Frank Le Maistre's Jersey Language Dictionary
There is a happy coincidence today in the appearance of a complete dictionary of the Jersey language on the 900th anniversary of the great event of 1066 that was destined to alter, in a fundamental way, the course of our Island history. An unbroken 900 years' association with England might be thought to be an occasion worthy of some kind of official celebration on Jersey's part other than the Bal Normand, especially in view of the celebrations organized on both sides of the English Channel and the peculiar historical position held by the Channel Islands. Lack of local enthusiasm, in spite of the efforts of the Constable of St. Helier, and perhaps a lack of imagination, have denied Jersey any public celebrations of its own.
Fortunately, however, a few non-official bodies have, to some extent, made good the deficiency. In response to an invitation from the city of Rouen, sent through the States Tourism Committee, L'Assembliée d'Jèrriais and The Band of the Island of Jersey each sent a contingent to join in the celebrations there and Jersey archers have shot against their Norman counterparts. Now the Don Balleine Trust, with the help of a grant from the States, today publishes this notable work by a Jerseyman, Frank Le Maistre. Let it be our consolation that this handsomely-produced volume of 652 pages will remain a memorial long after any fleeting form of celebration would have been forgotten.
We still cherish much of feudal and Norman inheritance. One practical reason why we do so is that down the years many of these ancient customs and institutions have been adapted to serve our modern needs in an acceptable and often distinctive way. Property rights, inheritance laws and ideas of freedom are remarkably resistant to alteration and so long as suitable modifications are made to cope with marked changes in circumstances, we may expect to continue to enjoy our peculiar laws and customs for a long time to come. Alas, it cannot be said that our native language, as an ordinary means of day-to-day communication, will share in that survival. Its use has sadly declined since the First World War and with fewer and fewer children now able to speak it, it is bound to become a rarity. Indifference, intellectual laziness and snobbishness have had much to do with the declining use of the language. Yet it was almost inevitable that under the pressures of modern trends it would have to yield to the attractions and appeal of the English language, with its manifold attributes that destine it to become accepted as the lingua franca of the world, President de Gaulle notwithstanding.
This, however, is looking at the matter from a utilitarian point of view, which was almost bound to predominate in the past in face of the relatively limited cultural life in Jersey. We may hope, however, that our rising standards of education and awareness, and the resulting deepening of interests, will lead to a fuller appreciation of the distinctiveness of Jersey as a community. We may then hope for an awakened interest in our language, which is surely one of the Island's most distinguishing marks. A living language is the product of centuries and a most precious heritage, offering an inherent fascination and a wide-ranging mental stimulus. There now exists in this new book the basic material for student and dilettante, for the Jersey folk whose progenitors have failed to pass on to them the torch of their own native tongue, and for the settled and the new English residents who would identify themselves more closely with their adopted home.
This hope for such an awakening of interest is not, however, without its own utilitarian aspect. For, when Jersey, as a community, ceases to have any major distinguishing characteristics, its cherished right to its own separate existence may, too, disappear.
For those who have an working knowledge of the French language - and it is conceded that this kind of book could not have been rendered other than in French - Frank Le Maistre's dictionary now makes it possible to appreciate to the full extent the richness and the curiosities of the language. a graduated textbook for the student is still needed and no doubt this will be forthcoming in due course. What we now have is a complete record of the language that can serve as the sure foundation for all other studies. earlier records have been less comprehensive and less steeped in the lore of the Island. Mr. Le Maistre brings a unique combination of experience, opportunities and personal attributes that admirably fitted him for the task he has just completed, and it was recognition of this some ten years ago by the Don Balleine Trust that set the path for today's publication. Happily, the request to the States for a grant towards the high cost of printing did not fall on deaf ears and the minds of members were not unresponsive to the broader implications of making the book available to the world at large. It is believed it will find a place in every university where philology is studied and will carry an accurate knowledge of this facet of our life where there was little of none before.
The champions of the Jersey language are not alone in their desire to preserve, and to promote the use of, their native tongue. The Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, and now the Cornish seek to do so too, though sometimes by radical methods and a degree of zeal which to an outsider may seem excessive. The Bretons, the Flemings and scores of communities in Europe are engaged in resisting the encroachments of a centralist state that, if not opposing, invariably disinterests itself in the preservation of regional dialects.
Mr. Frank Le Maistre may well be looked upon as the Mistral of Jersey. His work, like that of Mistral, will, it is hoped, give rise to an outbreak of fresh interest in our language. May many now feel it incumbent upon them the speak and foster the language, may the use of old Jersey names for roads be extended, may Jersey names be given to properties now bearing mundane English names (for this the new Dictionary is a wonderful quarry), and may the high and the lowly take pride and pleasure in using the venerable words and sounds that have echoed down the centuries not only in this Island but wherever Jerseymen have roamed. In doing these things they will be enriching their mental experience. They will be helping to foster Jersey's distinctiveness.
