The passing of a Norman heritage
The Jersey language is one of the many "patois romans" of France. Each of the four largest of the Channel Islands has its own particular language or dialect, the "Normand Insulaire" being, of course, quite different from that of the Cotentin. All these and many others are descended from, and are some of the innumerable shoots of, the great Latin tree. The Channel Islands' dialects are survivals of the ancient Norman tongue, venerable relics of a period when the old Norman was itself a properly recognised literary language. The difference between the Islands, and even within the same Island, are regular in nature and in extent; the dialects of West Jersey and East Jersey or North and South Guernsey are still phonetically distinct.
In the opening paragraph I have used the words language, patois and dialect more or less indiscriminately. Perhaps a little explanation is necessary. Anyone interested in etymology will find that the three terms are very similar in their origin. Briefly, language is derived from the Latin "lingua" meaning "the tongue" and is akin to the Greek "legein" - to speak. Dialect derives through French and Latin from the Greek "dialektos which means "speech" - "dia"- between, and "legein" - to speak. Patois was originally "patrois" from the Latin "patriensis" for indigenous or patria" - one's native country. It will be seen that even the term "patois" should not be used in a pejorative sense, though English folk usually do use it so. French philologists make a fine distinction between a "dialecte" and a "patois" but it is beyond the scope of this paper to enter into such details. It is immaterial, then, which term be used in connection with Jèrriais were it not for the fact that, popularly, "patois" is usually uttered as conveying the same meaning as jargon, gibberish or slang. I assure you, our native tongue is ancient and venerable enough to deserve more respect from the uninitiated. It has been our vehicle of expression for hundreds of years and we have led an equally long and separate existence from the mainland (France) thereby justifiably having the right to call ourselves a nation apart. For the above reasons and also the fact that many eminent connoisseurs have called the tongues of the Channel Islands "languages, it is not unreasonable for us to prefer the expression "Jersey language" to "Jersey patois". I shall make no further apology for the use of the word throughout this paper.
The Jersey language is, alas, dying and so is that of Guernsey. The evacuation of so many Guernsey children in 1940 will have seriously affected the survival of their language. Auregnais has for all practical purposes become extinct. A few years before the last war only about 30 people could still speak it, Auregny (or Alderney) having become much more quickly anglicised than the other Islands. Sercq (or Sark) and Jersey are more conservative though it can only be a question of time before Jersey, Guernsey and Sark Norman French disappear altogether. Jèrriais has been undergoing many evolutionary changes in a transition period of 50 years or more, and it is now in a moribund state. As all good things come to an end, Norman French (in its various forms) will eventually die like many other national characteristics the world over. Even the English language, in its present form, will not last for ever. These ancient Channel Island languages or dialects are of immense scientific worth to French and other philologists, of which more later. But as to when the use of the language of each Island (always excepting Auregny) may cease altogether it is not easy to venture a guess. Nevertheless, I should say not for at least another 100 years. 1 cannot now enter into details supporting this contention. Suffice it to say that, for instance, my three children aged nine and under speak little but the native tongue and it is almost certain that this will continue to be the common vehicle of expression for them throughout life as it is for myself and for thousands of others. This in spite of the anglicisation of much of the life and manners of the real Jersey natives who are to be found in the country parts, especially north and west. On the other hand one must not delude oneself. There are many, many people in the Island to-day who more than ever despise their native tongue and try to ignore it. Far from taking an intelligent interest in, and being attached to such a fundamental and national characteristic, or being persuaded of its antiquity, value and beauty the peasant's psychology is such that he considers Jèrriais as an inferior tongue, a corruption of modern French ("lé bouon français," as he says) and of which he is more or less ashamed. This trait is especially strong with young folk and in particular, young women. Impartial observers have noted this in many countries - it is not peculiar to Jersey. The native of any place speaks a dialect not necessarily due to linguistic patriotism but principally because he cannot speak anything else. A love of tradition in this respect is as a rule quite foreign to rural folk.
