Endangered Breton Language Faces Extinction

In previous posts I have explored the alarming issue of language loss as it relates to the preservation (and extinction) of collective human knowledge and world cultures. Whether reporting the death of the last living member of the Bo language group, discussing the impact of the Endangered Language Alliance project, assessing the scholarship of Wade Davis, or championing the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices initiative, my purpose has always been to inform readers why language loss must be a global concern.   UNESCO’s safeguarding endangered languages webpage reads:

Languages are humankind’s principle for interacting and for expressing ideas, emotions, knowledge, memories and values.  Languages are also primary vehicles of cultural expressions and intangible cultural heritage, essential to the identity of individuals and groups. Safeguarding endangered languages is thus a crucial task in maintaining cultural diversity worldwide.

A December 13 article on CNN.com, “Bretons fight to save language from extinction,” reinforces this critical message.

Breton is the unique language spoken in the Brittany region of northwestern France. Settled by the Celts in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, Brittany is a bit of a Celtic enclave, sharing as much of their culture with Ireland as with France. Linguistically, Breton is more closely related to Welsh or Cornish, and the people of this region are proud of their Celtic heritage. Sadly, with an estimated 250,000 living Bretons, reduced from almost 2 million speakers at the start of the twentieth century and with 10,000 more passing each year, the language has been listed by UNESCO as severely endangered and in urgent need of protection. According to some estimates, the number of Breton speakers will decline by over thirty percent in the next ten years.

Similar to the Basques in Spain, Breton-speakers are a linguistic minority in their country. The French constitution recognizes only French as the republic’s official language (Article 2), and whereas Spain has ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which recognizes the value of interculturalism and multilingualism, France has not. Many people view the lack of support for Breton as further evidence of French uneasiness with cultural diversity, citing both the recent public ban of burqas and deportations of Roma migrants as well as the French state’s actions against Breton-speakers during World War II (e.g. it was banned from use in public and especially in schools).


Nine criteria established by UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages to determine the viability of a language, its function in society, and the types of measures required for its maintenance or revitalization (From: http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/doc/src/00120-EN.pdf)

Nonetheless, recent moves within the government seem to indicate a sympathetic shift in attitude towards France’s 15 regional languages. According to Xavier North, Delegate General for the French language and the languages of France at the Ministry of Culture and Communication, the National Assembly already earmarks one million euros per year for hiring bilingual teachers in public schools, and lawmakers will also soon decide whether to provide additional state funding for curricular lessons in regional languages. Moreover, designated Breton schools such as Skol Diwan An Oriant (“Diwan” is Breton for “seed”) are teaching nursery- through college-age students how to speak, read, write, and understand the language of their grandparents. Breton activists hope in this new generation of speakers will reinvent and reassert the Breton identity in the twenty-first century.

What other steps can be taken by either the French government or the Breton community to ensure the survival of the Breton language?

This entry was posted in Breton, culture, endangered language, France, identity, intangible cultural heritage, Smithsonian. Bookmark the permalink.

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