was taught as the key to a new way of life, or even as a way of life itself." (Alexandre 1969)

Image No. 7 - Breton is not legal

Making French citizens of people living within its borders happened on a number of levels. Language change was also on the personal level of naming your children. A law in 1803 obliged parents to choose children's' names from one of several authorized calendars of names of Catholic saints, revolutionary heroes, or historic figures (real, not mythical) living before the Middle Ages. Thus it was illegal to name your child Gwendal, Soazig or Erwan. People of course continued to use non-official names for each other, but these were not your official name. As a French citizen you were Maurice; among your Breton friends and family you were Morvan. In 1966 the statutes were eased up a bit and in 1987 "local custom" was taken into consideration if your local civil servant was willing to allow this. In 1993, parents were finally free to enter any name (within reason) on a birth certificate. However, just in 2017 there were two cases in which Breton names were rejected by legal authorities. In one case the tilde over the name Fañch was considered illegal, and in the other, the apostrophe in the name Derc'hen was rejected. In both cases the names were in the end allowed, but only after a fight!

Breton names have become very popular - a mark of pride in identity, but also just a choice of a nice-sounding name.

More legality issues

Article 2 of the French Constitutions states "French is the language of the Republic." Despite numerous efforts on the part of Deputies and Senators of France (representing a number of languages) France stands firm in protecting its citizens from the chaos and disunity that might follow if a mention of regional languages of France were added to this Article to give them some official recognition. In 2008 the French National Assembly approved the idea that "The regional languages belong to its [France's] patrimony" be added to the Constitution. Nevertheless, Article 2 is still used to block initiatives for Breton.

In 1999 France signed the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (restricting its application top 39 of 52 measures) but has not ratified the Charter.

So why hasn't Breton been obliterated yet?

Bretons have fought for their language

There has long been a core of people in Brittany who have felt that Breton is a language worth defending.

In the 19th century it tended to be Romanticists, aristocrats, and clergy who collected oral traditions - songs and tales, and popular theater texts. Magazines were published in Breton and by the end of the century it was not just oral literature that was promoted but social and economic topics were also being presented in Breton.

While the 19th century collectors gave Breton an image of being a bit dusty and certainly ancient, it also brought prestige to Breton as a language capable of great literature.

In the 20th century the creation of a new literature was promoted - particularly through the organization called Gwalarn. The scholars and writers associated with this were out to prove that Breton was a modern language, with an international outlook, capable of standardization and the creation of new vocabulary.

The study of Breton and the creation of teaching materials and dictionaries has tended to be primarily outside of the university - amateur scholars studying the Breton of their own neighborhood or working more widely on the problem of creating a "national" language.

Bretons have sometimes been their own worst enemy. The promotion of Breton as a language for schools and literature has suffered from factions. There are four major dialects within Breton. Local pride and identities meant that Breton speakers often chose to not understand other dialects. However, when it came to making money in the marketplace, they had no problem communicating with Breton speakers using a different dialect. And onion sellers from northwestern Brittany crossed the channel and had no problem communicating as brothers with Welsh speakers.

The rift between dialect speakers has been enhanced in arguments over the formation of orthographies. How do you standardize Breton and still represent the specific nature of the dialects. Standardization has been bogged down particularly in personal factions - the most important one still persistent from World War II based on the pitting of Breton nationalists against Resistance participants in WWII. Using a particular orthography has sent a strong political message at times.

Another problem area has been a rift between "native speakers" and what are called "Neo-bretonnants" - those learning it as a second language. It is felt by those who have had the good fortune to grow up speaking Breton that those learning it as a second language can never master Breton. Second language learners have been stereotyped as an urban elite with no interest in understanding the purer and more expressive Breton of rural Bretons - the true "people." It is felt by some that second language learners are doomed to speak a Breton that is highly influenced by French. There has been resistance on the part of native speakers to the creation of new vocabulary - viewed as "chemical" Breton. Sadly, those who do have a richer mastery of Breton have not always been in the forefront when it comes to teaching Breton or speaking up in its defense, and have preferred to spend time criticizing and belittling second language learners who have recognized that you can't always wait for perfect mastery to move forward. This is slowly changing.

Some of the factioning is rooted in Brittany's particular political history and this is very complicated. Understanding what happened during World War II in Brittany (and France more widely) is key to sorting out the factions in the Breton movement of today.