Concerning the preservation of our language it may not be without interest to mention Mistral, the great Provençal national poet, and his work. What did he achieve? Much and yet little. After reviving the use of the language and awakening interest amongst hundreds of thousands, at the present time Provençal is again declining to its pre-Mistral state. In this connection I may say that we are trying to revive "La Saithée Jèrriaise held annually during the local "Eisteddfod" but here again it can only be a question of time before it ceases to exist. Since the junior classes are all important in this respect, when the child competitors fail to turn up (as they will ere long) then there will not be much purpose in keeping up the soirée except for entertainment. The writer, at least, knows we are fighting a losing battle, in Jersey as elsewhere. In twelve or fifteen years from now few school-children will normally speak their native language. For instance, if we take the parishes one by one it may be easier to grasp the full significance of this last statement. In St. Hélier no children have been brought up to speak Jèrriais for at least 50 years, but there are still a few old people who were born in town and who can speak it. It is doubtful if there are now any children in St. Brélade who speak the language and the same applies to St. Clément, Grouville and St. Sauveur. In St. Laurens Norman French-speaking children are becoming fewer and fewer, and in St. Pierre also. There are more in Ste. Marie and St. Jean but it is significant, that the children of Breton extraction (who all but predominate in these parishes) are more often those who do not normally speak it. There remain St. Ouen, St. Martin and La Trinité. In the latter parish, which in many ways is still a "country parish strangely enough it is also quickly dying out amongst the school-children. There are more in St. Martin who speak Jèrriais but here again the number is quickly decreasing. There is no doubt whatever that it is in St. Ouen where there are most children who still speak their native tongue. Amongst those who do not speak it are, again, the "fils et filles de français" and it is always amusing to observe this for on the face of it, it remains so undeniably absurd. St. Ouen, then, is the "forteresse du langage" and it is here that at some future date the funeral of "La Langue Jèrriaise" will take place, in other words it will survive for some time in "la vielle pâraisse dé St. Ou" after the rest of the island has forgotten it.
The Jersey language has been passing through all the various stages which precede the disappearance of any old tongue, as observed by Professor Dauzat the famous French philologist and dialectologist. The native first of all begins to understand the foreign language (in our case English), then the next generation speaks it but only to strangers. Next, he becomes fluent with the two - a critical period for it is likely that the succeeding generations will prefer English to the native tongue and only employ the latter when conversing with older folk. The vernacular is then on its last legs. Another established fact is that where there is a considerable difference between the native and the usurping tongues, as Breton and French, or Jèrriais and English, the above phases are usually precipitated in the evolutionary passage. Also, the substitution of one language for another gives rise to all sorts of queer expressions, sometimes distorted beyond recognition. The vitiations peculiar to the Jersey language are, then, similar to those common to other disappearing tongues. To quote a few local instances. The subjunctive case is often now not used when it should be. "Ch'est dammage qu'i' n'yen ait pas pus" is rendered - qui 'n'yen a pas pus." "Bouon Dgieu vielle qu'i' n'y'âge pas" and "I' faut qué j' prenge man paraplyie" are examples of expressions now either modified or not used at all. Then everyone is familiar with the hybrids 'fight'-er, 'trust'-er, 'bend'-er, 'squash'-i, 'squeez'-i, 'switch'-i, etc. (with the Jersey equivalents almost forgotten) and with the hundreds of modified technical and other words and terms relating to innovations employed by professional people and tradesmen. Also with such words as mumps, plaster, chippings, spokes, lint, bungalow, dairy, nightmare, coward, lard, pills, ride, windpipe, clumsy, crowd, poster, slice - in common daily use instead of the appropriate good Jersey equivalent. Many still worse mongrel expressions there are but I prefer not to help perpetuate them through mention in this paper; they, unfortunately, can be heard daily. It is indeed a delight to hear some of the older folk speak without these vitiations which are due mainly to prolonged contact with the foreign language (English) and to "paresse d'esprit". Then there is the confusion over genders, and such words as "âge, air, apartainement, j'veux though masculine are often made feminine.
