Breton language

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Spoken in

Parts of Brittany
speaker approx. 150,000 to 170,000

(Research report by Fañch Broudig, March 2009)

Language codes
ISO 639 -1


ISO 639 -2


ISO 639-3


The Breton (Breton Brezhoneg ) is a Celtic language . Like Welsh , Cornish, and the extinct Kumbrian, it belongs to the subgroup of British languages . Breton is spoken in Brittany by the Britophone Bretons , making it the only modern Celtic language that is native to mainland Europe. It does not go back to the ancient Celtic language of Gaul . Their distribution area is the Bretagne bretonnante , which today still consists of the western areas of Brittany, i. H. from the Finistère department (Penn ar Bed) and the western part of the Côtes-d'Armor (Aodoù-an-Arvor) and Morbihan (Mor-bihan) departments . The eastern part of Brittany is the Pays gallo , in the western parts of which Breton was also spoken in the past, while Breton could never penetrate the east of Brittany (for example the area around Nantes, one of the historic capitals of Brittany).


Breton is not a successor to the language of the Celtic Gauls who originally lived in the area , but the language of British refugees and immigrants from Great Britain who gave way to the British Isles before the Anglo-Saxon conquest. Breton is closely related to the British languages ​​Cornish ( Cornwall ) and Welsh ( Wales ). It shares a lot in common with Cornish, with which it is grouped together to form the group of Southwest British languages.

The most important characteristic of South West British compared to West British (= Welsh) is the sound change from the original British long / ɔː / (derived from the ancient Celtic / aː / ) to / œː / :

  • Ancient Celtic (and thus also Gaulish) māros 'large'> late British * / mɔːro /> old Breton mor (Breton meur / mœːʀ / ), Middle Cornish mur (Cornish meur / mœːr / ): old Welsh maur (Welsh mawr / maur / ).

However, mutual understanding is not easily possible. In the central and eastern departments of the distribution area, Breton has been pushed back more and more in the past centuries, partly in favor of the Oïl language Gallo and above all French.

The language development of Breton took place in three stages :

  • Old Breton, before the year 1000 ,
  • Middle Breton, until the 17th century
  • New Bretonic
  • Neo-Bretonic could be seen as a fourth language level, as it will presumably survive the traditional Neo-Bretonic dialects (see below).

Old Breton

Old Breton is hardly documented, as most of the written sources are likely to have fallen victim to Norman raids on Breton monasteries (especially in the 9th century). A characteristic of the phonology of Old Breton is, among other things, the stress , which, unlike in Middle and New Breton (with the exception of the Vannes dialect ), was on the last syllable.

The few evidence of Old Breton ( 6th to 11th centuries ) are place names and short Old Breton glosses (explanatory marginal notes) in Latin texts. There are also some copy books and capitularies , i.e. collections of copies of documents, including from the Redon and Landévennec monasteries.

Middle Breton

A number of texts have come down to us from the Central Breton era, above all sacred poems, mystery plays and religious edification literature. In Central Breton poetry, traces of a very complicated British poetry can still be found, which has been preserved in Welsh (as cynghanedd ) to this day and which is characterized by an interweaving of inner , end and allied rhymes and by repetitions of the consonant structure. In Breton this form of verse is called kenganez .

The oldest dictionary of Breton, the three-volume Breton- French - Latin lexicon Chatolicon , printed in 1499 , also dates from the Middle Breton period, i.e. from the 11th to the 17th century .

The oldest evidence of Breton literature is from the 14th century, namely five lines of a love poem that the Breton writer, Ivonet Omnes, left in the margin of a Latin text:

To guen heguen on louenas /
to hegarat on lacat glas

"The blonde girl with the friendly expression made me happy,
the lovely one with the blue eyes."

Mar ham guorant va karantit,
Da vout in nos o he kostit.
Vam garet, nep pret.

The only other evidence of secular literature from Central Breton that has survived to this day is a nearly 250-line verse dialogue between King Arthur and the sage Guinglaff: An dialog etre Arzur Roe d'an Bretounet ha Guynglaff .

New Bretonic

New Bretonic is characterized by a strong breakdown into dialects and the decline of the written language tradition. It was not until the 20th century that a standard variety could emerge again. From the 1930s onwards, Roparz Hemon endeavored to achieve a new, uniform orthography and cultural emancipation from France. He was supported by the German occupying forces in his efforts during World War II and emigrated after the war.


