Walking around town you hear people speaking mainly English. You may catch a few words of Portuguese, Latvian, Polish, French, German or Dutch but turn the clock back a few hundred years and it would have been Guernsey’s own Norman language Guernésiais which you would have spoken and heard from day to day with ‘Good French’ as it was called reserved for church, the States, schools and official use. There are probably only a few hundred fluent speakers of the Norman language still alive in the island. As many people used to stay in their own parish for most of the time, different accents and many different words were used in different parts of the island and even parish. Between the wars many teachers came from the UK and discouraged the language from their classrooms. The war itself with many islanders evacuated also dealt a big blow to the use of the language as did English language wireless shows.
St Peter Port once had its own variant but it is thought this may have died out up to 150 years ago. English has probably been the dominant language in town for the last two centuries vying with French in the 19th century. English aristocrats, officers, soldiers, sailors, merchants and more recently financiers along with other incomers have settled in town. The Church of St James the Last, now known as St. James Concert and Assembly Hall was completed in 1818. It was the first in the island to cater for English speakers, specifically the British garrison. The market was one place were Guernsey French could be heard regularly, mostly spoken by traders and customers from out of town.
Up until 1204 Guernsey was part of the Duchy of Normandy rather than coming under the English Crown and gradually a distinct variety of Norman evolved here. Guernésiais is one of three Norman languages still spoken in the Channel Islands along with Jèrriais in Jersey and Sercquiais in Sark. Aurignais in Alderney died out completely around the time of the Second World War. It was one of a group of languages called Les Langues d’Oïl which was descended from Vulgar Latin spoken mainly in Northern France. Although often dismissed as “patois” by townies who sometimes struggled to understand their country cousins, Guernésiais was a fully fledged language albeit one which was not originally written down. There is no official way of writing the language although many people base their spellings on those from Marie De Garis’ dictionary. Norman French has a long and proud tradition and includes some Scandinavian words brought over by the Norman invaders. It was the dialect of the Île de France around Paris that developed into modern French but only because it was the home of the Kings of France. Due to its relative isolation from mainland France, Guernésiais is thought to be the purest of the Norman dialects although of course it has been influenced by English and French over the years. It is likely that if William the Conqueror were to come back to life today he would be able to at least understand some Guernésiais, more so than the dialect spoken now in Normandy itself!
So what are the opportunities to learn the language? Dr Harry Tomlinson teaches a popular evening class for beginners at the College of FE, likewise Jan Marquis runs beginners and elementary conversation groups and other courses. A growing number of books have been appearing over the last few years. The long-awaited latest edition of Marie De Garis Dictiounnaire Angllais-Guernésiais is a key work. The last edition was published in 1982 and was long out of print with copies fetching sometimes hundreds of pounds. Several books have been published by Dr. Harry and Hazel Tomlinson and Jan Marquis. As for the media there is Donkey Dialogue every Thursday in the Guernsey Press and on Saturday Morning you can tune in to the Guernsey French news with Cynthia Lenormand around 8.35am on BBC Guernsey and then Jan’s Guernésiais Ditaon d’la Semoine (Phrase of the Week) around 9.25am on Island FM. Several infant and primary schools in the island offer lunchtime and after-school teaching in Guernsey French and at Blanchelande it is even part of the scheduled lessons. There are several regular volunteer teachers. While no town schools offer regular teaching, pupils from Vauvert Primary School compete in the Guernsey French Eisteddfod each year along with other schools.
What of the future? The Culture & Leisure Department officially launched the Guernsey Language Commission on Liberation Day 2013. The original Commissioners were States Former Deputy Darren Duquemin, businessman and Jurat Terry Ferbrache, Guernsey Museums Director Dr. Jason Monaghan, PR Guru Steve Falla, website entrepreneur and the voice of Len and Enid on Island FM Randalls ads, Neil Inder (now a Deputy) and language graduate Louise Mahieux. The Administrator remains Guernsey Museum’s Access and Learning Manager Jo Dowding The aim of the Commission is to support the existing Guernsey French organisations, raising funds and providing grants, and lifting the profile of Guernésiais through a website (language.gg), assisting teaching initiatives and more. The hope is that islanders will take a real pride in their language Guernésiais with many islanders learning a few words and phrases with a few becoming fluent speakers thereby giving the language a future as well as a glorious past.
This article is an updated version of one originally published in The Townie.