The old names of the lanes are being forgotten, the names of the flowers and weeds, birds, fields, rocks, tools also. The influence of radio, bus travel, newspaper and cinema is intense, as has also been that exercised in recent years by school-teachers who at times even threaten their pupils with punishment for speaking Jèrriais, though knowing very well they have no right to do so. This attitude has, sub-consciously, discouraged children who have thereby been given the impression it is infra-dig to speak their own language. Such statements as "I should like to see Jersey-French at the bottom of the sea" and ejaculations as "What, talking that Jersey-French rot again!" have been made by a teacher to the scholars (to my knowledge) and, however reprehensible and injurious such an adverse practice may be, this mentality, though difficult to understand is again, not peculiar to Jersey. It is quite common in Provence, Charente, Auvergne, Bretagne, Normandie and in English-speaking parts of Wales, certain areas of Scotland and other countries. Regarding Jersey schoolteachers, it is very doubtful whether now any two meeting in public would permit themselves to talk in their native language. Although to many of them Jèrriais was indeed the language they learnt at their mother's knee, with very few exceptions they do not wish to be heard speaking it to-day. Yet, as I have said, scientists know that these old languages are immensely interesting and of great philological value. To anyone who cares to give a little thought or study to our ancient Jèrriais, it must prove at least extremely fascinating. It may surprise you to know that many eminent men have studied our dialects in the past, and it may also be news to most people that it possesses a grammar, though unwritten, a vocabulary (with correct orthography and phonetics), etymology, syntax and prosody. The term "Jersey-French originated by English folk in the Island over a hundred years ago is a misnomer. It is quite a common term now but to newcomers and others who do not trouble to enquire it conveys a meaning totally at variance with facts. Our language is not a Jersey form of French, corrupted or otherwise. It is decidedly older since it is a Norman French. Thus the correct rendering in English is "Jersey Norman French to distinguish it from the other Islands. Better yet, of come, is the native term Jèrriais, just as the correct appellation for any other language is its own native term. It is often stated, usually by those who are in complete ignorance of facts, that our tongue has no literature and therefore is of no importance. Let me say right away there is a surprisingly large collection of literature though comparatively recently produced. Much of it is of indifferent quality but there is also a wealth of good material in prose and verse. Half a dozen authors have written comparatively well. At the present day. there are several who write Jersey Norman French but only a very few who have an intelligent grasp of it. Here I may mention that an American citizen (naturalised) of an old St. Ouen family but many years away has been contributing weekly articles to Les Chroniques in Jèrriais and I have no hesitation in stating that he writes the language more correctly and better than anyone else. He is Mr. George Le Feuvre, who has not forgotten his native tongue after very many years absent from Jersey. How ridiculous, then, to see certain other folk who were away in England for five years during the war and who have conveniently forgotten it! It is the old tale of trying to impress with a semblance of superiority.
Old dialects are especially interesting for their vocabulary, their historical, picturesque and pleasant words which carry the fragrance of their native soil. Is it not "lé vièr Jèrri" which lives again in the following beautiful and refined expressions peculiar to the language - mort dé sa belle mort" (natural death), "lé temps s'êcoute " (when the weather is that calm and serene), " aller au gardîn (which dates from the time when " lavatories " were at the bottom of the garden), "lé solé qui tchait par morcieaux " (sun showers), " la pomme meûsit " (when a person is ageing), "la fîn du temps f'tha, tout vaie " (time will tell), " pus liain qué l'vent n'cache " (to send someone to blazes) and " y'a pus d'eune chose à faithe un chôsyi " (there are more things in Heaven and earth-)? And in the old nursery rhymes repeated to children, such as - "L'alouette, l'alouette a fait san nid, "Châchons, bulletons, "Marie la pie, Coquelicot, "Féthe, féthe féthe la p'tite pouliche, "En m'en allant, rouliroulant, etc.?
How rich in metaphors is our old tongue and how varied are the designations for flowers of the field, birds and insects! We possess many words for which there is no equivalent in either French or English. What picturesque diminutives and what a varied collection of terms with slightly different values and interesting etymological derivations! For instance, as examples of the latter our equivalents of " rascal, rogue" or "scamp" can be - un dêsalé, vacâbond, peûle, pendard, pentehueûle, gaillard, pend'loque, péhon, pouoilleux, baloque, brûlé, scélérat, cotchin, reintchivâle, rosse (all masculine) as in English with both the mild and pejorative meanings. And then, to designate a foolish, clumsy fellow there is - achocre, bachouard, chagorne, happe-la-leune, ignot, lobre, mistenfliûte, âmice, êmânue, binnasse, bêtasse, bégaud, bûzard, etc. For a blow, slap or similar chastisement we have - ouappe, chatourne, tappe, talmouse, pataouarre, passe-l'avant, morniflye, slindgeûse, tournéoualipe, paffe, cliamuse, clyippe, latte, latteuse, pitchinne, mouoché à chinq carres, brûlée, fouôtée, ronde et quétilieuse (all feminine). Many of these words can be traced back almost a thousand years. Yet some will have it that our language is limited and lacks variety and expression. Indeed! It is highly gratifying, too, to know that "the dialects of the Norman Islands are the best preserved "! But, as previously stated, they are rapidly nearing extinction.
