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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 Jersey became an island around 7000 years ago were probably Celtic speakers, but sadly despite the best efforts of archaeologists, no recordings of voices from this distant past have been unearthed. The Celtic tribes were among the first to arrive in Northern Europe, and had we remained Celtic speaking, we would have been able to communicate easily with the Welsh, Cornish and Breton speakers.

For some hundreds of years, Latin was the language of the ruling class in much of Europe, and vulgar Latin was the working language of many of the ordinary people, and its development led to what are now known as the Romance languages – French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. However, there is no evidence of Roman settlement in Jersey.

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 Jersey. Christianity arrived in the 6th Century, brought by Missionaries including St. Samson, St. Marcoulf, St. Branwaldr (Brelade) and St. Helier. We know that in the eighth and ninth centuries, Jersey, known at the time as Angia, became part of an autonomous Brittany, under the rule of the Breton king.

However this situation did not last long, as from the ninth century, a period of settlement by the Vikings began. Viking raids in the province of Neustria led to the establishment by treaty of the duchy of Normandy notionally under the French king. The Norse leader, Rolf the Ganger became Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, and it’s to him that those who feel they are being materially mistreated appeal when they raise the Clameur d’Haro. Jersey was absorbed into the territory of the Norsemen by the middle of the tenth century, and there may well have been a rapid change from Celtic to Romance speaking at this time, especially among the ruling class.  Rollo’s successors proved to be able rulers, and adopted the Gallo-Romance language of the country, flavoured with words and sounds from their native Norse, which remain evident in Jèrriais today. 

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 Hastings, so England belongs to us and not the other way round! And our duke, William the Bastard is now better known as William the Conqueror.

Normandy, probably 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 Britain.

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 Normandy, despite the restrictions which the authorities tried to place on it, ensured that Jèrriais and French were the dominant languages, with English being a much more rarely used medium.  Up till the Reformation, the Channel Islands fell within the Diocese of Coutances in Normandy. Most of the population remained unfamiliar with English up till the Napoleonic wars.

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 Jersey.  A massive military building programme involving a mainly English-speaking workforce strengthened the island’s defences.Following the decline of the French threat, a large body of British immigrants arrived - attracted by both the climate and the fact that the cost of living here was considerably cheaper than in England, the reverse of the present day.  These immigrants were convinced of the superiority of the language of the British Empire and they were certainly not going to learn the local tongue.

A 19th Century writer said that the future economic prosperity and general happiness of Jersey was linked with the need for a thorough Anglicisation of the island.  He was however rather premature in his estimate that Jersey would see a complete acceptance of English by 1850. When Queen Victoria visited in 1846 and expressed her approval of the language which she thought sounded like Welsh, her escort, Colonel John Le Couteur of the parish of St. Brélade was quick to point out that while Jèrriais might be the language of the people, there were English schools in every parish.

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.

Group of singers

In 1945 the returning evacuees, having experienced five years of British education, many now speaking with Yorkshire or Scottish accents, saw little need to keep the language alive.

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 Jersey have no interest in the traditions of the island - the finance industry which brings us so much wealth sucks in people who view their working life in the island as an extended holiday.

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 Island. Prior to that, there does not appear to have been any published material – and it must be noted that Maitre Wace, the Jersey-born poet who is celebrated as one of the fathers of French literature, did not write in Jèrriais but rather in the Norman spoken at the court in Caen, where he was educated. However many of the words he used, which have disappeared from or were not adopted by modern French, have close relationships with today’s Jèrriais.

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 included some Guernsey poems together with interpretations in English. As the 19th century drew to an end, a number of other publications appeared, including one which ran to several editions – the adventures of Bram Bilo, written by Philip Le Sueur Mourant, and recounting the story of a country boy at large, an ex-Centenier of St. Ouen who travels to the great Exposition in Paris for the opening of the Eiffel Tower, and glories in being invited to meet the President at the Elysée Palace as well as getting fleeced at the Moulin Rouge!

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 London and who had made his money in the petroleum industry, died in Jersey, leaving a legacy for the promotion and preservation of his native tongue – this became known as Le Don Balleine, the Balleine Gift. The first object of the administrators was the publication of the Dictionnaire Jèrriais Français, written by Frank Le Maistre, and this came to fruition in 1965. A couple of years later it was followed by the English-Jersey Language Vocabulary of Dr Albert Carré, and then a steady stream of other books – Lé Jèrriais pour Tous, Folksongs of the Channel Islands, Original Songs in the Jersey Language, a set of 5 cassettes recorded by some of the best speakers of Jèrriais, and the two collections of George de la Forge memories, Jèrri Jadis and Histouaithe et Gens d’Jèrri. The latter gathered together a selection of the 900 plus letters to the editor of Les Chroniques and the Evening Post contributed by George Francis Le Feuvre, a remarkable man who was born into a St. Ouen family. He was left to be brought up by his grandparents when the rest of the family sailed to Canada, and grew up to work as a lawyer’s clerk in Hill Street. He met his brothers in the trenches when he transferred to the regular army from the Jersey Militia while they were in the Canadian Army. After the death of his wife in the flu’ epidemic of 1919 he emigrated to Canada. He made a career in the US where he became an executive of a major motor manufacturer, but on his retirement, he purchased his old family home at La Forge in St. Ouen, where he would spend his summers, while much of the rest of the year was spent in travelling – but always remaining in correspondence with his friends in Jersey, and always contributing to the EP. In more recent times, Le Don Balleine has been jointly responsible for the teaching of Jèrriais, and has published a number of books, cassettes and a CD-ROM in support of this programme.

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 Isle of Man kindly allowed the use the Manx example as a pattern, despite the lack of linguistic relationship.  The Manx connection has continued ever since, and has proved very beneficial to the teaching team. It has to be remembered that because we are both outside the EU we cannot have access to regional minority language funding, or participate in programmes like Comenius.

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 Norman, and has prevented the French ratification of the European Convention of Regional and Minority Languages. We therefore have no opposite numbers with which to work in mainland Normandy.

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 France, Belgium and Switzerland. We have co-operated with Jersey’s learned society, the Société Jersiaise, to produce Les Preunmié Mille Mots, using the template provided by the publishers Usbourne, and have been involved in the production of the forthcoming Jèrriais-English Dictionary, which was published in May 2005.

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 Normandy in turn. In 2004 we took eleven children to Bayeux where the Fête Nouormande coincided with a medieval fair which knocked big spots off the Jersey Revels, while the Jersey fête in 2005 was extremely well attended and highly appreciated!Welcome sign at Jersey Airport

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….


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