Those defending the Breton language in this period or promoting its acceptance into schools, etc. were of all political persuasions. But what is remembered are the Breton nationalists who chose to collaborate with Germany with the idea that Germany would grant Brittany independence. Those Bretons believed that Brittany and the Breton language were clearly doomed under French rule. Germany looked like a hope for Bretons to gain control of their own destiny. Once Germans realized that the Breton nationalists seeking independence were a very small minority in Brittany, they quickly lost interest in the idea of granting these allies political power. But the public presence of the Breton language did make some significant gains during the war period with publications being supported, Breton language radio broadcasts implemented, and a Celtic Institute established. Thanks to a more extreme element - some 100 Bretons who took up arms with Germany to fight the French Resistance (which was stronger in Brittany than anywhere else in France with an estimated 30,000 participants), Breton nationalists and action for the Breton language and culture as a whole became labeled as "pro-Nazi" when the war ended.

The old wounds are still there. With German occupation of Brittany, the war was on the doorstep and neighbors were fighting neighbors. It was a horrible period for France and bitter memories remain.

But today this "Nazi" link is still used to discredit Breton militants. Long-dead Breton language activists cleared of collaboration charges after the war are still dragged up as examples of Breton Nazis when convenient. And today the word "terrorist" is also tagged onto political activists who want more autonomy for Brittany. And in the mid-2000s Bretons were outraged when cultural activists were hauled off in the wee hours of the morning for questioning and stigmatized for having terrorist associations.

The link of pro-Breton language activism with Nazis or terrorists continues to be cultivated by those who do not want the Breton language to survive

Is Breton doomed? - What is being done for it's future?

Breton in the Schools

While in the past the schools were used as an important force to discourage children from speaking Breton, but in more recent times, schools have been used to reintroduce Breton.

The first petition on the part of Bretons to get Breton into the schools dates to 1870 and petitions have continued since. But the presence of Breton in the schools is VERY recent.

The Loi Deixonne of 1951 finally allowed Breton into the schools - if a teacher was willing to volunteer to teach it for an hour a week. The Savary law of 1982 was the first real support for Breton in the schools - still as an optional subject taught 1 to 3 hours a week, usually outside of regular class time.

The limited time Breton was given in classes was clearly not going to help children master Breton - especially when the vast majority of their parents did not speak it at home. Based on the example of immersion schools elsewhere in Europe and in Canada for French!), the Diwan schools were opened in 1977. These are schools where preschool children are immersed in Breton, and French is gradually introduced at the primary level. From one preschool in 1977 Diwan has grown to include over 4,000 children. The first of six middle schools opened in 1988 and a high school opened in 1994. The idea has always been that Diwan schools must be public schools open to all - tuition free - and Diwan has always worked to get this immersion style incorporated into the regular public school system. While Diwan schools have a contract with the National Education system where some teacher salaries are paid by the state, A school only supported after it has operated for five years. Diwan budgets are always in crisis and parents invest heavily in fundraising. Educationally, the Diwan schools are highly successful. Children master Breton and their test scores for French and other subjects are as good, if not better, than scores for children in the public monolingual French schools. In 2013 the Diwan high school was ranked number one in all of France

Nevertheless, there are challenges. Diwan's attempt to be recognized as a public school has been blocked by the high courts of France who hold up Article 2 of the French Constitution: "French is the language of the Republic." That means it must be used no less than half of the time as the language of instruction or lunch/recess in public schools. The immersion method of teaching Breton has been branded as anti-constitutional, giving Diwan schools a radical image of being anti-French.

Diwan's success has sparked an interest in bilingual programs in both the public and private Catholic schools of Brittany. The first public school bilingual program opened in 1982 and the first Catholic program started in 1990 and they have grown by 10-15% each year. But these are bilingual programs - half of the teaching is in Breton and half in French, and they do not give children the same ability as the Diwan schools do to use Breton as a language for all leisure time activity.

As of the 2018-19 school year there are over 18,300 children in Diwan, public and Catholic schools. This is just 2% of the children of Brittany, but the success of these programs has been key in changing the image of Breton - it's now a language for youth.

Parents must be vigilant to insure growth of Breton language options for their children, and the opening of new schools, but support from local governments and the Region of Brittany has grown. While it did not meet goals, the Regional Council of Brittany set a goal in 2004 to get 20,000 students enrolled in the bilingual programs by 2010. And a State-Region convention for 2015-2020 calls for a 15% and then 20% quota of teaching posts to be dedicated to bilingual teaching.

On a positive note, in recent years preschools have been created to introduce the youngest ages to Breton with the "Mammigou" daycare centers. Outside of schools summer camps - Kampoù vakañsoù - have grown to offer leisure-time opportunities for children to use Breton.