Neo-Bretonic (pejoratively also Roazhoneg , see below) is an academic standard that was created by philologists and language lovers in the twentieth century. It should summarize the widely differing dialects and delete French loanwords. However, since many of the linguists involved were not (and are) not native speakers of Breton, Neo-Breton has become a variant that is phonetically (and partly syntactically) closer to French than the dialects. In particular, the emphasis on the words (on the penultimate syllable ) and the sandhi, which is important in Breton phonology, are often not implemented because the French accent of the speaker comes through. Lexically the Neo-Bretonic is consciously receltized. For example, “telephone” in most dialects means telephone , in Neo-Breton it is called pellgomz , which sounds strange to the ears of some dialect speakers. Another example is mersi bras “thank you”, which in Neo-Breton - based on the Middle Breton model - has been replaced by trugarez vras .

For the spread of Neo-Breton sound recordings play z. B. Alan Stivell and Youenn Gwernig (1925-2006) played an important role. In the second half of the 20th century there were also a number of publications in the Breton language (such as by Gwernig and Paol Keineg , * 1944), some of which were critical of the French cultural dominance.

The singer and lyricist Youenn Gwernig

The often lack of social exchange between Neo-Breton and dialect speakers led to some dialect speakers rejecting Neo-Breton ( “N'eo ket ar memes brezhoneg!” - “It's not the same Breton!”). A similar critical attitude of the dialect speakers towards the (new) standard language, which is now also often used in school books and the media, can also be observed in the standardization of other regional languages. The social gap between the milieus often plays a role here; the dialect speakers mainly belong to the peasant or petty bourgeois classes, while the operators of the renaissance of Breton originate from educated middle class and artistic circles. The latter's mother tongue is often French, not Breton.

Language politics and today's situation of Breton

Bilingual street signs in Quimper

The number of speakers of Breton has decreased dramatically since the 1950s . As the French Republic does not collect the number of speakers of the languages ​​spoken on its territory, all data are based on estimates. It is generally assumed that around 1,200,000 people spoke Breton in 1950, some ten thousand of whom were unable to communicate in French at all or not fluently. With the extinction of the monolingual population, a rapid transition to French began, as most Breton-speaking families began to raise their children in French monolingually in order to avoid discrimination in school and at work.

According to a study by Fañch Broudig ( Qui parle breton aujourd'hui?, 1999) there were still 240,000 Breton speakers around the turn of the millennium, but a large proportion of them no longer used Breton in their daily lives. According to this, around two thirds of the speakers should already be older than 60 years and only a maximum of half as many people actually use the language in everyday life. The Association of Diwan Schools estimates the number of people who understand Breton at up to 400,000.

For a long time Breton had no or only partial official recognition by the French state and was systematically suppressed in the 19th and 20th centuries (discrimination in schools, negation in official correspondence). The administrative and school language of the French Republic is French, and this principle was enforced in order to spread the national language throughout the country. The phase of active repression by public authorities lasted until the 1960s . But even if bilingual place-name signs have been put up for several years on the initiative of numerous municipalities (especially in the area west of Guingamp ), place names are still only officially recognized in French. For example, it can still happen today that letters that are addressed with Breton place names cannot be sent.

The Breton language is promoted by a strong Breton regional movement, which is made up of numerous local and regionally organized initiatives and associations, so that today (as of 2020) there are 55 Breton-language divan schools , for example . Also in the area of ​​the Catholic private schools (Verein Dihun ) and at some state schools (Verein Div Yezh ) classes with partly Breton as the language of instruction were set up. According to statistics from 2005, however, there were 2896 pupils from Diwan , 3659 pupils in Catholic private schools with Breton classes and 3851 pupils in the bilingual classes in public schools compared to 360,000 pupils in purely French-speaking classes.

The Ofis publik ar Brezhoneg has existed since 1999 and is committed to preserving the Breton language and culture.

In December 2004 the Breton regional government announced that it wanted to promote the continuation of Breton, which was a sensation in post-revolutionary France. Above all, the number of places in Breton immersion classes (based on the Diwan model ) should be increased to 20,000.

Only a few families currently have children with a Breton mother tongue. Though there are tens of thousands of speakers who have learned this language in order to preserve Breton, hardly any of them have a knowledge equal to that of a native speaker . The Breton media (TV programs on FR3 Ouest and TV Breizh, radio programs, magazines) are for the most part run and moderated by non-native speakers with very different language skills.