The enjoyment of the language
The untutored mind, largely oblivious to the complexity of human affairs and human behaviour, is satisfied with a very limited vocabulary. It only needs relatively few words because it sees things with but few qualifications and without perceiving their relationship to other things or to their environment. With few mental reactions to day-t-day experience, one can make do with only a few verbs to express elementary activity and movements, and with a very few adjectives and adverbs, of which a proportion have thoughtless religious or sexual connotation. The subtleties of thought and language are, at that level of living, meaningless.
It is through perceptive and reflective minds that language evolves - minds that sense the implications of existence and of relationships and, through the imagination, apprehend the comic, the sad, and many other abstractions. Thus the analogies and the metaphors are born, and the apt allusions created. And so it is that the study of languages, perceiving all these subtle distinctions, affords an unequalled widening of horizons and of understanding of the people whose language is studied. Given the intense and self-conscious community life such as Jersey has always enjoyed, one would expect a fertile language with a steady addition of words and expressions. Indeed, with the Island's life continually revivified and flavoured by immigrants, by returning travellers, by fluctuations of religious zeal and by changes in the dominant occupations, there has existed almost hothouse conditions for grafting new ideas on to old stocks, for inducing new strains into the language and for adaptation of old terms to new uses. Much of the Island's history lies embedded in its language.
Words can be likened to furniture: what survives from a distant past - often by accident - becomes treasured, whether for its rarity or inherent beauty, while the newcomers are accepted for their utility, ingenuity, or aptness but have no guarantee of longevity. Much of language comes from the heart and people enjoy words for as many reasons as they enjoy or dislike pictures or other things. Words are, however, in a category of their own in that everybody uses words; everybody can be a judge of them and contribute to their death or survival.
Synonyms and epithets
The sheer size of the dictionary is at first sight surprising. The author, however, claims that, in some respects, the Jersey language exceeds the precision of French and may rival the versatility of English. That it is rich in synonyms and epithets is not in doubt. It would appear that for calling a man a scallywag there are at least 15 Jersey words and just as many for calling him a chump. For a slap in the face there are a score.
The treatment of the word herbe and associated terms takes a full page and well illustrates the author's versatility. It gives the English and/or Latin name for each local variety and, among other things, recalls that formerly each homestead would have had its patch of medicinal herbs destined to cure most human and animal ailments, cultivated in groups of nine different kinds, this number, like three and seven, having occult and mystical attributes. The entry tchilieuvre (grass snake) tells us that this word (Fr.=couleuvre) is unknown in the other Channel islands where this inoffensive reptile does not exist, and it cites a local saying "les tchilieuvres mangent les crapauds". This word illustrates that curious local use of "tch" in place of the hard "c", which also appears in that veritable tongue-twister word tchuithe (Fr.=cuire). This also incorporated a characteristic final "the", producing a commonplace word that has no vocal parallel in French or English. Tchulyi (Fr.=cuillère) and Ouothelle (Fr.=oreille) are other instances of peculiar local pronunciation. There is also the curiosity ouaisé (Fr.=oiseau) in the east of the Island but ouaithé in the west. The word deux and others with the same ending are pronounced in several different ways.
These many differences in pronunciation and expression in various parts of the Island have been carefully recorded and add to the fascination of the text. A nice clean farm pig is couochon in one part of the island and quétot in another part, but the terms are reversed when used vulgarly. We are reminded that Jersey sînm'né eaten at Easter has become peculiar to the Island (why is it so different from the English Easter simnel cake?), and it is suggested that sîtchête (caraway seed cake) may have been invented out of disdain for English. (In passing, why is it that the Guernsey gâche but not mèrvelle (Jersey wonder) has so far resisted anglicization?)
Expressions peculiar to the Island are often onomatopoetic: achie for a shower of rain, ouasser for the barking of a dog, houichebat for the now abandoned custom of hedge-beating at night for starlings, thrushes, etc., pataflias for a noisy thump, achouêmi meaning to smother or suppress forcefully, bataclian for noisy paraphernalia, but clyînclias for the clatter of pots and pans, vioûler for the mewing of a gull or the mewling of a child, and bobbe or chuchette in the east and west respectively, for the sound emitted by cockles as the tide recedes.
Like every other living language Jersey's is full of words borrowed from various sources. Its antiquity is evident from the many words that have no parallel in neighbouring lands. Thus, the common word tchaie (Fr.=tomber) used by Wace writing in the 12th century, and those strange expressions ouogue and bidéouaie used by the driver of the six horses drawing the big plough to veer them to the right and left respectively. For a similarity to lief (roof) we have to go to the Icelandic word "hlifa", a link with the Island's probable Viking invaders a thousand years ago. Such terms as éthonde, greune, vra, vlique, couêpé, braie, mielle, huthe, haûgard, hague are found to be particularly interesting by reason of Norse or other origin. Merely turning over the pages one cannot fail to be attracted by the beauty and appeal of the many words, offering, to a person not familiar with the Jersey language, unaccustomed sights and sounds: calfêter, badlagoule, githe, namps, muchi, suthîn, quédaine.
