Starting around the 3rd century CE, settlers from the island of Britain began establishing themselves on the Armorican peninsula of Gaul. When the English began occupying Britain in the 5th century, larger numbers of refugees crossed the Channel, most of them from the territory of the Dumnonii (which would later become Cornwall and Devon). Before long the political influence of the immigrants had become so dominant that the region came to be known as _Brettia_ (the name which later evolved into _Breizh_), "the Land of the Britons". This was the origin of the historical nation of Brittany.


There has long been some controversy over whether the language of Brittany -- Brezhoneg -- is descended primarily from the speech of the British immigrants or from that of the Armorican natives. Much speculation has attached itself in particular to the southeastern Gwenedeg dialect, which differs markedly from the other dialects in pronunciation, and to a lesser extent in vocabulary. It has been suggested that Gwenedeg, at least, is descended from Gaulish, whence its peculiarities. Today most scholars agree that the sources of Breton are overwhelmingly British, and that the divergent vocabulary of Gwenedeg is due to its origins in a community of immigrants who came from South Wales rather than from Dumnonia, with its odd pronunciation resulting from a greater influence of the speech-patterns of the native Gallo-Roman population than was the case elsewhere. There remains some discussion, however, about the precise amount of influence Gaulish had on the development of Brezhoneg.


Old Breton (Henvrezhoneg) is attested from early glosses in Latin church manuscripts. Although it was coveted by both France and England, Brittany maintained its independence as a sovereign duchy throughout the Middle Ages. It evidently had a flourishing literary tradition, and it was mostly through Breton channels that the Arthurian legends found their way into the non-Celtic literatures of Europe. Some of this material at least must have been given written form in Brittany itself. Marie de France's _Lais_, written in Norman French but openly based on existing Breton models, give us an idea of at least some of the _content_ of the Breton literature of her time. Unfortunately, no original Breton manuscripts have survived from that period.


Breton texts begin to appear with greater frequency from the 15th century on. The stage of the language here is Middle Breton (Krennvrezhoneg), which lasts until the mid-17th century. Much of the material consists of religious theatre, as well as glossaries and instructional texts.


The military defeat of Brittany by France in 1488, followed by a union of crowns and finally by formal annexation in 1536, led to a decline in the prestige of the Breton language, and to its disappearance from all official contexts. However, even though the educated elite abandoned Breton for French, the vast majority of the rural population remained monoglot Breton-speakers until the mid-20th century. These communities continued to transmit an extremely rich folk tradition with ancient roots.


After the 17th century Brezhoneg becomes Modern Breton, in fact a group of distinct dialects. When it was written at all during the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was in an _ad hoc_ orthography inspired by French phonetics, reflecting the idiosyncrasies of the particular dialect being used. Most of the material was, as it had been during the previous centuries, religious and inspirational in content. The _Buhez ar Sent_ (Lives of the Saints), first published in 1752 in the dialect of Bro-Leon and later updated and translated into other dialects, became a mainstay of pious Breton families who made reading it together into a ritual, and it sustained Breton literacy for generations in some traditional communities.


Although Brittany lost its last vestige of political autonomy when the Breton Parliament was abolished in 1788, the sense of Breton national identity remained strong, especially among educated Breton expatriates in Paris. One of them, Jean-Fran ois Le Gonidec, worked assiduously until his death in 1838 at compiling dictionaries of the Breton language, proposing a new spelling system better suited to its native phonetic structure. This has remained the basis for all later orthographic usage in Breton. One of Le Gonidec's colleagues, Philippe Hersart de la VillemarquŽ (Kervarker), produced what he called the _Barzaz-Breiz_ (Bardic Lore of Brittany), which he claimed to be a compilation of oral folk ballads he had collected in the field, reflecting the entire history of Brittany from the days of the Druids to the time of the French Revolution. How much of it really did have a traditional basis and how much was purely his own invention is a matter that has never been settled, but at the time, with its evocation of exotic ancient lore, it appealed powerfully to the romantic imagination of his contemporaries and gained new adherents to the cause of the Breton language; it can be said to be the first work of modern Breton literature. It also inspired the work of Fran ois Luzel (Fa–ch an Uhel), who collected and published the rich oral folklore of the Breton countryside, in an effort equivalent to Alexander Carmichael's and J.F. Campbell's work in Scotland.