In Jersey the dialect was, and still is, spoken differently in almost each individual parish, though of course there is no such thing as a parochial barrier. As I have said before, differences are regular m nature and extent. The St. Ouennais and Ste. Mathiais are almost identical. Then there is the St. Pierrais, Trinnetais, St. Louorenchais, St. Martinnais, Grouvillais and that of Maufant, St. Cliémentais and the Villais. Many of these differences are now no longer noticeable except to a student. Apart from these certain resisting "pockets " (îlots linguistiques) have been holding out for many years. They are of considerable interest to the dialectologist for there are distinctive differences, phonological especially, peculiar to these "pockets" which comprise Les Landes (St. Ouen), Le Mont Mado (St. Jean), La Moie (St. Brélade), Faldouet (St. Martin), La Rocque (Grouville) and others. Of these, La Moie which has been "resisting" up to now, in spite of English residents, can no longer do so by reason of the fact that the latter now preponderate over the natives. In fact, although "lé mouêtîn" is still spoken it is about to disappear as all the children of school age speak only English. These remarks apply equally well to La Rocque where "lé rotchais" is heard only from the lips of the older generations. As regards Faldouet though some children do speak "lé faldouais " their number is dwindling fast, this possibly being due to the close proximity of the "town" of Gouray. The Mont Mado district which includes amongst its population many people of Breton extraction is also rapidly becoming anglicised. Thus, of these "pockets" the only one where Jèrriais is still particularly virile is Les Landes at St. Ouen. There "lé landîn" is still extensively spoken by everyone including the children. Indeed this locality may be described as the last stronghold of the Jersey language. To this day little English is heard out there in the north-west. Nevertheless, there are few children who now cannot speak English when they first attend school. In this respect I believe I can predict that my youngest son, now three years of age, will very probably be the last child in the Island of genuine Jersey parents to speak Jèrriais, and Jèrriais only, when he starts school, and the last to whom teachers will have to talk "en Jèrriais" for some time after entry. Since his two elder brothers never speak English at home it is not likely he will know any at all before then. Though at present there may still be a few children to whom these observations apply, three years hence there will be none. I mention this to show how rapidly these dialect evolutions are taking place! I have known several English children come over to the Island, in former years, and learn to speak our language in time, with an accent of course but comparatively well. That would hardly be possible now. Moreover, of recent years I have observed it takes a Jèrriais-speaking child a few months only to pick up English. Having noticed this many folk have said it is an indication that English is more easy to learn than French which, on mature reflection, seems an absurd statement. How could a person speaking a Norman French dialect normally learn English more quickly than French which has a grammar similar to its relation? There are psychological explanations why the child picks up English quickly, but I cannot enter into details though I may give some instances which are quite common. A child (especially a girl) aged five and therefore not yet attending school, whose parents speak little English, meets another aged seven who knows some English from school. Before long they prattle away in pidgin English and it will henceforth be almost impossible to get them to speak Jèrriais again. Other interesting observations are the following. Though a child may be speaking in the native language he will nowadays invariably read in English, spell in English, count in English, sing in English, and play in English. On the other hand there are still a number who think in Jèrriais. The boys in a family usually speak Jèrriais but the girls English; many instances could be quoted. Generally speaking the sons of the middle classes in the country (the farmers who are mostly true natives and thus the yeomen of the Island) are content to speak the Jersey language but the children of the labouring classes aspire to the use of English as do nearly all who are of Breton extraction. The latter, indeed, quickly take to speaking English, ostensibly no longer wishing to be considered French. However, speedily they anglicise themselves the family name is always the tell-tale. There are few who remain loyal and proud of their French heritage (Breton or otherwise) and it is quite common to see the daughters of these settlers in the Island pretending not to understand either French or Jèrriais whilst their parents know no English! Many also change their names either completely or slightly as for instance, Le Hégarat to Garrett, Le Breuilly to Brailey, Richard to Richards and so on. It is quite the fashion for young men apprentices, etc., in garages, bakers and milk roundsmen in the country to make use of technical jargon or cant, anyway to talk English (mostly bad) rather than in Norman French, for this is considered more "flashy" and à la mode. Again, a notable exception is the garage in St. Ouen where Jèrriais is extensively used. Young girls from the country nowadays seek jobs in town and though dialect-speaking soon find it convenient to "forget" it the moment they get into an office or behind a counter. Likewise telephone operators, with few exceptions will not speak Jèrriais. The above examples and many more as I have said can be explained psychologically. Lastly, of the children who evacuated in 1940 and came back five years later, very few will speak Jèrriais again. More or less germane to this is the case of a twelve year old lad who left Jersey two years ago. Previous to his departure he had known little English. His mother assures me that John has now almost forgotten his Jèrriais. He would, no doubt, pick it up again quickly if he came back, especially to St. Ouen. This tends to show that a child with its receptive mind and impressionable character either quickly picks up or forgets material depending largely on the environment.
