By Xavier Kreiss
My mother is a Guernseywoman, and I’ve known and loved Guernsey all my life. The Channel Islands have always held a particular attraction for me – I’m a half-British Frenchman, which probably explains the affinity between myself and those "pieces of France fallen into the sea and picked up by England", to quote the famous words of Victor Hugo, who spent many years in the archipelago as a political exile. He was fascinated by the local Norman-French dialect, or "djernesiais", an ancient vernacular that dates back to the days of the Norman conquest.
Step into my time machine for a highly unofficial bit of potted history:
The second millenium has yet to dawn, and the Normans are invading large areas of western Europe. In France, after years of fighting, the king strikes a deal with them : they can keep what they already have, while recognizing his authority: "keep Normandy as a duchy, but leave the rest alone"… The Normans settle down and start to speak French, albeit with a slight scandinavian "flavour".
In 1066, they invade England. The Norman duke William (the Conqueror) has himself crowned king. The Normans rule the roost, and start a period of linguistic change – the local inhabitants still speak a germanic dialect, but French becomes the language of the elite. The shift has left traces to this day: the "German" speaking English used to look after cattle and other farm animals, slaughter them, and prepare them for their lords and masters. They had their own names for these unfortunate beasts: oxen (German: Ochs) , calves ("Kalb"), pigs – or swine ("Schwein"), and sheep ("Schaf") . But once the meat was on the table, the Normans gave it their own – French – names: the ox became beef (French: "boeuf"), the swine mutated into pork (porc).
And the sheep became mutton (mouton).
But I digress…
In 1204, one of William’s descendants, King John (the Magna Carta bloke
) loses a war against Philippe Auguste, king of France, who grabs back the duchy of Normandy. John still has England, of course. And the Channel islands, which have been part of the duchy since 993, decide to stay loyal to the English crown. A grateful king rewards them by granting them a considerable degree of autonomy, later confirmed by royal charters. This state of affairs endures to this very day: the islands are self-governing, they are not part of the United Kingdom, and answer only to the Queen, regarded by some as the present-day "Duchess of Normandy".
The islanders, of course, spoke the same Norman-French dialect, or patois, as the rest of the Duchy. It was to prove much more durable in the archipelago than in the rest of the British isles, resisting "anglicization" for centuries. Today, however – and this is to be regretted – djernesiais, djerriais (the jersey version), and the local variants spoken in Alderney and Sark have practically disappeared.
The rot really set in during the 19 th century, and these patois were already on the decline in the 20th. Hitler was to accelerate the work of destruction.
In 1940, faced with the threat of invasion, thousands of islanders were evacuated to Great Britain. When they returned in 1945, many of the children had had a five-year "break" in their linguistic development.
Instead of learning the vernacular of their native islands, they had been subjected to "foreign" influences, and spoke English – often with local accents picked up in Kent, or Yorkshire…
English-speaking immigrants, and the dominant position of English-speaking media, finished the job. In the eighties, an elderly Guernseyman I was speaking to (in French!) told me he feared the total disappearance of his "language", which allowed him, for instance, to converse quite freely with the locals when he went to visit the area of Granville, in Normandy. It seems his fears may have been founded: in Guernsey, the number of true "natural" djernesiais speakers has dwindled to a few dozen ( out of a total population of over 60 000). According to a recent poll, djernesiais speakers are now about 2 % of the population. But this seems very optimistic. It all depends, of course, on how well you have to speak djernesiais to qualify as a "true" speaker.
The patois still survives, albeit barely. Many islanders understand a few words of it. Certain schools teach it, to try and keep it alive. The local media (such as BBC Radio Guernsey : ) lend a helping hand by offering courses.
There may be – just – enough life left in the dialects for these efforts to succeed. A few years ago, for instance, I was buying a newpaper in a kiosk in St Peter Port, tGuernsey’s "capital". The newsagent was a sociable fellow, and we chatted amicably for a few minutes in English. At one point, an elderly man passed by with a dog on a lead. He lifted his head and shouted to the newsagent: "Es-ti bian?" (see French: es-tu bien?) – to which my new friend answered "bian, et ti? "… Such exchanges may be rare, but they can still be heard from time to time. Far more fun to hear than: "Hi! How ya doin’?" .
So – is a "comback" possible ? Wait and see. In the meantime, visitors to the Channel islands can see the many vestiges of the Norman past and its language. In Guernsey, most place-names are still French: Bordeaux, Petit Port, la Route des Paysans, les Amarreurs … A house in St Sampsons (the "industrial" port of the island) even has a name that – many years ago – must have denoted proximity to the sea shore. A name that may have meant "the edge", or (in French) "le bord" (of the sea..). The house’ s name? "Le Bordel" – although I have no reason to doubt the moral standards of the occupants!
Surnames also bear witness to the Norman past: Le Cheminant, Le Page, Le Patourel, Duquemin (pronounced dook-min), Mauger (prononced Major) …
And nicknames: Guernseymen are proud to be called donkeys (they used to be : les ânes). Jerseymen, for their part, are known as "crapauds" (toads) – the reason, it seem, is that a number of these endearing little creatures are to be found in Jersey. Guernsey only has frogs…
But the area where the local patois – or at least, Norman French – is strongest today may be the legal field. Norman case-law is still in force, though it has undergone quite a few changes throughout the centuries. Channel islanders wishing to join the local bar have to study Norman law (droit coutumier normand) in Caen. And every islander is entitled to ask the protection of the Queen, if he asks in the right language. If an islander feels that his property rights are being infringed (if, for instance, his neighbour is bulding a wall or fence that encroaches on his own garden), he can call a few witnesses, fall to his kneees, and cry "Haro, haro, haro! A l’aide mon prince, on me fait tort" (help me, my prince, I am being wronged). Once the "clameur" – a direct appeal to the sovereign – has been "raised", all work (on the wall, for instance) must cease. And everyone goes to court.
The "tour" would not be complete without mentioning the literary legacy. Folk songs and nursery rhymes, of course, but also poems, such as those of the Guernsey bard Georges Métivier (1790-1881), author of "Rimes guernesiaises". He was a contemporary of Victor Hugo, who lived in his island, and wrote to him once to say : " Ce que Burns a été pour l’Écosse, vous l’êtes pour Guernesey" (you are to Guernsey what Burns once was to Scotland).
Lastly: the Web. It would have been surprising if no-one had devoted pages to these local languages. And sure enough, they are to be found in a few nooks and crannies of the vast global network. Interested? Then why not start with the Guernsey patois?
You’ll find it here:èrnésiais
and here:
The jersey patois, or Jèrriais, can be found here
BBC Radio Guernsey, as we have seen, offers courses in djernesiiais (see the url quoted above).
And anyone wishing to raise the Clameur de Haro will find detailed instructions here:
Happy surfing! And, as they still say in the islands: " à la perchoïne"!