Thank you to Tony Scott Warren who kindly supplied this article and photographs.
Jersey has been in the throes of a language shift over at least the past two hundred years, which has threatened to lead to the death of Jèrriais. The island has moved from being a rural, mostly Francophone community in which many people were tri-lingual, to a very affluent, hi-tech almost exclusively English-speaking one (with the exception of immigrant workers – one tenth of our population today is of Portuguese origin, and we also have Polish and Kenyan communities).
Language shift is nothing new. The tribes
which built the dolmens after
For some hundreds of
years, Latin was the language of the ruling class in much of
Despite the comings and goings of Kings
and invaders in Mainland Gaul, it is probable that Celtic would have
been the means of communication used by inhabitants, traders, visitors
and missionaries in
However this situation did not last long,
as from the ninth century, a period of settlement by the Vikings began.
Viking raids in the
However, the system by which the Norman
dukes ensured loyalty among their followers required land to be
distributed to them as a reward, and by the eleventh century, land
resources were running dangerously low, and the pressure to expand
outside their allotted territory was becoming explosive. It was a
question of conquest or going under. So it was that Duke William the
Bastard led his aristocracy from all over the duchy in the greatest
military operation of the era - and so Jersey-men can justifiably claim
to have been on the winning side at
including the islands, was conquered by the increasingly-powerful French
around 1204 but the islands were recovered by Britain very soon
afterwards - King John and his advisers saw that they provided him with
a foothold in the Duchy of Normandy to support his (tenuous) legal
claims on the whole territory, a base for a military recovery which
never happened and a safe stopping-point on the sea-route from Gascony
to England. The Channel Islands remained faithful to the crown and
became frontier outposts for
During the first six centuries of rule by
the English crown, the island’s geographical isolation from the British
mainland and its regular contact with
An abortive French invasion in 1781 ended
in their defeat at the Battle of Jersey, the last battle to be fought on
British soil. From 1793 to 1815, the French military eyed the islands as
possible additions to the Empire, and as a result, a large British
garrison was stationed in
A 19th Century writer said that the future
economic prosperity and general happiness of
Jean Sullivan, a Jèrriais author, warned of the danger of following in the footsteps of Cornish, suggesting that education in Jèrriais as well as French was the only way of preventing the language from disappearing – sadly no-one paid any attention until a century after his death!
The big problem for Jèrriais came with the introduction of compulsory education. Children went to school where both English and French were foreign languages and had to be rapidly learnt.In the twentieth century, change continued apace. Children were actively discouraged from speaking their own language and punishments were administered for those caught doing so. Under increasing social pressure, family and place names were anglicised - Le Hegerat being changed to Garrett, La Grande Charriere becoming Millards’ Corner, the family owned store Voisin being mis-pronounced Voysins. Jèrriais and French were becoming less and less used.
The final flowering as well as the biggest blow to the survival of the language was the German occupation in 1940 and the evacuation of 30% of the population - including more than 1000 out of the island’s 5500 schoolchildren. Jèrriais was used by some of those who remained behind as a secret language, incomprehensible to the invaders. The Germans even brought in interpreters from Paris, who were equally unable to understand the spoken language. Meanwhile, there was for a while a ban on Jèrriais appearing in the papers, which was later partially lifted by allowing the republication of much earlier items – in practice this meant that many pieces from the nineteenth century got a second airing to a new audience – and even in London, the Jersey Society’s publications during and just after the occupation included poetry and prose in Jèrriais, as well as more specialist publications like Frank Le Maistre’s paper read to the society in July 1947.
In 1945 the returning
evacuees, having experienced five years of British education, many now
According to the 1989 census, the first to
ask questions on language, only 5720 people out of a population of
82,000 spoke Jèrriais. By 2001 this had dropped to just over 2,700 or
3.18%, but perhaps worse is the fact that we were shown that the number
of regular speakers had crashed to just 113 – and three of those work in
my office! The good news was that the proportion of young speakers had
risen significantly as a result of the teaching programme. The
population balance has shifted - now 47% of residents are not locally
born, and many of those who come to work in
When I was growing up, it was said that
Jèrriais couldn’t be a real language as it didn’t have any literature.
Leaving aside the illogicality of the statement – because there are many
languages which have neither alphabet nor literature of their own –
Jèrriais in fact does have its own literary tradition. It’s true that
there has not been a novel in Jèrriais (yet) – but the reason for people
saying that there was no literature was because it was published
ephemerally. To explain, this only starts in the late 1700s, because
that is when the printing press finally arrived in the
When the press finally got here, it was put to service to support the rival political parties, the Charlots and the Magots, or later the Laurels and the Roses, the Reds and the Blues. Jèrriais was used within a year of the appearance of the first newspaper, La Gazette de l’Ile de Jersey, often for satirical purposes – one of the very earliest articles accused the wife of the leader of the opposing party “d’aver dather sus touos les passants – si ch’n’est par les fenetres, ch’est par votre porte” – having urinated on passers-by – if not through your windows, it’s through your door, while her neighbour says that her “coups de driere font ben du mal” – her breaking wind causes much injury!
Many articles in Jèrriais appeared throughout the nineteenth century, as well as poetry and letters to the editors of the many newspapers – and that’s why our literature is so ephemeral – the newspapers tended to be thrown away once read.
There also appeared a number of anthologies of poetry – the first was compiled by Abraham Mourant and included some of the earliest published poems in Jèrriais – our poet Matthieu Le Geyt being one of the first to use our native language, but also others such as Henri Luce Manuel, Philip Langlois, who became the first president of the Société Jersiaise, Augustus Asplet le Gros and the most eminent of them all, the bailiff of Jersey, Sir Robert Pipon Marett, who had started writing long poems when he spent some time away from the island accompanying his mother who was recuperating from illness in Blois in France.
