With the Welsh Government planning on having one million Welsh speakers by 2050, another Celtic language is in danger of extinction.

Along with Welsh and Cornish, Breton (Brezhoneg) makes up the Brythonic branch of the Celtic languages.

While Welsh continues to be widely spoken, and a recent revival in Cornish culture has led to an increased number of Cornish speakers, the Breton language continues to suffer.

As a country with its own democratically-elected parliament, the Welsh Government is able to put forward policies advancing the progress of the language. The Cymraeg 2050 Strategy, which aims to have one million Welsh speakers by 2050, is a prime example of this.

READ MORE: 

Though it is not an independent country – although there is assuredly a campaign for their independence – Cornwall has overseen an historic revival of Cornish backed by international support.

The last person with a full knowledge of the Cornish language, John Davey, died in 1891, and the language was thought extinct until 2009, when UNESCO updated its status from “extinct” to “critically endangered”.

In contrast, Breton (in Welsh, 'Llydaweg'), has seen an overall decline, and remains “critically endangered”, and it is likely to get worse before it gets better for the language.

The ancestral home of Breton - Brittany - located in northwest France, does not enjoy the linguistic freedom of Welsh or Cornish. This is partly due to location.

The National Wales:  Evolution map of the Breton language frontier from the 9th to the 20th century. Source: Sémhur CC-BY-SA-3.0 Evolution map of the Breton language frontier from the 9th to the 20th century. Source: Sémhur CC-BY-SA-3.0

Talwyn Baudu, 28, who works for a Breton-language TV station, explains that the Breton language has historically been disenfranchised compared to French.

“In the sixteenth century, nobody in France spoke French apart from the elite, which was around 10 per cent of the population," he told The National.

"There were a number of regional languages, and up until the eve of the First World War, barely half of France could speak French. After the French Revolution, the French language became the language of reason and politics and a symbol of equality in the new France.

“For a long time, the different peoples of France were not unified, and imposing the language of the elite was seen as a way to create a common identity amongst peoples living in France.

"However, those in charge had no desire for France to become a bilingual society. To become a proper French citizen was to speak the language of reason and if you continued to speak another regional language you would be deemed as backward, and condemned to live in poverty eternally.”

READ MORE: 'It feels slightly hollow when I say I am Cornish. What does that really mean now?'

As the only Celtic language still in use on the European mainland, Breton is unique, and faces unique challenges to continue its survival.

Since the Third Republic in 1870, the French government has attempted to stamp out all minority languages, including Breton. A prevailing issue is that only 3% of pupils in Brittany learn Breton (often to a limited extent), as they rarely continue learning the language into secondary school.

The centralisation of France, the popularity of French, as well as the fear of reprisals for speaking Breton, have left a vast age disparity in the estimated 200,000 native Breton speakers today.

The National Wales: A map showing the dialects of Breton. Source: Breton_dialectes.svg CC BY-SA 3.0A map showing the dialects of Breton. Source: Breton_dialectes.svg CC BY-SA 3.0

According to the latest polls, 80 per cent of the speakers are over 60 years old, and just 5 per cent are between the ages of 15 and 40.

Meanwhile, 12.5 per cent of western Brittany, where the language is traditionally spoken, speaks Breton. And just 5 per cent of the entire population of Brittany has some knowledge of the language.

Talwyn explains that while learning Breton is popular for young people, the number of people who continue to learn at secondary school drops off.

“Quite a few young people learn Breton," he says. "There’s nearly 20,000 kids who have some exposure to the Breton language at school in the state-run bilingual schools, private Catholic schools and the immersion schools. There’s a massive decrease as kids get older and fewer people study it at secondary school.”

Another reason why fewer people study it as teenagers is due to a widespread parental fear of being left out of their depth in an unfamiliar language.

“A lot of people but their kids in schools for the cognitive benefits of being bilingual, " Talwyn explains. "But as they grow older their parents don’t speak the language [Breton] as well, so they’re scared they won’t be able to help out with homework as the curriculum gets more complex. Nearly all the families who attend Breton language school speak in French at home.”

The French Government has made limited concessions to minority language speakers in France, and most of those have come within the last 50 years.

In 1951 a law was passed where regional languages were allowed to be used to a very limited extent in the classroom to help children learn French. 60 years later, on April 8 2021, the French National Assembly passed the Molac Law for the protection and promotion of regional languages.

READ MORE: The dragon has many tongues: how Welsh speakers are polyglots in one language

While this sounded promising for the language, many advancements that the law offered was subsequently blocked by the Constitutional Council, the highest constitutional authority in France.

The French constitutional council considered that authorising the use of Breton-specific diacritics, grammatical additions to Breton names, was illegal, essentially meaning certain Breton-language names cannot be used.

Moreover, the council also deemed that Breton immersion education was 'unconstitutional'.  

“Due to Brittany’s lack of real power, the Breton language is constantly in a state of judicial limbo, between restriction from French laws and desires of revitalisation. Brittany’s regional council is unable to put forward major changes for the provision of the Breton language,” explains Talwyn.

“Wales has its own assembly rights, so they can put forward ideas to maintain and grow the Welsh language. France is a centralised country, and Brittany has no real power.

"The regional council can only negotiate with the French state on the number of Breton language teachers or the introduction of bilingual road signs on French state-run roads in Brittany. The power does not lie with Brittany’s elected body, but it lies instead with the French state.”

The National Wales: A bilingual road sign in Kemper, Brittany. A bilingual road sign in Kemper, Brittany.

France has signed the 39 articles of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which would include promotion and protection of the Breton language, but refuses to ratify it, because Article 2 of the French constitution is “the language of the republic is French”.

The effect of this is that Breton is neither officially recognised or protected within France and will continue not to be unless there is a change in the charter or in the French constitution – both of which appear unlikely to occur.

Brittany’s lack of autonomy in the promotion of Breton, as well as France’s complex relationship with the language in general, means that making an estimation of how many native speakers will exist by 2050 is considerably harder.

Due to the distinct age disparity in speakers of Breton, Brittany’s regional council predicts a steep decline from 200,000 speakers to 50,000 within the next 28 years.

Talwyn explains that the figure, while drastic, is explainable, and that Breton is not heading for complete extinction: “One million speakers is simply not possible. Because 50 per cent of the people who speak Breton will die in the next few years, the number of speakers will fall. Brittany lost 80 per cent of its speakers in just under a hundred years.

“However, it’s important to emphasise that people who are learning Breton now are not ashamed of speaking the language and create new Breton language speaking networks. 70 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds Breton speakers claim to speak the language at least once a week.

However, less than 40 per cent of those over 60 who can speak the language do so on a weekly basis. It’s encouraging.”

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.