The Languishing Languages of the Channel Islands
'For hundreds of years, French and Norman dialects have been spoken somewhere closer to home...'
Alex Burgar | 13 June 2016

If I asked you to name a French-speaking country, I would not be surprised to get answers like ‘Switzerland’, ‘Morocco’, or ‘Canada’, but for hundreds of years, French and Norman dialects have been spoken somewhere closer to home, closer, even, than France itself.  


Right on our doorstep, the charming archipelago of the Channel Islands has been a predominantly non-English-speaking territory for centuries, and it is only in recent years that English has risen to the surface as the dominant language.  The Channel Islands are not countries in their own right; they are bailiwicks – crown dependencies of the UK – meaning that English has become the most commonly used language, with 94.6% of the population being fluent.  Portuguese is also broadly used within the rapidly integrating immigrant population.  However, on visiting, it is clear just how strong an influence other languages have had.


The islands have their own languages: unique Norman dialects with only some mutual intelligibility, which are now but a shadow of their former selves.  Jersey, the largest of the islands, has arguably suffered from language obsolescence the least.  Jèrriais was the dominant language in the Bailiwick of Jersey for most of the island’s history, but in recent years it has languished, and is now spoken by roughly just 2,600 of the island’s 87,000 inhabitants (down from 5,720 in 1989).  Unsurprisingly, it is most prominent in rural areas.  However, the capital, Saint Helier, has the highest total number of speakers.  Not to be confused with Jersey Legal French (spoken by Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables), Jèrriais is being learnt in schools by around 200 children (as of 2006), and the island’s leading newspaper, the Jersey Evening Post, runs native language articles every week.  Astonishingly, up to 15% of the population of the island has a degree of understanding of the language.  Broadly kept alive by efforts to conserve its usage, Jèrriais is suffering from the linguistic phenomenon of absorption of English, like many other languages worldwide, and words like ‘scrobbine-broche’ (scrubbing brush), ‘code à phôner’ (phone code), and ‘ouâchinner’ (rub in soapy water, from washing) are now frequently employed.  Similarities to French are also clear, such as ‘vaque’ (vache), ‘caud’ (chaud), and ‘gambe’ (jambe).   


An altogether sadder story is that of Guernésiais (also known as Dgèrnésiais).  Among the young, only 0.1% (roughly one in a thousand) is fluent.  14% of the population claim to have some understanding of the language, but with 70% of the 1,327 fluent speakers aged over 64, it seems Guernésiais is going to face extinction in this century.  It is not difficult to see where mutual intelligibility stems from:  ‘Quaï temps qu’i fait?’  clearly bears distinct similarities to: ‘Quel temps fait-il?’ (French, whence the Channel Islands languages originate).  Interestingly, Guernésiais saw a revival during the Second World War, when the Channel Islands were notorious as the only British territory to be occupied by Nazi forces.  The language became something of a code, especially as the occupying soldiers often had knowledge of English, and it was not desirable to be understood.  


Other Channel Islands languages have sadly led the way to extinction, and are now but faint memories in the wake of global trade and English predominance in the education system.  Auregnais (also known as Aoeur’gnaeux), the language of Alderney, became extinct in the 20th century, after the death of the last known native speaker in the 1960s, and very few examples of it still survive, mostly in place names, and one known audio recording.  Linguists have described its disappearance as ‘the worst documented case of recent language extinction’.  Auregnais’ cousin, Sercquiais, spoken on the ‘last feudal state in Europe’, the island of Sark, is now all but extinct, with fewer than 15 speakers left.  This is somewhat surprising, given that Sark was until recently still governed based on Norman law.  Sercquiais bears striking resemblances to French (I read a sample and could understand a fair amount), but has nowadays been swallowed by English, as it seems these characterful and charming languages may all be, if conservation attempts prove unsuccessful.


Orignal Image by Alex Burgar

James Routledge 2016