At the university level there are four universities that offer over 400 students Breton studies: the larges being the Université de Haute Bretagne II in Rennes where all classes in the Celtic department are taught through the medium of Breton, then the Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest, and the Université de Bretagne Sud-Lorient, and the Université de Nantes.

Breton for Adult Learners

The growth of Breton in the schools has inspired a growing number of adults to take classes.

For a long time, the only way to learn to read and write Breton was in catechism classes of the Church. But as the church abandoned Breton, and parents in the post war period discouraged their children from learning Breton, those who wanted to learn to read and write Breton had only a few tools to do this - one was the Skol Ober correspondence school founded in 1932. Internet resources have greatly enhanced learning opportunities for adults with "correspondence" style courses offered by Kervarker (kervarker.org) and EduBreizh (EduBreizh.com).

For those wanted a more class-like learning opportunity, Skol an Emsav organized classes for adults in the 70s and 80s, and today classes are well-organized and widely available through other organizations like Mervent and Roudour. DAO - Deskiñ d'An Oadourien - is a federation of organizations offering adult education (dao-bzh.org), and an estimated 3,000 adults are active each year in weekly classes in some 50 communities of Brittany. Some 600 adults become competent speakers each year through these classes, and others who already have a command of spoken Breton learn to read and write Breton - an option they did not have as children.

For 30 years the organization Stumdi (stumdi.com) has offered 3 and 6-month intensive courses where 300 students enroll annually and reach a mastery of Breton. This organization also assists those completing classes to find jobs where Breton is needed. Between 2006 and 2012 jobs requiring mastery of Breton rose by 405 - some 1,300 positions were identified in 2016. While most were in the schools and media, positions in social and public services where Breton competence is a desirable skill have also grown.

A Different Breton Language for the Future?

While the strongest growth in Breton speakers is found at younger ages, the opportunities for adults should not be discounted. Besides more formal classes, today there are a number of weekend workshops, camps, and activities conducted through the Breton language such as reading clubs, discussion groups, story-telling, cooking and hiking. And there are new opportunities to link learners with native speakers such as Project Hentoù Treuz which produces audiovisual presentations of native speakers and Bazvalan.bzh which produces recordings.

It is now felt that the gap between "standard" vs. "traditional" Breton may not be as big an obstacle as sometimes claimed. Schools and university studies encourage understanding of diversity within the Breton language. Learners work to understand and appreciate (and incorporate) the specific elements of the dialects of Breton. New generations coming from bilingual programs in the schools are making Breton their own - an urban language spoken with confidence and used creatively to express new lifestyles.

The Role of the Church

Brittany is a strongly Catholic area, and the Church has been mostly on the side of Breton. Indeed, many Bretons learned to read Breton through catechism classes and through the reading of tales of the saints (and there seem to be thousands of saints in Brittany). But the church has been somewhat opportunistic. When Breton has been the mainstream language of a community, Breton was used for catechism, hymns and sermons. When French began to be more widely used, Breton was abandoned. Individual priests have been strong supporters of Breton, doing scholarly studies, collecting oral literature, writing and promoting religious plays in Breton. But, depending on the period of history, Church support of Breton has also helped give an image of Breton as a conservative, anti-Republican language. By the 1950s only exceptional church services were offered in Breton.

Media - A problem area, and an area of great promise

The growth of Breton language programs in the schools has stimulated a growth of Breton publications for children - books and magazines as well as games and pedagogical materials for school activities.

But because Breton has only been recently introduced to schools, most Breton speaking adults (an older population) cannot read or write Breton. The reading public is limited - estimated today to be perhaps 30 to 40,000 potential adult readers. That means that publishing is a labor of love - 1,000 to 2,000 copies of books are normally published. But as the number of learners - children and adults - continues to grow, the market for books and magazines will also grow. There is a diversity of reading materials being produced - news magazines and literary journals as well as literature of all kinds, including murder mysteries and comic books. Keit Vimp Bev is a publishing house created in 1984 with a focus of books, magazines and games in Breton for children and young people. Lenn (lenn.electre.com) aims to help people locate Breton language publishers and some 1,000 works can be accessed through its website. Kenstroll (Kenstroll.org) is a alliance of independent book stores that promotes Breton literature and the Coop Breizh has long been key in making books and CDs accessible to a wide public. Besides books Breton publishers produce a number of magazines in Breton. These include Al Liamm, launched in 1945, Ya!, a weekly magazine in Breton published since 2005; ABER, a magazine created in 2000 to promote Breton language literature, Bremañ, a 30-35 page bi-monthly magazine on all topics produced by Skol an Emsav, and #brezhoneg, a bi-monthly magazine with lessons built in for different levels of learners, also produced by Skol an Emsav.

