Posted by: Staff | 11.19.2009

Diwan, Ikastola, Calandreta: Minority Languages in France


2008 marked the 30th anniversary of the organization Diwan, a federation of Breton-language schools in Brittany, the northwestern tip of France. What is Breton? I hear you ask. I thought they spoke French in France. Therein lies the problem.

Breton is a Celtic language, closely related to Welsh and Cornish and more distantly to Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. It is spoken by an estimated 200,000 people in and around Brittany, making it somewhere around the 290th-300th most spoken language in the world. With about 6,000 languages spoken around the world, that actually seems to put it fairly high up, until you realize that the 200,000 figure is very approximate. The 2001 French census showed about 270,000 speakers with an average yearly decline of 10,000 speakers. If that trend continues, Breton will be extinct by 2030. The end of a thousand-year-old cultural and linguistic tradition, a mere twenty years from now, unnoticed by the world and largely unmourned outside of Brittany.

This decline is sudden (in the 1950s, more than a million people in Brittany spoke Breton), but hardly surprising — minority languages, the Celtic languages in particular, have been dying out for as long as language has existed. Only two of the modern Celtic languages, Welsh and Irish, are in a position that could be described as “surviving”. Scottish Gaelic and Breton are in slow decline. The chains of speakers for both Manx and Cornish are broken, which is to say that the languages have both technically died and subsequently experienced revival movements. But the decline of Breton is noteworthy in particular because Breton is not the only language of France to be in this situation. According to a UNESCO survey of minority languages worldwide, there are 26 languages in metropolitan France that are in some danger (with statuses ranging from “vulnerable” to “seriously endangered”). The only European country (excluding Russia) with more than that is Italy, with thirty-one. A French government survey in 1999 found 75 endangered minority languages. Why is language extinction such an issue in France?

There are two main issues here, one cultural, one political. The cultural issue is in many ways the larger of the two. Five years fter the French Revolution, in 1794, Henri Grégoire, a revolutionary leader, presented his Report on the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalize the use of the French language, in which he argued that the use of such “degenerate languages” as Corsican and Alsatian threatened the unity of the country, and that they should be eliminated in favor of the language of the capital. French was subsequently made the sole language of education with the explicit goal of eradicating minority languages. Similar policies were adopted in many other countries. Corporal punishment of speakers of Irish was common in Ireland before independence, and similar tactics were used to attempt to stamp out Catalan, Basque, and Spain’s other minority languages during Franco’s reign from 1939 to 1975. This policy continued in France officially until the 1950s. In 1964, for the first time, a minute and a half of Breton programming was allowed daily on regional television and radio stations.

Note the word “patois”. Literally, it means “dialect”, but when discussing the regional minority languages of France, “patois” takes on a pejorative meaning. A speaker of “patois” is uneducated, a “country folk”, as it were. Modern linguistics classifies many of the so-called “patois” as independent languages, but the term has stuck, as has the stigma. Occitan, another of France’s minority languages, has a special word for the stigma associated with speaking it: “La vergonha”, literally “the shame”. Breton sociologist Fañch Elegoët did a study of Breton speakers during the 1960s and ’70s and found that Bretons viewed their language as “a peasant patois, unable to insure communication even with the neighbouring village, even more incapable of expressing the modern world… A language only good enough to talk to cows and pigs”. Such is the stigma associated with minority languages.

The status of minority languages remains a taboo subject in French politics. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, a Council of Europe treaty calling on the member states to protect their minority languages, has consistently been rejected by French politicians as being too dangerous to the Republic. French President Nicholas Sarkozy said in an election speech in 2007 that “I am convinced that in France, the land of the free, no minority is discriminated against and consequently it is not necessary to grant European judges the right to give their opinion on a matter that is consubstantial with our national identity”. Does that not seem a bit of a hollow argument? “There is no discrimination, so we don’t need a system to deal with discrimination”. (In fairness, not all French politicians have rejected minority languages. François Mittérand in 1981 called for minority languages to be granted some official status. Ségolène Royal, Sarkozy’s rival in the 2007 elections, claimed she would support signing the charter. Neither of these statements accomplished anything, however. Mittérand’s declaration was followed by no government action, and Royal lost the election.)

This brings us neatly to the political side of the debate. Even if French politicians were in favor of the Charter, the Constitutional Council of France, the highest authority on the French constitution, would still have to address it. In 1992, the French constitution was explicitly amended to state that French is the only official language of the Republic. This, combined with continued restrictions on the use of minority languages in education — all publicly-funded schools are required to teach in French, and French alone — has been a much larger obstacle. In 1999, when the issue of the Charter first came up, the Constitutional Council ruled that ratifying the charter would be unconstitutional because it would give some official recognition to languages other than French. Ironic, considering that this is one of the founding member states of an organization with the motto “United in diversity”, namely the European Union.

Which brings us to the Diwan schools. In 1977, frustrated by the lack of government support and inspired by the success of Welsh-medium education in Wales and the Gaelscoileanna in Ireland, parents in Lampaul-Ploudalmézeau founded a Breton-language nursery school, followed by higher level schools as the student body aged. The schools have seen moderate success — enough to last thirty years, at least — but not enough to revitalize the language community.

The problem is twofold. First, because of the aforementioned language policies, the Diwan schools cannot receive any government funding, despite repeated calls on the French government to recognize the schools and assist them. This past October, between 12,000 and 20,000 demonstrators marched in the city of Carcassonne in southern France in protest against the French government’s language policies and to call for recognition of minority languages, specifically Basque and Occitan. Like the Breton-speaking community, Basque- and Occitan-speakers have independently set up Basque and Occitan schools, the Ikastolak and Calandretas. None of these minority languages has received any support from the government. Lack of funding feeds into and accentuates the second problem: there are currently around 3,200 students in Diwan schools. The population of Brittany is over four million. No matter how hard the Diwan schools work, without sufficient funding and government support, they cannot gain the coverage that is needed if Breton is to make the kind of recovery that Welsh has made, or even stave off death to the degree that Irish has done.

Minority languages may not be on many people’s radar in the United States (although they should be — minority languages in the US, from Cajun French to Navajo to Pennsylvania “Dutch”, actually a German dialect, to Cherokee, are in just as much danger as minority languages abroad), mostly because the majority of us are part of the English-speaking majority, to people who grow up speaking them, they are part of an important cultural heritage. Furthermore, they are part of the cultural heritage of this country. If the Navajo language died, the United States would lose an important part of its national heritage. When language is as strongly linked to culture as it is in many minority groups, language death is cultural death.

Why bring this up now? you ask. One very important reason. The latest of the European Union’s sweeping reforms, the Treaty of Lisbon, which includes the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, becomes binding European law on 1 December. Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights initially seems to be a fairly straightforward non-discrimination clause, until you notice that “language” is included as one of the things that cannot be discriminated against. I, for one, will be watching to see what groups like the Diwan schools, the Calandretas, and the Ikastolak will do when this comes into effect in two weeks. Get ready, France.



  1. […] France it seems there are. This blog post on France’s minority languages tells me: When discussing the regional minority languages of […]

  2. I have studied this article for a newspaper article in Events (Stornoway, Outer Hebrides, Scotland) about the sloppiness of signposting in Gaelic.
    Being a French learner of Gaelic, I needed some strong pieces of information to express taboos and inferiority complexes in order to fluff up the report on the conference.
    Tapadh leibh “et vive la difference !”
    PS : is it article 21 or 22 ?

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