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Is the Breton language under threat from French Government?

THEY came in their thousands, a sea of white and black flags protesting against the French Education Minister’s plans to cut back on teaching the Breton language as part of the French curriculum.

A language at the heart of Brittany, Breton or brezhoneg as known in their native tongue, has always been a language worth fighting for in the eyes of the Breton people.

Historically, the language has come under attack much like it’s Welsh cousin, who are related under the same branch of Celtic languages, resulting in the formation of the Breton nationalism movement.

Following years and years of oppression from the French Government, the Front de Liberation Breton or the Breton Liberation Front as it’s more commonly known in English, was formed in the 1960’s.

From this movement the Breton Revolutionary Army, formed in 1971, was born, an armed illegal branch of the Front de Liberation Breton with the intention of protecting the Breton language and forcing the French Government to recognise the existence of the Breton people as an integral part of France. Over 200 attacks were the result of the Breton Revolutionary Army, including the 1974 bombing in Roc Tredudon, in a bid to protect the language and secure the Breton identity for generations to come.

Caerphilly Castle: The Gwenn-ha-du – which means white and black – was raised in 2012 by the Caerphilly and District Twinning Association ahead of a visit by our friends from Brittany.

Historically, the French Government has refused to acknowledge the Breton language and people even twenty years following the bombing of Roc Tredudon. In June of 1999, two days after the French President of the time, Jacques Chirac, refused to officially come to an agreement with European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages, there came an attack on the town home of then Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, as well as administrative offices and utility stations. By the 2000 bombing of the McDonald’s drive-thru in Quévert, Brittany, there had been over 200 attacks. This shows how important the language was and still is to the people of Brittany and how long they have had to fight to keep it alive.
History of the Breton language

The language itself was introduced to Brittany during the fifth and sixth century by the south western Britons. Brittany is located in the west of France, with the language being more widely spoken in areas such as Côtes-d’Amor and Morbihan. The publication of Julien Maunoir’s dictionary was the beginning of the modern Breton era in 1659, although this publication did not have an effect on oral Breton. The changes made to oral Breton came with religious publications, which became a part of the everyday vocabulary, much like how the translation of the Bible by William Morgan protected the Welsh language from extinction, this had an effect on the protection of spoken Breton.

Since the French Revolution in 1789 , and the beginning of the first French Republic, the French language has been trying to dominate as the most important language in France ever since. Leaving languages such as Breton, Basque, Occitan, Catalan and other French dialects have been cast aside as irrelevant and unimportant as part of a wider French picture.

During the mid-19th century was the beginning of the eradication policy that was implemented to kill the language. Not much has changed in the eyes of the Breton people by today’s standards, with many firmly opposed to the Education Minister’s call to restrict the teaching of the Breton language in the French curriculum.

Modern Threats

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According to one Breton campaigner, “The French state has been divided into 2/3 of Breton classes in the Diwan schools (with no vote, and no law, only the decision of the Minister of Education). The Minister of Education is unwilling to go back on his decision [to restrict the teaching of Breton in schools] but since last Monday the classes have been reformed with the Rectorat (the French Education Authority in Brittany).”
Amongst all the campaigning efforts throughout the years, the Breton language has remained in popular favour with the residents of Brittany who view the language as valuable to their identity. Despite this, due to varying factors, it is estimated the number of speakers who can read and write Breton has fallen to 500,000 in comparison to the 1.2 million speakers that was recorded as part of Roparz Hemon’s survey in 1928. In less than one hundred years, it shows the number of Breton speakers has more than halved.
Despite this, however, the language still remains an integral part of day to day life in Brittany and could very well rise in numbers despite the Education Minister’s plan to restrict teaching of the language in schools. The evidence shows that such attacks by the French Government never succeed, but ignite people to fight harder for the language. An event like this could backfire into the face of the Government and ignite people’s enthusiasm for their identity and language. We see that many people are now campaigning for more Breton lessons in the country, and the fact that the French state has stepped back from abolishing the Breton lessons has shown how much the French Government is concerned not to anger the Breton people and how much they fear seeing them protest.

Moving Forward

Breton, as a language, is beginning to be taught to more people in Brittany through other means than just in the classroom. The website www.brezhoweb.bzh, which is an important tool in helping Breton learners use the language more frequently, and drawing in young people who speak the language to continue using Breton in their everyday lives. The website consists of dramas and journalistic videos with French subtitles. The language is also being used on YouTube with cooking channels talking you through step-by-step traditional recipes to Brittany, all through the medium of Breton.

But in the face of attacks from the French Government against the language, this decision to exclude the language from the French curriculum has begun to backfire on the French Government. Since the Education Minister’s decision, a number of protests have happened by the people of Brittany who are refusing to have their rights to speak their language undermined.

Time will tell what the future holds for the Breton language but what is certain it will be up to the people of Brittany to decide their language’s fate not the French Government.