All the foregoing are random selections from a true "embarras de richesse". As Mr. Le Maistre's countless citations show, the Jersey language abounds in metaphors and similes, and in sayings and idioms. These reveal in many picturesque ways the harsh or kindly feelings of a sturdy folk as well as the scornful or independent attitudes of the countryman, all overlain by a down-to-earth and lively wit. And so we are afforded an insight into the rapidly disappearing Jersey way of life for which we could have no better guide. This book - sold in Jersey at a specially low price of £3 3s. - is indeed as much an encyclopaedia as a dictionary. Its perusal not only provides great interest; it is also great fun.
Scope and content
Dictionaries are usually produced by teams having separate functions of collecting, researching, revising, editing. The main text of the Jersey Language Dictionary is essentially the work of one man, and - without fear of contradiction - the work of the only man competent to do it. But he is the first to acknowledge the help received from the thousands of Jersey folk from whom he has extracted information down the years.
With the decline in the use of the language, many words and expressions now recorded would have been lost for ever had it not been for Frank Le Maistre's active interest over the past 40 years, because those who knew them have now passed on; also, lack of current use by present speakers of the language will drive many words into the recesses of their mind, perhaps beyond recall.
The author has not confined himself to recording. with an intimate knowledge of the French language, his explanations are generous and sometimes copious to reflect his wide reading and research. He draws attention to the difference of pronunciation in the various parts of the Island and also to the use of distinctive terms for the same object. He points to analogies with words in other "parlers," especially with those of the other Channel Islands and of Normandy. There are also references to Norse and Icelandic terms (and to many others) and he leaves readers in no doubt as to the ancient sources of many Island words. As is the case with any living language, Jersey has absorbed or modified many borrowed words, but the inappropriateness of the term "Jersey-French" is clear, since the Island has hosts of words that bear no similarity to the French equivalents and the roots of which go beyond the rise of the French of the Ile de France, whence modern French has sprung.
The text is of about 750,000 words and deals with 17,000-18,000 Jersey words. The significance of this last figure is seen when it is remembered that a good modern French dictionary lists about 37,000 words and an English one 67,000. (It might be mentioned here that, according to Unesco, the active vocabulary of a middle class Englishman is about 2,000 words and that of a Frenchman more than twice that figure.) The book carries a foreword by Sir Robert Le Masurier, Bailiff of Jersey, a preface by M. Fernand Lechanteur, an authority on the Norman "parlers", a publisher's note, and a lengthy introduction by the author. There are explanatory notes and a number of pages giving the conjugation of verbs.
Nothing that is relevant seems to have escaped the author's attention. The Jersey names for the flora, fauna and fishes of the Island are there, all the words used in agriculture, fishing, shipbuilding, and other occupations and crafts. And by his copious record of sayings and expressions and the explanation of them when necessary, Frank Le Maistre gives a remarkable insight into the folklore and ways of thought of Jersey people. He has probed all the writing and the historical documents available in the Island - including the massive 17th century journal of Jean Chevalier - to ensure completeness.
M. Fernand Lechanteur, in the preface, indicates the special appeal the book will have:
"... en dehors des Îles de la Manche ce 'trésor de la vieille langue normande de Jersey' trouvera des lecteurs exigeants et heureux. En Normandie continentale d'abord, particulièrement dans mon Cotentin natal, où la parenté des langages avec celui de Jersey augmentera d'un aspect sentimental l'intérêt scientifique. Nous sommes, en Normandie, riches de glossaires dialectaux anciens ou plus récents. Certains sont bons. Aucun ne saurait cependant rivaliser avec l'ouvrage de Frank Le Maistre, ni par la richesse ni par la précision. Tous les chercheurs en Normandie consulteront avec passion et satisfaction ce recueil. Mais pas seulement en Normandie. En France, dans les pays de langue romane, dans d'autres aussi où tant d'érudits travaillent sur le français et ses dialectes, ce livre sera une inépuisable source de renseignements d'une authenticité indiscutable."
It is no exaggeration to call this a unique book, for no one has attempted such a work before and no one will now be able to acquire the knowledge nor have the facilities for another work on the subject in the future. This is the definitive book on the Jersey language. It is to be hoped, however, that it will not be the end of Frank Le Maistre's work in his special field. perhaps when he has recuperated from the long and exhausting task now completed, he may be induced to set down more of the great knowledge he has about Jersey's heritage but which lay outside the scope of the dictionary.
Jersey Weekly Post 20/10/1966
Jersey Evening Post 14/10/1966
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