The Breton revival in the second half of the 19th century is called the First Emsav (Rising). Because Breton communities often felt that they were defending their local (often religious) traditions against the intrusive, secularizing and centralizing influence of the French State, this stage of the revival often had a conservative Catholic flavor, and numbered many clerics among its leaders. The first major Breton novelist, Lan Inizan, linked Breton identity to revolt against the "atheist" French establishment. Other important figures of the First Emsav are the    powerfully gifted poet Yann-Ber Kalloc'h, who died in World War I, and Tangi Malmanche, whose verse-plays bridged the gap between traditional Breton religious theatre and the modern stage.


The period between the two world wars was one of ebullient activity and innovation in the Breton revival. This is referred to as the Second Emsav. It was dominated by the influence of the cultural periodical _Gwalarn_ and of its editor, Roparz Hemon, an amazingly prolific writer who used Breton in every conceivable literary genre. He sought to turn his back on the conservative bias of the First Emsav and to open Breton culture to an awareness of international modern trends, and especially to what was happening in other Celtic countries. The Second Emsav was also linked to the greater political militancy of new nationalist movements like Breiz Atao. Other important writers of this period include Jakez Riou, author of several popular plays and of the exquisite short stories collected as _Geotenn ar Werc'hez_ (The Virgin's Grass); the novelist Youenn Drezenn; the poets Aberhel and Maodez Glanndour (whose influence would extend to the post-World War II era); the artist and fantasist Langleiz (Xavier de Langlais); and many others.


World War II proved disastrous for the Breton movement. On the pretext that a handful of Breton nationalists had chosen to collaborate with the Germans against French authorities, at the close of the war the French government embarked on a campaign of vicious persecution of all things relating to Breton identity. The psychological effect this had was to make Breton-speakers ashamed of their own culture and reluctant to pass their language on to their children, exactly as had happened with Irish-speakers a century before.


In spite of all that, by the '50's a Third Emsav was under way. It began with the launching of the periodical _Al Liamm_ (The Link), which became a kind of successor to _Gwalarn_, and is still being published. The rediscovery of Breton folk music as a medium of community celebration and social commentary also played a major role. The great upheaval that France went through in 1968 enabled the Breton movement (and other minority cultural movements) to tap the general anti-authoritarian mood of the day in order to gain more visibility. Today, despite some hopeful developments (notably the creation of Diwan, a separate school system that teaches through the medium of Brezhoneg), the future of the language remains precarious, as the French political establishment is strongly opposed to its survival. The most dangerous threat to regional cultures at present is the amended Article 2 of the French Constitution, which states that French is the only official language of the Republic and that French is to be the sole medium of education (although this measure was introduced with the intention of defending French against English, it is being used as a weapon against regional languages). Campaigns to eliminate this wording in the Constitution are thus of crucial importance.


Despite the continued opposition from official circles, attitudes towards Breton in Brittany are more positive now than they have been in a long time. There are quite a few Breton-language periodicals, reflecting a variety of cultural and political positions. Some commercial establishments are making an effort to promote the language. There are too many writers active in the Third Emsav for us to give a comprehensive list of them here, but one should mention the novelist Per Denez; the poet Youenn Gwernig and the poet and essayist Reun ar C'halan, both of whom owe something of their internationalist perspective to the many years they spent in the U.S.; and the prose writer Yann Gerven, whose stories are enlivened by a truly outrageous inventiveness, lots of humour, and a language rich with colloquial idioms.

There are four main dialects of spoken Brezhoneg today: those of Kerne, Leon, Treger, and Gwened. The first three have much in common and are often referred together by the acronym KLT; whereas Gwenedeg, as mentioned earlier, is very different -- so much so that for centuries it was impossible to use the same spelling system for Gwenedeg as for the other dialects. The problem was solved during the Second Emsav through the creation of what has been variously called _zedacheg_, the 'ZH' spelling, or the "University" spelling. Since one of the main differences setting Gwenedeg apart is that it has an 'h' sound in many words that have a z' sound in KLT, the solution was to represent that sound as 'zh' (the native name of Brittany, for example, is pronounced 'Breiz' in KLT and 'Breih' in Gwenedeg -- but both pronunciations can be represented by the spelling _Breizh_). Although alternative spelling systems still exist -- the publisher _Brud Nevez_ continues to use an older orthography suited to the Leon dialect, and some Gwenedeg writers prefer spellings more closely wedded to their own speech -- the "University" spelling is now the one overwhelmingly favored by Breton-users.