Amongst what may be called some of the arresting influences, on the anglicisation of the Island and the disappearance of the French or Jersey languages was that indirectly brought about by the French circuit of Island Wesleyanism from its inception in the late 18th century up to the war of 1939-45. This has contributed considerably to preserve the French language and delayed the sad moment when the people of Jersey will have completely forgotten their national tongue. But here again the end of the road is almost in sight. Very few services are now in French. Recently one was held in St. Martin's Wesleyan chapel but it was previously advertised. Not so long ago there were almost as many French as in English every Sunday and they did not need advertising. The old stalwarts who preached in French have gone gradually and no one replaces them. At the above-mentioned service, held last spring, many people at the "sortie" voiced their appreciation of the old-time French service, but mostly in English - people who do not normally speak much English but who consider it "la chose to do so when in public. And on such occasions what is more tragic is that many of those who must speak in English, apparently with the idea of impressing, only too obviously do so by showing how little they know. Mais, cest la mode! Other restraining influences have been the importation of French labour in the past and, to a lesser extent, at present; and the occupation of the Island by German soldiers with a consequent rise in dialect speech for reasons of safety and caution. At the present moment English is again coming in at full flood, as a giant wave, superseding and usurping the place of the 800 year old "idiome de Wace". A few of the "assemblées de paroisse" are still held in the official language. The deliberations are mostly in English, St. Ouen again excepted where the "official " language is Jèrriais. In contradistinction to most functions which are held in English, country sales are still conducted mostly in Jèrriais and any gathering of farmers and country people is always attended, whether in town or country, by the Jersey vernacular which greatly preponderates on such occasions. Indeed, it is true to say that three quarters of the adult population still speak the Jersey language, including Jurats, Lawyers, the Connétables and others. Also, many who have attained to ranks of eminence abroad have spoken Jèrriais, and have not been ashamed of it.
Incidentally, French, though still the official language, to all intents and purposes has now reached the status of a foreign language and though by nature we are and should be bilingual people the knowledge of French is becoming more and more limited. Insufficient attention is paid to the teaching of it in the elementary schools and, in any case, in its use most of the teachers themselves are incompetent, usually non-students of the language and therefore averse to its proper teaching. The mode of instruction being thus faulty the result is that the great majority of scholars obtain a mere smattering of French and - nobody bothers!
Family names are anglicised, often horribly so, by announcers and others who care little for euphony; but there is no consistence in this matter. For instance, everyone pronounces Simon, Bisson, Remon, Machon, Hotton correctly but Hamon, Vaudin, Gaudin and Voisin are usually Englished. Vibert, Le Feuvre, Le Lièvre, Le Cornu, Poingdestre and many others, for no reason whatever, are anglicised but Le Sueur, Benest, Binet, Langlois, Cabot and Chevalier do not change. Other peculiar renderings are Bree for Brée, Loose for Luce, Syvry for Syvret, and Major for Mauger. Also all the most fanciful and absurd foreign Christian names in conjunction with a Jersey or French surname now prevail, such as Royston, Derek, Shirley, Daphne, Malcolm and Graeme!