UNESCO classifies Breton as a "seriously endangered language".

The problem of polls on language usage

Percentage of speakers of Breton in 2018 in Brittany (result of a telephone survey with 8,162 participants)

The problem with surveys with questions like “Do you speak Breton?” Is that the respondent's actual language skills are not always taken into account. Language enthusiasts who have little or no command of Breton, but want to support it out of conviction, answer “yes”, not least by increasing the percentage of Breton speakers. On the other hand, many of the older native speakers of Breton are ashamed of the low prestige of the language in their youth, so that honest answers cannot always be expected from this population group and they often deny their knowledge of Breton.

Breton as a spoken language (Wikitongues project)


The Breton language is divided into four dialects : Leoneg, Tregerieg, Gwenedeg and Kerneveg.

  • Gwenedeg (French vannetais ) is spoken around the city of Vannes (Breton Gwened ) and is the least common Breton dialect, spoken by only 16% of all Bretons.
  • Kerneveg (French cornouaillais ) is spoken around the town of Quimper (Breton Kemper ) and is the largest Breton dialect, accounting for 41% of the total number of speakers. Kerneveg is most closely related to Cornish , the extinct language of Cornwall on the opposite bank of the English Channel.
  • Leoneg (French léonard ) is spoken in the Léon (Breton Bro Leon ), which includes the northern part of the department of Finistère (Breton Penn ar Bed ), and is the second strongest Breton dialect with 24.5%.
  • Tregerieg (French trégor (r) ois ) is used around the city of Tréguier (Breton Landreger ) by 18% of Breton speakers.

Kerneveg, Leoneg and Tregerieg (the so-called KLT dialects) are comparatively close to each other. The Gwenedeg differs considerably from these. This dialectal difference in particular made the development (and acceptance) of a uniform written language very difficult. Several spelling systems exist side by side; the most widespread is the Peurunvan (French orthographe unifiée ), also called Zedacheg due to the typical use of the digraph zh (French zed ache ), which is pronounced as [z] in the KLT dialects, but as [h] in Gwenedeg. Another important difference lies in the word stress, which is on the penultimate syllable in KLT dialects, but on the last syllable in Gwenedeg (e.g. brezhoneg : KLT [bre ˈzo nek], Gwenedeg [breho ˈnek ]).

The traditional dialects are rapidly losing importance due to the decline in the number of speakers, while a new standard is emerging in radio and television. Since it is mainly used by non-native speakers, it is phonologically heavily influenced by French, but uses less vocabulary of French origin than the dialects. For example, traditional speakers would use the (originally French) avion for “airplane” - emphasized on the penultimate syllable, mind you - while the standard prefers the new creation nijerez (lit. “aviator”). Since most of the speakers of this learned standard, which is not passed on in their native language, come from the area around and in front of the University of Roazhon ( Rennes ), this variant of Breton is also known as Roazhoneg . This is to be understood pejoratively: since Breton was traditionally never spoken in Roazhon, the “artificiality” of the standard is emphasized by dialect speakers. The French influence on phonology is most noticeable in prosody: native French speakers often replace the Breton word accent (on the penultimate syllable of each word) with the French phrase accent (on the last syllable of each sentence).


The most important and productive process in Breton phonology is the sandhi , i.e. assimilation processes across word boundaries. The fundamental phonological domain in Breton is not the word, but the phrase, the end of which is marked by a hardened final sound. Within the phrase, consonants at the end of a word, followed by a vowel initial sound, are systematically lenited (softened):

Emaon e Breizh. (“I am in Brittany.”) [Eˈmaon e ˈbrej s ], but

E Breizh emaon. (ditto) [e ˈbrej z eˈmaon]

Sandhi also exists through provection , i.e. de-sonorisation or hardening:

Demat deoc'h! ("Good day to you!") [Deˈmateɔx]

