As I was coming to work the other morning, I was hailed across the street by Quand tch'i qu'j'allons avé du bé ? Y tchait d'la plyie touos les jours, man vi.
Two visitors on my side of the road, all but stopped in their steps. They seemed uncertain whether the outlandish speech was addressed to them: but the perplexity so plain on their faces changed to a smile of amusement when I explained that an acquaintance of mine had merely remarked in passing that it was about time we had some decent weather and that it rained every blessed day.
Amusement was succeeded by interest, and for some ten minutes I was busy expounding the virtues of Jersey-French, or, as learned people like to call it, Norman French. There are certain uninstructed folk who have the temerity to call it the Jersey patois, but with those I have neither lot nor part.
It is perhaps too much to say that the Doomsday Book is pure Jersey-French, but there are certainly many words in it which are in common use here to-day in the country districts, and especially in that strong hold of our old popular speech, the parish of St. Ouen's. And in an old French book I once read - " Le roi Henri IV était très mârri."
In the modern French Henry of Navarre would have been "très fâché," but when the present-day Jerseyman who lives in the country is angry, he is still "mârri.
Once on the Place de la Concorde I made friends with an enormous French gendarme who stroked his huge whiskers as he directed the traffic. When I told him I came from Jersey he nearly kissed me.
"Jersey!" he exclaimed, ah j'y suis allé il y a bien des années pour une semaine, et j'ai eu le temps de ma vie. Je n'ai pas désoûlé pour un seul instant."
A Jerseyman would have said:-
Jerri ! Ah, véthe; j'pâssit une semaine là y'a ben d's'années, et j'eut une raide bouonne bordée. J'tais plyien comme un ketto tout l'temps."
And, an Englishman:-
" Jersey! I went there a good many years ago for a week, and I had the time of my life; I wasn't sober for a single minute."
Personally, I prefer the Jersey-French as the most expressive of the three. It gets nearer the bone. Whereas the other two merely tell a story, this one shows a picture.
What perhaps is curious is that the boy brought up to Jersey-French can never forget it in later life, even if he wants to. You may have heard the story of the fellow who, having spent many years in Canada and made money there, returned to his native Island having, forgotten every word of Jersey-French. But, happening to step on the teeth of a rake, he remembered sufficient to ejaculate "b------ d'râté!"
Another thing that is curious about Jersey-French is that many words are pronounced differently by people of the west and people of the eastern part of the Island. The western pronunciation approximates more closely to French than does the other, which has a kind of Guernsey twang about it, and is more difficult to spell.
At St. Ouen's the word deux (two) is pronounced as in French; at Trinity it is "die," from which was evolved the pun that Jerseymen never say die. A fishing rod at St Peter's is a "vôle"; at St Martin's it's a "vowl." To be warm at St. John's is to be caud; the Grouville man is cow." To be beautiful at St Brelade's is to be byo but at St. Clement's it is biow" (more like a cat-call). I have never been able in discover how, when, where or why this difference came about.
Jersey-French is heard at its best and brightest at cattle shows. Here is a sample of the talk that goes on round the ring while the judges are doing their best not to make too many mistakes in the class for heifers in milk.
First critic: Nos juges n'y vaient pas cliet agniet. La preumièthe tch'il ont chouësi n'vaut pas quat' sous. Oulle a l'nez d'travers, épis r'garde ses trans d'drièthe comme y piquent."
Second critic: Ma fé vèthe, ou n'est bouonne que pour lé bouochi; épis r'garde sait couôson et ses p'tites hanques."
Third critic : La g'niche à Ph'lip le Merquand a un ben miyeu piechot, et d'ben pûs fines s'epaules."
Fourth critic: Pour ben dithe, ch'n'est pas des juges dé bêtes chais gâs-la, mais des bêtes de juges."
Chorus : Tu l'as dit.
Which being interpreted means that the first critic is of opinion that all is not well with the judge's eyesight, and that the one they picked out, first is not worth much. Her nose is crooked, and her back teats instead of hanging straight down, are inclined at an angle of 25 degrees in a forward direction.
No. 2. He agrees, even goes farther in his adverse criticism, for he is of opinion that the brute is good only for butcher's meat. Her setting is awful, etc., etc.
No. 3. Philip Le Marquand's heifer has a much better udder, and much cleaner shoulders.
No. 4. His meaning is clear, but not so easy to indicate to the unfortunates who don't understand Jersey-French. What he actually says is that the judges don't know their job. In Jersey-French the sentence is a play upon words.
Which brings to my memory an incident:-
A good many years ago a man called. W. Stanley Hunt came to Jersey as a Wesleyan Minister.
Prejudice against English was very strong in the Methodist community, and notably at St Ouen, where there lived an old lady who didn't believe that anyone who could not pray in French or Jersey-French stood any chance of getting to Heaven.
Mr. Hunt had been in the Island only a few weeks when he was called to preach at St Ouen's Methodist chapel. He chose some words of St. Paul's for his text, and began with an exposition of the man himself. The chapel was filled, because, although the people resented the introduction of English, their curiosity to see what this new Minister was like overbore their prejudice. They discovered from that service what sort of an English Minister had been sent to them.
St. Paul, said Mr. Hunt, was a man of exceptional gifts; one of the most courageous men who ever lived. He had all the virtues except one -" and then he praised. The congregation thought this a very bad start. How dared this young fellow criticise St. Paul, even suggest that he lacked one virtue ? It was intolerable impudence.
But Mr. Hunt (a man of remarkable talents, by the way), having fulfilled his object of fairly rousing his audience, shook his head, frowned, then said - "St. Paul didn't know Jersey-French!"
I hope to write more about Jersey-French. There is a tendency in higher quarters to sneer at it and belittle it, but to the true Jerseyman, who learnt it in childhood before he knew a word of English, it still remains the language of the country. He knows it is disappearing, and this to him is a source of regret.
Morning News 7/9/1946
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