History and status
Breton is spoken in 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 Old Breton vocabulary remains in the present day as philosophical and scientific terms in Modern 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 can speak Breton, a dramatic decline from more than a 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.