The internet has offered the opportunity for Bretons to give written and audio presence to the Breton language. Bretons have jumped on the opportunity to create a Breton language Wikipedia and internet sites for most Breton organizations include Breton if not featuring it. Of note is Agence Bretagne Presse which provides internet presence for news about what's going on in Brittany, with numerous articles and videos in Breton. Other websites have also been developed to make Breton history accessible - to counter the Paris-Centric history presented in schools.


During World War II a weekly and then daily 1-hour broadcast in Breton was produced, but this all ended at the end of the war. However, in 1946 airwaves opened to a half-hour program on Sundays. In 1964 daily 5-minute news bulletins were added. In 1982 people in western Brittany could get 5 hours a week of Breton language programming. In the 1980s and 90s the airwaves opened up so that a number of volunteer-run radio stations could be established which broadcast all or much of their daily programming in Breton. These have limited geographic range, but are being made available via computer internet.

The federation Radio Breizh (radiobreizh.bzh/fr) has worked since 2011 to provide internet access to four Breton language radio stations: Arvorig FM, Radio Kreiz Breizh, Radio Bro Gwened, and Radio Kerne.


Public television in Brittany (which does not reach all of Brittany) has provided just a few hours of Breton language programming per week.

Efforts to launch a cable channel, TV Breizh, in 2000 had lots of promise - 3 hours of Breton a day with a focus on Brittany in French programming - but efforts to get public status failed. Fees eliminated the growth of much of an audience in Brittany, so the Breton language content was trimmed back for more generic programming.

The lack of a truly Breton television channel and the very limited amount of Breton language programming on "French" TV channels has been made up for by an impressive growth of locally produced programming available on the internet. These include Tébéo (tebeo.bzh), TV Rennes 35 (tvr.bzh), Tébé Sud (tebesud.fr) and Télénantes (telenantes.com). Also on the internet are productions by Breizhoweb, Gwagenn TV and Kaouenn. Dizale was created in 1998 to dub audiovisual productions in Breton including programming for children (breizhvod.com).

Breton in public space

When traveling in Brittany, Breton language place names have always been noticeable, but many towns and even tiny villages have seen their names "Frenchified" and transformed into meaningless syllables. Seeing Breton on the street in larger cities is a new phenomenon but definitely a growth area with the establishment of Ofis ar Brezhoneg in 1999. They launched a strong campaign in 2001 called "Ya d'ar Brezhoneg" (Yes to Breton) to encourage businesses and organizations to use Breton in signage and encourage employees to learn and use it. By 2014 some 700 private companies and 167 communes in all five departments of Brittany had signed on. Bretons are finding that bilingualism is good for business and for tourism - a big industry in Brittany. Businesses often choose Breton words as part of their marketing strategy to show their roots. Breizh is found in some 200 uses. While some companies have been using Breton as a trade name for a long time (Traou Mad cookies), others are more recent (Armor Lux clothing). Produit en Bretagne not only promotes products and businesses of Brittany but also encourages the use of Breton in advertising.

But, there have been challenges in making Breton visible. Bilingual road signs were erected in the 1980s and 90s only after years of campaigns by Breton militants. Petitions are never enough in Brittany, so those working to get bilingual signs in the 1970s took more direct action with sticky-backed letters. More radical action was taken with tar, and this seemed to force change as signs needed to be replaced and costs got higher. Progress is slow and in 2015 Ai'ta! (ai-ta.eu) was founded to promote public use of Breton through non-violent acts of civil disobedience. This included protests of the postal service, trains, lack of road signs, and public services.

Other action to encourage the Breton language

Bretons have been creative in creating leisure-time activities for children and adults where Breton is used as the medium of communication - hotly contested competitions to see who can take the best dictation in Breton, scrabble tournaments, and song and story contests, and even a contest to trade insults in Breton.

And less competitively, you can meet in a Breton speaking activity to make crepes, go sailing, take an architectural tour, or go on a nature walk. Since 2008 young and old have participated in the relay run called Ar Redadeg (ar-redadeg.bzh) which traverses all five departments of Brittany every two years. This is used not only to raise funds for Breton schools and language activities, but is also a festive occasion to give visibility to the Breton language.