Bennozh Doue! ("God's blessing!" = "Thank you!") [ˌBɛnosˈtuːe]


  bilabial labio-
dental alveolar post-
retroflex palatal velar uvular phase-
stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth. stl. sth.
Plosives p b         t d     k G      
Nasals   m         n         ɲ            
Vibrants                               ʀ        
Taps / flaps                                      
Fricatives f v s z ʃ ʒ x H
lateral  fricatives                                        
Approximants                     j  ɥ   w            
lateral approximants               l         ʎ              


  front almost in
central almost in the
ung. ger. ung. ger. ung. ger. ung. ger. ung. ger.
closed i  ĩ y          u  ũ
almost closed              
half closed e  ø  ø̃         o  õ
half open ɛ œ         ɔ
almost open              
open a             ɑ  ɑ̃

Vowels can be short or long. Unstressed vowels are always short, as are nasal vowels. Stressed vowels before voiceless consonants and before certain consonant sequences are short. In orthography, other short vowels are expressed by doubling the following consonant letter. Otherwise stressed vowels are long.

In addition to the simple vowels, there are the diphthongs [aj], [aw], [ɛw] and [ɔw].


In KLT dialects, the penultimate syllable is usually stressed. The exceptions are mostly compositions. In Gwenedeg, the last syllable of a word is usually stressed.

The phrase intonation differs depending on the dialect; the Tregerieg, for example, is characterized by a continuous rise in pitch up to the main accent of the phrase, after which the pitch drops again, just as continuously, to the end of the phrase. Most Neo-Bretonic speakers who are native French speakers use intonation patterns borrowed from French - mostly flat phrase intonation with a rising final syllable.


The Breton grammar has a number of features that are characteristic of the island Celtic languages ​​as a whole: initial mutation and the sentence position verb – subject – object.

Initial mutation

A characteristic of the island Celtic languages ​​are the initial mutations (Bret. Kemmadurioù ). These were created from historical sandhi .

The following table is intended to give an overview of the system of initial mutations in Breton. Where the respective mutation does not occur, the phrase is put in brackets.

Basic form Lenization (weakening) Aspiration Fortification (hardening)
b reur - "brother" because v reur (ma b reur) ho p reur
d ant - "tooth" there z ant (ma d ant) ho t ant
g er - "word" there c'h he (ma g er) ho k he
gw ele - "bed" there w ele (ma gw ele) ho kw ele
k i - "dog" da g i ma c'h i (ho k i)
m amm - "mother" da v amm (ma m amm) (ho m amm)
p enn - "head" there b enn ma f enn (ho p enn)
t ad - "father" da d ad ma z ad (ho t ad)

There is also a so-called "mixed" mutation, which only affects voiced consonants after certain verbal particles:

Basic form mixed mutation
b ezan - "I am (usually)" e v ezan
d ougen - "to carry" o t ougen
g oulenn - "ask" o c'h oulenn
gw elout - "see" o w elout
m ont - "go" o v ont


Historically, Breton is a VSO ( verb-subject-object ) language. The development of the New Bretonic is moving towards the second position of the verb : In almost all constructions the conjugated verb is now in the second position of the sentence. An additional tendency, namely to put the subject at the beginning, is also noticeable and is explained by the generalization of old relative constructions that served for topicalization :

Me a zebr kalz bara. ("I eat a lot of bread." <"I eat a lot of bread." <Histor. "I who eat a lot of bread.")

In general, a topic is marked by bringing it forward to the beginning of the sentence:

Kalz bara a zebran. ("I eat LOTS OF BREAD." <Histor. "Lots of bread that I eat.")

What emerges from the two example sentences is the distinction between the so-called “unconjugated” verb form (= third person singular), which comes after the subject, from the conjugated (here: first person singular), which is in a sentence without an explicit subject . The “non-conjugated” form has historically emerged from a relative construction. Breton verb morphology is basically simple, but its use is greatly complicated by several morphosyntactic rules.

spelling, orthography

The following pronunciation rules refer to the most common orthography ( Peurunvan ) used in most publications, by Ofis ar Brezhoneg (the semi-official standardization and language planning body of the region), the Diwan schools and the University of Roazhon (Rennes).

The pronunciation of b, d and g is more like the North German pronunciation of German.

