Breton then and now

The words are so optimistic: the speakers live in a compact area and the language activism strong. You could almost mistake it for a modern essay on the state of the Breton language. Except for the slightly archaic tone. And that half of the speakers are monolingual. And the statement that there are over a million Breton speakers.

Reading this is at once inspiring and heart breaking. This text comes from Celtia journal, and was published in 1901. In just over a century, the Breton language has essentially lost 83% of its speakers–there are now around 200,000.

Language revitalization isn’t for the faint at heart. And still, so many wonderful things are going on in Brittany nowadays that are making Breton stronger.

Brittany has the advantage of the largest and 
most compact Celtic language area, with its 
1,300,000 Breton speakers, only half of whom 
speak French at all. The Breton language 
movement has, however, only comparatively 
recently taken up a prominent place in the 
national life and aspirations of the hardy 
Bretons. The process of Gallicisation — a 
ruinous policy for France as well as Brittany — 
has been going far and fast of recent years. 
The policy of centralisation bids fair to sap 
those springs of vitality which might save 
France from that "painless death" so lugu- 
briously prophesied for her. But there are 
signs that Brittany will have her own say in 
the matter. The vigour of the new language 
movement, the constant stream of new verna- 
cular literature, the spirited fight for recognition 
of Breton in the schools, and the steadily- 
increasing number of distinguished adherents 
of the Breton cause — all these elements make 
us believe that the future of Breton language 
and nationality is safe. 

I don’t think I’ve encountered Celtia before, but thanks to a Facebook posting by Diwan Bretagne, I discovered both this paragraph and the journal. It seems to be a rich resource to those of us who work with and love the Celtic languages. To quote Celtia‘s mission statement:

Our own special task, and that to which this 
Journal will be steadily devoted, is that of 
fostering the mutual sympathy between the 
various Celtic nationalities.

The full text of Celtia journal is available online here.

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Published by

Madeleine Adkins

I'm a linguist and a writer, with a passion for the Breton language, Celtic languages in general, and endangered language communities who engage in revitalization efforts. I've published some articles about the Breton language situation in some academic journals, and I'm planning to publish more in the near future. I spent most of the last decade moving around--first to Santa Barbara (grad school), then Colorado (teaching), and then Brittany (researching the Breton language revitalization movement and improving my Breton speaking skills)--and now I'm in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even though I am living far from Brittany at this point, I still keep in touch with my friends and colleagues in the Breton-speaking world, and I'm still involved in language revitalization issues.

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