Breton, The language of Brittany's medieval upper class

November 10, 2023

“Demat” is what the noble Brittophones would say to greet you.

This month, we want to introduce you to the Breton language, a Brythonic language with Celtic roots spoken by only 200,000 people in Brittany, in the North West of France. Up to the 12th century, this language was spoken by the upper class of the region. In the early 20th century, it was still spoken by 1.3 million people. This drastic decrease in the number of speakers in the last century was the reason why the UNESCO ranked it as a language in severe danger of extinction and why we decided to present it on our blog for endangered languages.

Breton is not legally recognized as an official language by the state of France, nor was it taught in schools until very recently. In 1999, the Office of Breton language was founded to promote Breton in all spheres of social and public life. The network of bilingual schools is currently growing and local communities are beginning to implement proactive language policies to counteract the imminent threat of extinction. Another attempt to bring the Breton vocabulary back to people’s mind is the terminology center TermBret, where, among other functions, one can consult an online dictionary to translate French terms into Breton and vice versa.

A very unique characteristic of Breton is the “zh”, a little orthographic character which allows a common script for two possible pronunciations. In fact, the word Brezhoneg (Breton Language) can be pronounced “brezoneg” or “brehoneg”, depending on the region. This character became very popular and is nowadays the symbol of both Brittany and Breton.

Every language implies a unique mindset, culture and history. The most visible aspect of Breton culture is its music, which is strongly influenced by Celtic rhythms. The work and creativity of musicians and the increasing number and diversity of festivals, fest-noz, have aimed at spreading the Breton culture; also preserving the traditional Breton dance.

Who says that rare languages are only spoken in their original region? Breton is also taught in Alego, Kenya! Beatrice Ouma discovered the Breton language when studying in France and decided to learn and teach it in her country. Her idea was that just as any endangered plant or species, an endangered language needs to be relocated in order to grow stronger. She has taken up the cause of teaching children in her village to count, sing and speak in Breton, in order to keep this foreign language alive.

Try learning Breton yourself! Here you have some basic vocabulary to get a first impression of the language!

Breton French English
Demad! Bonjour ! Hello!
Degemer mad! Bienvenue! Welcome!
Kenavo Au revoir Goodbye
Mar plij S’il te/vous plaît Please
Trugarez Merci thank you
Yec’hed mad! À la vôtre! Cheers!

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