Place names also suffer from anglicisation. A few only need be mentioned. Devil's Hole, Five Mile Road, Six Roads, Five Roads, Swiss Valley which all have good old names. Then there are atrocities as "The Dike" for Le Dicq, "Millard's Corner" for La Grande Charrière, and hundreds of houses called "Sea View", "West View, "Sunny Side, " Homestead, and all sorts of fantastic names rather than the old names of the fields on which the properties are situated and which would always be more appropriate. Even the Wesleyans now seem to prefer Ebenezer to Ebenhézer.
Farm-yard calls are slowly disappearing though they are still strong in many parts of the country and are often heard as: pétit, pétit, pétit to poultry, quétot, quét, quét" to pigs, "cha-don " to cattle and ouais" and "huye" to horses. To the latter ouogue" (turn right) and bidéhouais (turn left) are likely to survive somewhat longer as the English equivalents are not known. The expression "back, don" is now universally used to horses instead of "rtchule ". Dogs are now usually spoken to in English but the familiar "à couochi, " vé-t-en, "ousse, etc., are occasionally heard.
Contrarily people do not bother to translate new English words and expressions. "Ration books, " points, le forecast et les news" and hundreds of others are household to young and aged alike. The loss of a Jersey word sometimes takes place by way of the French term into English. As a few examples - nouer" (now little used) is rendered by "nagi" and of recent years by the hybrid swim"-er! "Héthonde " (which is obsolescent) is often rendered hirondelle " and nowadays "eune swallow"! A peculiar and ludicrous example of what etymological evolutions can produce is concerning the words netti" and "clean"-er, which presumably should mean the same thing, yet when a woman says "j'm'en vais netti ma chambre" she refers to the weekly turnout but j'm'en vais clean-er ma chambre" conveys the "annual spring clean"! Many more words, of course, have switched over straight away into English, like "daisies" and "buttercups" (mèrgots et pipots) and many others mentioned earlier on in this paper. The greatest pity of all, perhaps, is the word "wonders applied to that almost classical Jersey speciality "des mèrvelles. Oddly enough in the sister island of Guernsey the gâche" has persistently refused anglicisation.
Many more examples could be given to corroborate the fact of the Jersey language being in an advanced state of decadence, after undergoing many transitional changes, except that I fear lengthening this paper unduly. Some of the statements I have made do not always find favour locally, though they can easily be substantiated by any interested observer. Many of my friends, for instance, almost indignantly refuse to believe that the language is in a moribund state but fondly imagine reviving influences will come to the fore sooner or later. Unfortunately it is only wishful thinking on their part and as regards the one or two predictions I make, time will tell or, to use the Jersey expression - lé temps f'tha tout vaie. I assure you it grieves me greatly to have to record the above facts. Alas, it is beyond our power to arrest the decrees of what some are pleased to call "progress". There can be no one more sorry than I at the passing of our principal Norman heritage. This paper is written as the result of the analysis of careful observations relevant to the matter made all over the Island over a period of more than twenty years. It will be obvious that since the preservation of the local tongue is not possible something should be attempted as regards the recording of it in lexicographical form for future students before its total extinction. In this connection the writer aims at something much more substantial than has hitherto been accomplished by La Société Jersiaise. Fortunately, an ardent student of the language, the late Mr. Arthur E. Balleine, one of the founders of The Jersey Society in London, who died a few years ago very laudably made ample testamentary provision for the pursuit of the object in view.
In conclusion, when the old walls in the country lanes no longer echo the pleasant sounds of the Jersey language, when those docile and graceful natives the Jersey cows are no longer addressed in the Jèrriais they have understood for so many generations, when the Jersey soil is trampled upon by descendants of her sons uttering a foreign tongue to it, when the children are lulled to sleep in English, when the seagulls cry out to the cliffs in English and when the dogs bark in English - then Jersey will no longer be Jersey and we shall have lost irretrievably a very precious possession indeed. We shall be anglicised and modernised, systemised and standardised, but shall we be more content than were our fathers, the Jersey patriarchs? I think not. Finally, may I quote Victor Hugo? "O vous tous! braves Normands des Iles de la Manche - sachez-le - votre patois est vénérable; votre patois est sacré - car c'est de votre patois qu'est sortie, comme une fleur de la racine, cette belle langue, la langue française ".
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