Breton was brought from Great Britain to Armorica (the ancient name for the coastal region that includes the Brittany peninsula) by migrating Britons during the Early Middle Ages, making it an Insular Celtic language. Breton is most closely related to Cornish, another Southwestern Brittonic language. Welsh and the extinct Cumbric, both Western Brittonic languages, are more distantly related.
The other regional language of Brittany, Gallo, is a Romance language descended from Latin (not to be confused with Gaulish, a Celtic language). As a langue d'oïl, Gallo is a close relative of standard French. Neither Gallo nor Breton are nationally recognized by the French state.
Having declined from more than 1 million speakers around 1950 to about 200,000 in the first decade of the 21st century, Breton is classified as "severely endangered" by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. However, the number of children attending bilingual classes has risen 33% between 2006 and 2012 to 14,709.
Breton is spoken in Lower Brittany (Breton: Breizh-Izel), roughly to the west of a line linking Plouha (west of Saint-Brieuc) and La Roche-Bernard (east of Vannes). It comes from a Brittonic language community that once extended from Great Britain to Armorica (present-day Brittany) and had even established a toehold in Galicia (in present-day Spain). Old Breton is attested from the 9th century. It was the language of the upper classes until the 12th century, after which it became the language of commoners in Lower Brittany. The nobility, followed by the bourgeoisie, adopted French. The written language of the Duchy of Brittany was Latin, switching to French in the 15th century. There exists a limited tradition of Breton literature. Some philosophical and scientific terms in Modern Breton come from Old Breton. The recognized stages of the Breton language are: Old Breton - c.800 to c.1100, Middle Breton - c.1100 to c.1650, Modern Breton - c.1650 to present.
The French monarchy was not concerned with the minority languages of France, spoken by the lower classes, and required the use of French for government business as part of its policy of national unity. During the French Revolution, the government introduced policies favouring French over the regional languages, which it pejoratively referred to as patois. The revolutionaries assumed that reactionary and monarchist forces preferred regional languages to try to keep the peasant masses underinformed. In 1794, Bertrand Barère submitted his "report on the patois" to the Committee of Public Safety in which he said that "federalism and superstition speak Breton".
Since the 19th century, under the Third, Fourth and Fifth Republics, the government has attempted to stamp out minority languages, including Breton, in state schools, in an effort to build a national culture. Teachers humiliated students for using their regional languages, and such practices prevailed until the late 1960s.
In the early 21st century, due to the political centralization of France, the influence of the media, and the increasing mobility of people, only about 200,000 people are active speakers of Breton, a dramatic decline from more than 1 million in 1950. The majority of today's speakers are more than 60 years old, and Breton is now classified as an endangered language.
At the beginning of the 20th century, half of the population of Lower Brittany knew only Breton; the other half were bilingual. By 1950, there were only 100,000 monolingual Bretons, and this rapid decline has continued, with likely no monolingual speakers left today. A statistical survey in 1997 found around 300,000 speakers in Lower Brittany, of whom about 190,000 were aged 60 or older. Few 15- to 19-year-olds spoke Breton. In 1993, parents were finally legally allowed to give their children Breton names.
In 1925, Professor Roparz Hemon founded the Breton-language review Gwalarn. During its 19-year run, Gwalarn tried to raise the language to the level of a great international language. Its publication encouraged the creation of original literature in all genres, and proposed Breton translations of internationally recognized foreign works. In 1946, Al Liamm replaced Gwalarn. Other Breton-language periodicals have been published, which established a fairly large body of literature for a minority language.
In 1977, Diwan schools were founded to teach Breton by immersion. Since their establishment, Diwan schools have provided fully immersive primary school and partially immersive secondary school instruction in Breton for thousands of students across Brittany. This has directly contributed to the growing numbers of school-age speakers of Breton. See the education section for more information.
The Asterix comic series has been translated into Breton. According to the comic, the Gaulish village where Asterix lives is in the Armorica peninsula, which is now Brittany. Some other popular comics have also been translated into Breton, including The Adventures of Tintin, Spirou, Titeuf, Hägar the Horrible, Peanuts and Yakari.
Some original media are created in Breton. The sitcom, Ken Tuch, is in Breton. Radio Kerne, broadcasting from Finistère, has exclusively Breton programming. Some movies (Lancelot du Lac, Shakespeare in Love, Marion du Faouet, Sezneg) and TV series (Columbo, Perry Mason) have also been translated and broadcast in Breton. Poets, singers, linguists, and writers who have written in Breton, including Yann-Ber Kalloc'h, Roparz Hemon, Anjela Duval, Xavier de Langlais, Pêr-Jakez Helias, Youenn Gwernig, Glenmor, Vefa de Saint-Pierre and Alan Stivell are now known internationally.
Today, Breton is the only living Celtic language that is not recognized by a national government as an official or regional language.
The first Breton dictionary, the Catholicon, was also the first French dictionary. Edited by Jehan Lagadec in 1464, it was a trilingual work containing Breton, French and Latin. Today bilingual dictionaries have been published for Breton and languages including English, Dutch, German, Spanish and Welsh. A new generation[clarification needed] is determined to gain international recognition for Breton. The monolingual dictionary, Geriadur Brezhoneg an Here (1995), defines Breton words in Breton. The first edition contained about 10,000 words, and the second edition of 2001 contains 20,000 words.
In the early 21st century, the Ofis ar Brezhoneg ("Office of the Breton language") began a campaign to encourage daily use of Breton in the region by both businesses and local communes. Efforts include installing bilingual signs and posters for regional events, as well as encouraging the use of the Spilhennig to let speakers identify each other. The office also started an Internationalization and localization policy asking Google, Firefox and SPIP to develop their interfaces in Breton. In 2004, the Breton Wikipedia started, which now counts more than 65,000 articles. In March 2007, the Ofis ar Brezhoneg signed a tripartite agreement with Regional Council of Brittany and Microsoft for the consideration of the Breton language in Microsoft products. In October 2014, Facebook added Breton as one of its 121 languages after three years of talks between the Ofis and Facebook.
Breton is spoken mainly in Lower Brittany, but also in a more dispersed way in Upper Brittany (where Gallo is spoken alongside Breton and French), and in areas around the world that have Breton emigrants.
The four traditional dialects of Breton correspond to medieval bishoprics rather than to linguistic divisions. They are leoneg (léonard, of the county of Léon), tregerieg (trégorrois, of Trégor), kerneveg (cornouaillais, of Cornouaille), and gwenedeg (vannetais, of Vannes). Guérandais was spoken up to the beginning of the 20th century in the region of Guérande and Batz-sur-Mer. There are no clear boundaries between the dialects because they form a dialect continuum, varying only slightly from one village to the next. Gwenedeg, however, requires a little study to be intelligible with most of the other dialects.