Breton is a Celtic language spoken mainly in Brittany (Breizh)
by about 210,000 people, about 35,000 of whom speak use it as an everyday language. It is
spoken mainly in western parts of Brittany, and is also spoken, to some
extent, in parts of eastern Brittany, and by Breton immigrants in other
parts of France, and in other countries.
The area known to the Romans as Armorica was renamed Brittany
("Little Britain") after the people who migrated there
from Britain, particularly from Cornwall, in the 6th century AD.
Breton at a glance
Native name: brezhoneg [bʀe.ˈzõː.nɛk]
Linguistic affliation: Indo-European, Celtic, Insular Celtic, Brittonic, Southwestern
Number of speakers: c. 210,000
Spoken in: Brittany, France
First written: 9th century
Writing system: Latin alphabet
Status: recognised as a minority language in Brittany
Between 1880 to the middle of the 20th century, Breton was banned
from schools and children were punished for speaking it. This changed
in 1951 with the promulgation of the Deixonne law, which allowed for
the Breton language and culture to be taught for one to three hours
a week in public education if the teacher is willing and able to do so.
Since then a number of schools and colleges have been set up providing
either education through the medium of Breton or bilingual Breton/French
Breton first appeared in writing in 790 AD in a manuscript entitled
manuscrit de Leyde, a botanical treatise in Breton and Latin.
The first printed text in Breton, a passion play, made its appearance
in 1530. In the 19th century there was a revival of Breton literature
and it continues to flourish today.
There are four traditional dialects of Breton which correspond to
medieval bishoprics rather than to linguistic divisions. They are
Leoneg in the county of Léon, Tregerieg in the county of
Trégor, Kerneveg in Cornouaille, and Gwenedeg
in Vannes. The dialects form a dialect continuum varying only slightly
from one village to the next.
For most of its history there was considerable variation in the
spelling of Breton. Then in 1908 the orthography of three Breton dialects,
Kerneveg (Cornouaille), Leoneg (Leon) and Tregerieg
(Tregor), was unified. The other dialect, Gwenedeg (Vannetais),
was not included in this reform, but was included in the orthographic reform
Breton can be heard on a number of radio stations for a few hours
a week and there is a weekly one-hour TV programme in Breton. There
are also a number of Breton language weekly and monthly magazines.
Relationship to other languages
Breton is closely related to Cornish and less
closely related to Welsh, though these languages
are not mutually intelligible. Breton has also absorbed quite a lot
of vocabulary from French, Latin, and probably from Gaulish languages,
which are now extinct.
Breton is also distantly related to Irish,
Manx and Scottish Gaelic.
Here is an illustration of some of the differences and similarities between
the Celtic languages using the phrases 'What is your name?' and 'My name is ... / I'm ...':
Irish - Cén t-ainm atá ort?, Is mise ...
Gloss: What-the name is on-you?, Am I [emphatic] ..."
Scottish Gaelic - Dè an t-ainm a th'ort, Is mise ...
Gloss: What the name is on-you?, Am I [emphatic] ..."
Manx - Cre'n ennym t'ort?,
Ta'n ennym orrym ... / ... mish
Gloss: What'the name is on-you?, Is the name on-me ... / ... I [emphatic]"
Breton - Petra eo da anv?, ... eo ma anv
Gloss: What is your name?, ... is my name"
Cornish - Pyth yw dha hanow?,
Ow hanow yw ...
Gloss: What is your name?, My name is ..."
Welsh - Beth ydy dy enw di? (inf) , ... dwi / ... ydw i
Gloss: What is your name you?, ... I'm / ... I am"
The only word in these examples that is similar in all the languages: ainm (Irish), ainm (Scottish Gaelic), ennym (Manx), anv (Breton), hanow (Cornish) and enw (Welsh).
The word for what - Cén (Irish), De (Scottish Gaelic), Cre (Manx), Petra (Breton), Pyth (Cornish) and Beth (Welsh) - illustrates one of the sound differences between the branches of the Celtic languages. In the Gaelic languages, apart from Scottish Gaelic, it starts with C, which is why they are called Q-Celtic languages (this sound is sometimes written with a Q in Manx), while in the Brythonic languges it starts with p or b, which is why they are known as P-Celtic. Both sounds developed from the Proto-Celtic [kʷ].
- There are more similarities within each branch of these languages than between the branches (Gaelic and Brythonic), and the Gaelic languages are closer to one another than are the Brythonic languages.
There are other versions of these phrases: see the What's your name? phrases page.
Celtic connections - words that are similar in the Celtic languages
- Vowels can be long or short
- Vowels are nasalized when written with a tilde (ã), or followed by a n or a ñ
- Stress usually falls on the penultimate syllable.
- v - is normally pronounced [v], but after a noun such as o it is
pronounced [ɒ], at the end of a verb stem it is pronounced [f],
while after ñ it is silent.
- Before a vowel, i is pronounced [j]
Many letters have different pronunciations in different dialects of Breton. You can find out more on:
Mutations (Ar c'hemmadurioù)
* g disappears before w or ou, e.g. e wele (his bed), but
e c'harzh (his garden).
Sample text in Breton
Dieub ha par en o dellezegezh hag o gwirioù eo ganet an holl
dud. Poell ha skiant zo dezho ha dleout a reont bevañ an eil
gant egile en ur spered a genvreudeuriezh.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Sample of spoken Breton
Information about Breton |
Tower of Babel |
Learning materials |
My Breton learning experiences
Information about Brittany and the Breton language
Online Breton lessons
Online Breton dictionaries
Online Breton radio
Breton language book store
Breizh.net - a non-profit association dedicated to the promotion of
Brittany and the Breton language on the internet (in Breton, French
and English) http://www.breizh.net
Ofis ar Brezhoneg (l'Office de la langue bretonne)
More Breton-related linked
Other languages written with the Latin alphabet