Language Politics: Banned Breton

May 12, 2012 by admin

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Whilst language companies such as Rosetta work to revive fading languages and keep live ones active certain governing authorities, like the French First Republic have gone to the extent of banning languages in order to promote national unity and pride. This autocratic campaign has left lasting damage.

I hadn’t come across the concept of a banned language until I stumbled upon the fate of Breton in North West France. Breton is a Celtic language, which has links to Welsh and Gaelic. Where the British have always been quite liberal in the circulation of relatively minor languages, the French took a stricter approach with regional languages, such as Breton from Brittany (“Little Britain”).

The French authorities banned Breton from schools between 1880 until as recently as the mid 20th century. The extent of this ban was such that children found speaking the language were punished with, according to some reports, manual labour, extra homework, corporal punishment and sometimes even organised mockery led by the headmaster!

In an effort to unite France after the French Revolution the French First Republic were not content with banning just Breton, but this obsession for unity and uniform spread across all the nonstandard languages of France, patois, such as Catalan, Occitan and Basque.  This drive came to fruition thanks to Abbé Grégoire, a Roman Catholic priest and revolutionary leader, in his Report on the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalise the use of the French language.

Coming from a language company that aims to keep languages alive and active I found this concept very difficult to digest. After assisting clients with the translation of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Sanskrit translation, it was almost unthinkable that other lingual fanatics were forcefully banning languages from circulation, but such is the reality of Breton.

In recent decades many French people have taken it upon themselves to revive these languages and have made good progress. However, as one of our French colleagues commented, the result is very artificial. There no longer exists the concept of a native speaker in these languages and teaching young children is only effective when they have friends and family with whom they can practice.

French lingual fanaticism is evident to this day thanks to the work of the Académie Française, the custodians of the French language. In the past French speakers have been asked to replace the word ‘Walkman’ with ‘baladeur’, ‘software’ with ‘logiciel’ and ’email’ with ‘courriel’ in an effort to keep out Franglais and uphold correct and proper French.

Whilst the work of the Académie is widely respected throughout France and indeed amongst linguists, it maintains the despotic edge of the French First Republic. It is simply impractical to believe that with technological advancements and cultural integration every language will remain stagnant. Keeping up with and indeed promoting language change is essential in our ever-evolving societies and although it is important for languages to be promoted they must be done in a way that does not cause the oppression of minority languages.

In an effort to unite its people the French have often made the mistake of oppressing less major parts of its country; whether this be banning languages or religious practices. In spite of the international outcry many of these actions have prompted, little effect seems to have been had on nationalist efforts. I fear that further pursuit of similar policies will cause further fractions in French society instead of desperately desired national unity.

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bryn says:

the "british" which you mean the English establishment....were not liberal towards other languages.

They crushed both Welsh and Gaelic with punishing policies like beating Welsh speakers in schools etc....and not allowing any Welsh or Scots Gaelic schools to exist.
Cornish was completely suffocated too

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