La Section de la langue Jèrriaise

The Patois Poems of the Channel Islands

J.L. Pitts
Jersey, 1883


Although the language of the foregoing poems is Old Norman, the compositions themselves are none of them older than the present century. One of the first who attempted to compose in Jersiais was the late Mr. Matthew Le Geyt. He was followed by Sir Robert Pipon Marett, the present esteemed Bailiff, (Chief Magistrate), of Jersey, who was then a rising young advocate at the island bar, and who wrote under the nom-de-plume of Laelius. His compositions manifest a perfect knowledge of the insular manners, customs and modes of speech, and are also brimming over with humour. In fact Sir R. P. Marett did for Jersey what the late venerable Mr. George Métivier has so admirably done for Guernsey - raised its previously unwritten patois to the dignity of a dialect, and rendered that dialect classic. Mr. Métivier was a voluminous writer in Guernesiais, and some of his longer pieces, such as Ma Tante, Dame Toumase, &c., are of very great merit. He was also the author of the learned Dictionnaire Franco-Normand, a work which throws much light on the philology of the Channel Island dialects. Among other favourite local writers we must mention, in Jersey, the late Mr. A. A. Le Gros, Dr. Langlois, Mr. Philip Asplet, Mr. John Sullivan, the late Mr. H. Luce Manuel, Miss. Le Hardy, and others; while in Guernsey we have Mr. Denys Corbet, Mr. Thomas Lenfestey, and Mr. Nicholas Guilbert. A number of fugitive poems also exist in both islands, many of them of much merit, but whose authorship is difficult to trace.


The quaint and picturesque Old Norman Dialects which still linger in the Channel Islands, are not only rich in local associations, but they also possess a deep historic interest for every cultured Englishman. Amid the multi­ form conditions and the busy whirl of this many-sided nineteenth century of ours, they bring him face to face with living, and vigorous, and almost unchanged survivals of one of the noblest of the Romance Languages of the past. And they reproduce for him, in nearly pristine purity, the tones and accents of that grand old national vernacular which eight hundred years ago dominated his mother-country at the Conquest, the speech alike of court and camp, of Trouvère and Chronicler, and the tongue in sovereignty, and Taillefer the Jongleur carolled forth his defiance of King Harold, as he heralded the onslaught at Senlac.

During all the years that have succeeded, the great world has unceasingly rolled on. Conquerors have come and gone ; empires have risen and decayed ; dynasties have flourished and have fallen, national speech has crossed and varied, has intermingled and developed ; but all this while the unrippled currents of life and language have drowsed along changelessly in quiet Channel Island valleys, where century after century successive generations of country lads and lasses have told “the old, old story" in the very selfsame old, old words. It is, then in the highest degree refreshing for the philologist, and the student of history, as they go hurrying along the heated highways of modern intellectual advancement, sometimes to step aside for a moment into these calm sequestered nooks and by-paths of existence, and take a passing glance at the interesting examples presented there of social sameness and linguistic continuity.

By far the most interesting specimens of these Old Norman Dialects are the Popular Poems, and these exist in rich profusion. Genuine Folk-Songs, many of them, written by the people, for the people, and handed down lovingly through oral tradition. These compositions both in structure and allusions contain much that is peculiar to the Channel Islands, and illustrate with singular force, vivacity, and humour the more salient features of the insular social and rural life.

The present volume has been projected and pre­pared with a view of making this interesting lyric lore more widely known and more generally accessible. Tourists and students have often expressed a desire to carry home with them from the Islands some characteristic patois compositions, as souvenirs of the local national speech, and of their own agreeable sojourn. It is, however, quite useless for the average Englishman - even although he may possess a competent knowledge of modern French - to attempt to pick his way unaided through the linguistic labyrinth which these patois pieces present. Even the careful study of a skeleton grammar and a glossary will afford him scarcely any real assistance towards their intelligent and pleasurable perusal. The consequence is that they have hitherto remained scaled records and “frozen music" to all but the Islanders themselves, while even to many of these - especially among the younger generation - they are either almost or altoget ther incomprehensible. When, however, as in the following pages, they are accompanied with parallel English translations all difficulties vanish at once. The reading of the poems becomes a pleasant pastime instead of presenting a vexatious and wearisome puzzle, and the result cannot but prove both gratifying and instructive to all who care to trace out either the historical developments of language, or the distinctive characteristics of the national life. It is also hoped that these versions will be found to reflect, at least in some degree, the style and spirit of the originals. No one, however, feels more keenly than does the translator that, as regards dialect poems, so very much of their real humour and rich native aroma depend upon, and reside within, the very words and colloquialisms themselves, that any attempt at transfusion into more conventional diction must appear to a great extent feeble and colourless by comparison.

The Universities and the higher schools are now paying increased attention to the study of comparative and historical philology, and this gives a still further enhanced value to. the curious grammatical forms which these Dialects enshrine. For it must always be borne in mind that the French of the Channel Islands is not a bad French, it is merely an old French;- the French, indeed, which - barring some slight local differentiation - was the correct and recognised literary idiom of the country in the days of Wace, of Benoit, of Gaimar, of Langtoft, and of others. It has simply retained its ancient words and its old-world inflections while its Parisian congener has gradually modified them or shaken them off. Consequently it is a language much nearer akin to the living speech of the Trouvères and the Chroniclers than any other which still exists. In the middle ages there were four principal dialects of the Langue d'Oil, - the Norman, the Picard, the Burgundian, and the French. The latter name being applied only to the speech of the dwellers in the district immediately around Paris, known as the Ile de France, who, during the middle ages, were alone dis­tinguished by the appellation of Frenchmen. Roger Bacon, who visited France in 1240, clearly points out the distinctions which then obtained, when he says :

(quote in Latin)

All these four dialects, in their day, produced separate and distinct, and interesting literatures of their own. But gradually, through the military prowess and the conquests of the Capets, the Isle of France extended its Sovereignty over the surrounding districts, carrying its own idiom with it, and thus its dialect ultimately assumed the dignity of the national language, while those of its neighbours dwindled down into merely local patois.

It is always a very pleasant thing to acknowledge courtesy received and services rendered. And the Editor feels much gratification in tendering his very best thanks to those numerous friends who have given him valuable assistance in the production of this little work. The authors of the various poems granted, in the most cordial and the kindest manner, the requested permission for their reproduction, while several ladies and gentlemen also took considerable trouble in procuring for him copies of rare compositions which under ordinary circumstances are difficult to meet with. Some of these are, through want of space, omitted from the present volume, but they will be included in a subsequent publication. A few further remarks on the subject matter of the work will be found in the notes at the end of the poems.



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