  • a [a] as in German
  • ao [ɔ, aɔ] monophthonged in most dialects
  • aou [ɔʊ] like ow in the German pronunciation of engl. low
  • b [b] as in German
  • ch [ʃ] like German sch
  • c'h [x, ɣ, h] as German ch in book ; between vowels like h in eagle owl
  • d [d] as in German
  • e [e] like German e in Weg , but also short and then never [ɛ] like in bold
  • ae, ê [ɛ] like ä in bears
  • eu [œ] as German ö in Mönch
  • f [f] as in German
  • g [g] as in German g (never as directed )
  • gn [ɲ] like gn in champagne
  • h [h, Ø] as dt. h , rarely silent as in French
  • i [i] like German i in love , but also short [i] (never like in chin )
  • ilh [iʎ] something like ij
  • j [ʒ] like voiced sch ( j in journal )
  • k [k] as in German
  • l [l] as in German
  • m [m] like m , but a preceding a or o is nasalized
  • n [n] like n , but a preceding a or o is nasalized
  • ñ is not pronounced itself, but nasalizes the preceding vowel
  • o [ɔ, o] as in German
  • ou [u] as in German u in courage , but also always briefly [u] and not [ʊ] as in round , sometimes as in English. w
  • [u, o, ow, œɥ] in the standard like German u
  • p [p] as in German
  • r [r, ɾ, ʁ] mostly rolled
  • s [s, z]
  • sh [s, h] rare, variant of "zh", in the KLT dialects such as [s], in the Vannetais [h]
  • t [t] as in German
  • u [y] like German ü in sweet , but also short [y] and not like in garbage
  • v [v] like German w , at the end of the word like German u
  • w [w] like engl. w
  • y [j] like German j
  • z [z] as in voiced German s in Reisen ; mute between vowels in most dialects
  • zh [z, h] in the KLT dialects [z], in Gwenedeg [h]

At the end of a word, b , d , g , j , z , zh are pronounced voiceless ( i.e. like p , t , k , ch , s ), unless the following word begins with a vowel. These assimilations across word boundaries ( Sandhi , see above) are essential in all Breton dialects, as they  mark phrase boundaries - similar to the German final hardening .

Example: hi zo bras [ i zo braː s ] (" she is big", emphasis on "she") versus bras eo [ braː z e ] ("he / she is big ", emphasis on "big")

Here the same word, namely “bras”, is spoken once with a voiced, once with a voiceless final.

See also



  • Ian Press: Breton. In: Martin J. Ball, Nicole Müller (Eds.): The Celtic Languages. 2nd Edition. Routledge, London a. a. 2009, ISBN 978-0-415-42279-6 , pp. 427-487.
  • Elmar Ternes (Ed.): Brythonic Celtic - Britannisches Keltisch: From medieval British to modern Breton . Hempen Verlag, Bremen 2011, ISBN 978-3-934106-80-2 .


  • Albert Deshayes: Dictionnaire étymologique du Breton . Le Chasse-Marée, Douarnenez 2003, ISBN 2-914208-25-1 .


  • Frañsez Kervella: Yezhadur bras ar brezhoneg. Emphasis. Al Liamm, Brest 1976.
  • Roparz Hemon: Breton Grammar. 2nd English-language edition. Evertype, Westport 2007, ISBN 978-1-904808-11-4 .
  • Francis Favereau: Grammaire du breton contemporain. = Yezhadur ar brezhoneg a-vremañ. Skol Vreizh, Morlaix 1997, ISBN 2-911447-12-3 .
  • Jouitteau, M. Grammaire du Breton . IKER, CNRS, [2009->].


  • Gérard Cornillet: Dictionary Breton - German, German - Breton (= Geriadur Brezhoneg - Alamaneg, Alamaneg - Brezhoneg. ) 3rd, completely revised and expanded edition. Buske, Hamburg 2006, ISBN 3-87548-398-7 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Bernhard Maier : The Celts. History, culture and language . Tübingen 2015, ISBN 978-3-8252-4354-8 , p. 78.
  2. Bernhard Maier: The Celts. History, culture and language . Tübingen 2015, ISBN 978-3-8252-4354-8 , p. 79.
  3. a b Bernhard Maier: The Celts. History, culture and language . Tübingen 2015, ISBN 978-3-8252-4354-8 , p. 106
  4. ^ Breton literature. In: Brockhaus literature. Mannheim 1988, Volume 1, p. 297 f.
  5. See also Moins de 200 000 personnes parlent le breton (French)
  6. Écoles associatives en langue bretonne, laïques et gratuites - Skolioù kevredigezhel e brezhoneg, laik ha digoust. l'association DIWAN, accessed on August 13, 2020 (French).
  7. a b According to Hemos 2007, Press 2009.