Bretons - Orientation

Identification. Brittany is the westernmost region (formerly called a province) of France comprising the four departments (large administrative units in France, roughly equivalent to U.S. states) of Côtes-du-Nord, Ille-et-Vilaine, Finistère, and Morbihan. The Breton population is predominantly of Celtic descent.

Location. Brittany is effectively a large peninsula, bounded on three sides by water: the English Channel to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the west and south. The peninsula is 160 kilometers wide at its eastern boundary and 90 kilometers wide at the west; it is 215 kilometers long and has 2,800 kilometers of coastline. Numerous islands are associated with the Breton mainland both historically and culturally: they are located on all three sides of the peninsula and contribute an additional 700 kilometers of coastline. Although transected by the 47th parallel (the same as Quebec in Canada), Brittany enjoys a relatively mild climate due to the Gulf Stream that courses around the peninsula. Winter is moderate with little or no snow or ice. Summer is cool, with temperatures ranging between 4.4 and 18° C. Rain falls throughout the year (on average 104 centimeters), and land and sea breezes are nearly always present. The peninsula is in general of low elevation, its highest point reaching only 384 meters in the Monts d'Arree in the northwest. Although low, the interior lands are not generally flat but consist of gently rolling slopes and small hills. Undulating cultivated fields enclosed by dense boundary-marking hedges ( bocages ) are typical of the landscapes offered in interior Brittany. Moorland ( landes ) is also extensive in the north-central and northwestern sectors. The coast is marked by numerous inlets and estuaries, rugged cliffs, and imposing outcroppings of rocks and crags along the northern and western sides; the south in general affords easier access to the ocean and to many fine beaches. Bretons have for generations expressed the contrast between the interior and the coast with the epithets armor, "the sea," and argoat, "the forest" (reflecting an age when the interior was heavily wooded).

Demography. Historically one of the most densely populated regions of France, Brittany has, through high losses in human life suffered during the two world wars and through emigration, dwindled from 6.5 percent (1.83 million) of the French population in 1801 to 4.98 percent (2.7 million) in 1982, and the population continues gradually to decrease. Bretons constitute a unique ethnolinguistic constellation within the territorial boundaries of France, but they are linked culturally and historically to the Celts of the British Isles (the Irish, Welsh, and Scots). Originally a farming and maritime population on the whole, Brittany has in the past twenty-five years lost more than half of its farming families and many of its fishing families to cities in Brittany or elsewhere in France (especially to Paris)—or, to a lesser extent, to other countries. The toll of emigration has been only partially offset in recent years by immigrant workers originating chiefly from Mediterranean countries.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Breton language belongs to the Brythonic Branch of the Celtic Family of languages. It is thus closely related to Cornish (now extinct) and to Welsh, and more distantly related to the Celtic languages in the Goidelic Branch—Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, and Manx. It is estimated that there are 500,000-600,000 speakers of Breton in Brittany; probably all Breton speakers nowadays also know French.

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