Origins of the Gallo Language / Dialectology / The Decadence of the Gallo Language / The Place of the Gallo Language Today
Gallo, the Autochtonous Language of Eastern Brittany
Brittany has two autochtonous languages: Gallo and Breton. While the Breton language is spoken in western Brittany and belongs to the family of Celtic languages, the Gallo language is spoken in eastern Brittany and belongs to the family of Romance languages.
The Gallo language is closely related to French and to other regional languages spoken in northern France and Belgium, such us Picard, Norman, Angevin, Poitevin or Wallon. All these languages are called Oïl languages in linguistics, and they all were born out of the Latin language spoken in Roman Gaul.
Origins of the Gallo Language
Latin began to be spoken in the Armorican peninsula after the Roman occupation of western Gaul in the 1st century BC. Latin first interacted with the local Celtic-Gaulish language and by the 8th century AD started to evolve away from Latin towards the modern Gallo language we know today.
Mass arrivals of Breton immigrants during the early Middle Ages turned western Brittany into a Breton-speaking territory. However, Gallo was always Brittany's most spoken language as it was the native tongue of the eastern half of the Breton peninsula, including the Duchy's main population centres and the capital cities of Nantes and Rennes. Documents from the times of the Duchy of Brittany also show that Gallo was widely known and used in Breton-speaking Brittany.
As a Romance language, the vocabulary and syntax of Gallo derives from Latin. Anecdotically, Gallo has also conserved a few words from its ancient Gaulish language mix and has borrowed a number of Frankish and Scandinavian Germanic words from old French and Norman. Many of those words can often be found in other related Oïl languages as well. Despite the geographical proximity of Gallo and Breton, there has not been significant linguistic interaction between those two languages. Although a limited number of Breton words have filtered through into the western Gallo dialects, most of the borrowings have been made from Gallo into Breton.
The romance language of Brittany is spoken on the eastern half of the country. The Gallo/Breton linguistic boundary runs from north to south, roughly tracing a line between the villages of Plouha, Chatelaudren, Corlay, Locminé and the Rhuys peninsula.
Like every other language, Gallo also has different dialectical areas. These are mainly structured west-east along the line Lamballe-La Roche-Bernard, north-south of the Vannetais region, and around the cities of Nantes and Rennes.
The Decadence of the Gallo Language
Following the Treaty of Union of Brittany and France in 1532 AD Brittany lost its independence and became a province of the Kingdom of France. Seven years later, in 1539, the Villers-Cotterêts Decree imposed French as the only official language in France. Gallo was replaced by French as the language of record and the courts, leading progressively to a situation of diglossia where French became language of the dominant minority and Gallo and Breton remained the unofficial languages of the majority.
It has been estimated that, before compulsory education was introduced in France in the 19th century, French was a foreign language for the majority of the people living in France, being spoken by only 14 million people out of a total population of 39 million. During this time the regional languages spoken in France were called Patois, a derogatory word meaning 'provincial dialect'.
French became widely spoken in France after the First World War. Today, the Oïl languages other than French (Gallo, Norman, etc.) are only spoken in the countryside by the oldest generations. Those languages are still considered as a 'incorrect dialect of French' by many people in France.
The Place of the Gallo Language Today
In 1976 a group of Gallo language enthusiasts founded the Association des Amis du Parler Gallo, later on Bertaèyn Galeizz, with the aims of studying and cultivating the language, as well achieving official recognition for it.
Historically, the French governments have always had a belligerent attitude towards other languages than French being spoken in France. Yet today, neither Gallo nor Breton enjoy official status in Brittany. France remains the last country in Europe which has not ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the EU's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Therefore, since neither Gallo nor Breton do officially exist in Brittany, there are no census or statistics regarding their remaining number of speakers.
It is obvious, however, that the current situation of the Gallo language is comparatively worse than its Brythonic neighbour. While Breton has already achieved important international publicity outside of France and enjoys some unofficial recognition within the Breton society, the Gallo language is still often being considered as a patois or badly spoken French by many.
Thanks to the hard work of many Gallo language enthusiasts and associations several colleges in eastern Brittany are now teaching Gallo to the young generations. It is also possible to study Gallo at the option Langue et Littérature de Haute-Bretagne tought at the University of Rennes II.
Jean-Luc Lefebvre, February 2005