A number of prizes exist to recognize creativity in writing, music-making, and media in the Breton language. Prizioù Dazont has been sponsored since 1993 by France Bretagne and Ofis ar Brezhoneg to award prizes for the use of Breton in businesses and organization, and in song, literature and audiovisual creations.

While not a new tradition, Breton language theater is yet another media engaging a wide audience.

Cause for Optimism - Attitude is everything… the Case of Music and Dance

In stark contrast to indifference of the 1950s and 60s polls show that 90-95% of Bretons today want Breton to survive and are proud of their Breton identity. But building the number of Breton speakers is more challenging. Breton is no longer seen as a worthless language, but it is not seen by all in Brittany as a necessity. While it is unlikely that Bretons (children or adults) will enroll in Breton classes on a massive scale, and the physical and financial resources that would enable this are simply not there.

The shift in Brittany from a land where one looked to Paris and aimed to become "French" to a land where people are proud to be Breton and invest in promoting their unique heritage gives cause for optimism.

Particularly spectacular as an area where a positive Breton identity has cultivated is the practice of unique Breton music and dance traditions.

Music has not completely escaped the negative social and political stigmatization attached to the Breton language. Many Bretons believed that to get ahead in the world it was not only necessary to speak French but to be French. The old songs were all right for old people, but not to be passed on to one's children. Fortunately many Bretons did not believe it was necessary to abandon their heritage to get ahead in a modern world. Others who had immigrated to Paris learned first-hand that "the French" were not necessarily a more civilized people. Emigrants returning to Brittany were frequently leaders in creating new contexts and institutions to foster Breton traditions. In the 1950s older performers were urged to dust off their repertoires, young Bretons learned traditional line and circle dances in "Celtic Circles" or joined a bagad - a newly invented version of a Scottish pipe band for Brittany. You joined for purely social reasons, but left with a new knowledge of Breton culture and history hidden from you in the schools. The reinvention of the fest noz in the 1950s and its popularity since as a social event where multiple generations met to dance or have a drink at the bar has been especially important as an opportunity for singers and musicians to "show their stuff." In 2012 UNESCO recognized the fest noz as part of the world's immaterial cultural patrimony.

In the 1960s Bretons were also inspired by the "roots" and folk revival movements going on in the U.S. and Britain, and older melodies and rhythms were being rearranged in groups that blended harps and bagpipes with electric guitars and keyboards. By the mid 70s and throughout the 80s Breton musicians were taking a closer look at traditions - collecting music directly from older masters and organizing local festivals to foster the unique traditions rooted in different areas of Brittany. This has fostered new generations of traditional singers and instrumentalists who strengthen an ongoing oral tradition by respecting the essentially social nature of learning music from older masters. While not replacing it, learning has been expanded beyond a face-to-face transmission to include use of recordings and written materials, and now the internet.

The creation of new sounds rooted in older melodies and rhythms continues, and Brittany has one of the healthiest music traditions of Europe. The transmission from one generation to the next has remained intact, but has not prevented Bretons from creating new performance contexts or composing new music. Never have so many people in Brittany been engaged in performing Breton music or dancing Breton dances. Today there are an estimated 8,000+ amateur and professional performers of Breton music - not counting the learners and people who simply perform at home. This boils down to 1 of 500 Bretons taking an active role in passing along a unique heritage. And when a hip new band uses the Breton language for its songs, that inspires a few more young Bretons to learn this language.


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Chauffin, Fanny. Diwan 40 ans déjà - Pédagogie et créativité, les écoles immersives en langue bretonne : quarante ans d'action. Yoran Embanner. 2017

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Ofis ar Brezhoneg


The Office of the Breton Language promotes public use of Breton in various ways.

Diwan Breizh


Immersions schools for the Breton language founded in 1977 which go from pre-school through high school, including some 2,700 students.

Div Yezh (the association of parents of children in the public schools)


The bilingual programs in public schools including some 3,000 students are enrolled in these programs from preschool through high school in all five departments of Brittany.

Dihun (association of parents of children in the Catholic schools)


The first bilingual programs in the Catholic schools started in 1990, and today there are close to 2,500 in these schools.

Unvaniezh ar Gelennerien Brezhoneg


The Union of Breton Teachers was founded in 1982 and includes some 200 teachers from Diwan as well as the bilingual public and Catholic school programs.

U.S. Branch of the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language (U.S. ICDBL)


Publishes a quarterly newsletter, Bro Nevez, with current information on the Breton language and culture. Website has good list of links to learn more.