Augustus le Gros went on to begin work on a Jèrriais dictionary, but sadly died in 1877 while only in his 30s, having compiled only the letters A to G; it took almost 50 years for the rest of the alphabet to be sufficiently complete for it to be published by the Société Jersiaise as the Glossaire du Patois Jersiaise in 1924.
Two further collections of poetry were put
together by John Linwood Pitts in the 1800s, and these collections also
After the appearance of the 1924 glossary, there was a long interval before the appearance of the next book in Jèrriais, but the tradition of publishing in the newspapers continued, with authors like Elie, Edwin John Luce and GW de Carteret – lé Caouain – making weekly contributions, often on a political theme.
In 1943, Arthur Edwin Balleine, who was
Secretary of the Jersey Society in
In many ways, there is more hope for Jèrriais now than there has been for decades. The falling numbers of speakers had been long recognised, and it was also evident that transmission within the family was declining; indeed most speakers are no longer of childbearing age (by 2001 the biggest group of speakers ranked by age was that between 70 and 74 years old – so there’s not much hope of regeneration there!) The language had been taught to adults at evening classes since the 1960s, but it was recognised that this could not in itself maintain the dwindling number of speakers.
In 1997, a group brought the revival programme for Manx to the attention of a senior politician, Senator Jean Le Maistre, and he persuaded Len Norman, then President of Education to support a survey of parents of primary-school children to find out what the likely demand for Jèrriais lessons might be. Their best estimate of the result was that there might be 100 parents interested, so they were amazed by the response - some 780 families wanting their children to have the chance to learn the language. As a result, the States of Jersey funded a two-year trial, for which I was fortunate to be appointed co-ordinator, to be administered jointly by the Education Service and Le Don Balleine.
It was decided at the outset not to model
the Jèrriais programme on the established French course, in order to
avoid any possibility of accusation of cross-contamination which might
have resulted from the similarity of the two languages; instead Dr.
Brian Stowell in the
However both islands are members of CAER,
a Welsh acronym for The Language Society of the European Regions, which
permits us to get valuable cross-feed from other minority language
areas. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the French constitutional
council has outlawed teaching in regional languages, including mainland
A small-scale trial of the first textbook and materials was undertaken in Grouville primary school in Spring 1999, and the full trial programme launched in September of that year. Children who volunteered to take part were to have a 30 minute lesson once a week on an extra-curricular basis; not all schools took part in the programme, but those that did were very supportive and children were generally enthusiastic about learning “their own” language – there was even a spill-over with children who have never attended our classes calling “bouanjour” or “à bétôt” to members of the teaching team.
Following on from the success of the full trial, we were voted increased funding for the five years ending 2005. This enabled us to move the programme forward and to follow the children who had already started learning Jèrriais into secondary schools; however it has to be said that the numbers fall off alarmingly during the transition, something which we are addressing at present. It has been suggested that one way to improve the secondary take-up might be to introduce a qualification in Jèrriais – a Certificate of Achievement or GCSE equivalent, but we are still faced with the fact that we remain outside the curriculum, and only have thirty minutes per week to teach our pupils the language.
Until last year we introduced children to Jèrriais in Year 5 (age 8-9), as in almost all schools they began to learn French in Year 4, which gave us the advantage that the pupils had already acquired a smattering of French grammar, which has lots of similarities to ours, and also helped to avoid those accusations of cross-contamination. However, in the 2004-2005 school year, many Jersey schools started teaching French in Year 5, and as a result we moved down a year to begin Jèrriais in Year 4 – this in effect means that for many pupils we are teaching them their first non-English (I am understandably loath to say foreign) language.
One of the difficulties that we face is
that it is hard to get materials “off-the-shelf”, and so we are faced
with producing almost everything in-house.As well as the five textbooks
mentioned earlier, we have the first of two CD-Roms, inspired again by
the Isle of Man, and a phrasebook, which makes up in some way for the
absence of a useable dictionary (the only one available is Frank Le
Maistre’s – it’s over 600 pages long, costs £40 plus and is from
Jèrriais to French!) We also produce a quarterly magazine entirely in
Jèrriais, which is clearly aimed at native-speakers, but which includes
content that we hope will draw our pupils in. We have a subscription
list of individuals, groups and societies in Jersey, as well as in
Our team consists of three full-time
workers, myself and my colleagues Geraint Jennings, who is webmaster of
our 2500 plus pages on the Internet, and Colin Ireson and we have seven
native-speakers who teach between one and three lessons per week. We are
always looking for new recruits! In November, the children take part in
the Jersey Eisteddfod, performing prepared readings of poems in our
language, they form a choir to sing at the Jèrriais Christmas carol
service as well as busking for Jersey’s Joint Christmas Appeal, and
small groups also take part in the annual Fête Nouormande, which takes
place in Jersey, Guernsey and in mainland
We run a postcard project each year, in which children send cards to pupils from other Jèrriais classes, and some have gone on to maintain pen-friend relationships with their contacts, and in 2003 we had a competition to design a Christmas card, which has been professionally printed.
We now have around 190 children learning to speak, read and enjoy Jèrriais. Will some of them be fired with enough enthusiasm for the language to bring up their own children as first-language Jèrriais speakers - neo-Jèrriais? or even better, to be the teachers of the future? Who knows? – but it has happened in the Isle of Man.
We have a saying in Jèrriais “Vielles amours et tisons brûlés sont deux feux bein vite ralleunmés” - old loves and burnt embers are fires which can be quickly re-ignited. Perhaps, just when we seemed to reach that point forecast by the nineteenth century pundits when they said English would extinguish all before it, those good Jèrriais embers are starting to glow more brightly….