Language changes

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Language changes

This article by Nicol Spence was first published in the 2001 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Jersey was primarily francophone until the beginning of the 19th century at least. Two varieties of French were in use at that time. What most Jersey people learned at their mothers' knees was the Norman vernacular - or vernaculars, since Jèrriais varied a great deal from one part of the Island to another. What Jersey people still call le bouon francais - 'good' French - functioned as the language of the law courts, church services and official business generally, and the written version of the standard language was also the form used by those who were literate: Jerriais was not a written language. Some children may have been brought up to speak le bouon francais as their first language, but even such children would hardly fail to become conversant with Jèrriais when it was spoken all around them.

Many - perhaps most - other Europeans similarly spoke regional vernaculars in those days, and had varying degrees of competence in the spoken or written varieties which had become standardised in their countries. In the case of France, for many of the inhabitants of Brittany, Aquitaine or Provence, this meant that they were using two different languages, rather than variants of the same one, given that various forms of Occitan were the indigenous language of the South of France, and Breton that of Brittany.

French or Jèrriais

The normal spoken language of most of the Jersey-born was probably Jèrriais, though Philippe Falle, in his Account of the Island of Jersey, first published in 1694, baldly states that "The language is French", and indeed recommends that young English people should be sent to Jersey to learn French rather than risk their faith and morals going to France itself.

He says that "All publick Preaching and Pleading is in that Tongue", but does not make any distinction in this first edition between French and Jèrriais. In the 1734 edition, however, he wrote that "Conversation among the more genteel and well-bred, all these are in good French; but what the Vulgar do speak, is confessedly not so. Yet even that is not so properly a corrupt, as an antique and antiquated French".

Falle's account of the use of English was also expanded between the earlier and later editions. In the first, he merely stated that "Tho' French be the common Language of the Island, there are few Gentlemen, Merchants, or Principal Inhabitants, but speak English tolerably". In the later one he added (in terms now politically incorrect) that many of "the inferior sort" had acquired "a good smattering of it in the Island itself". One wonders if he was not exaggerating somewhat when he added that in the town of Saint Helier, "what with the confluence of the officers and soldiers of the garrison, one hears well-nigh as much English as French".


By Falle's time, therefore, although French in its various forms was the mother-tongue of the indigenous population, English was beginning to acquire some currency as a language used in commerce and in social contacts with English-speakers, such as the Governors and the officers and men of the garrison. That English should have been acquiring some importance by the 18th century is not surprising, given that the Channel Islands had been under the English crown for so long, and had become politically separated from the Duchy of Normandy in 1204 when the French king Philippe-Auguste wrested control of it from King John of England.

Admittedly the language of the English court in those days was still the Anglo-Norman form of French, but English eventually emerged as the dominant language of England, much changed as the result of its reduced status over a lengthy period, and of borrowing and interference from the language of the French-speaking elite. Thereafter, the Islands and England went their separate linguistic ways for several centuries, but the political, military and eventually, ecclesiastical links between them were bound to have a linguistic impact in the longer term. In the days of sailing-ships, given the Islands' relative isolation from England and their proximity to France, allied to their political self-sufficiency, it is not quite so surprising that that impact was slow in making itself felt, and indeed it seems reasonable to argue that the influence of English was fairly superficial until the beginning of the 19th century.

The period of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath seems to have been something of a watershed, since the war period itself involved a considerable military presence, and the period after it, the beginning of a large-scale immigration of English-speakers. Thomas Quayle's book about agriculture in the Channel Islands, published in 1815, indicates that English was making progress among the upper classes. Quayle tells us that "the ordinary table-conversation" of the gentry in 1812-13 was normally in English "spoken, not merely fluently and correctly, but with great precision".

It seems probable that the people involved did not speak English 'ordinarily', but only when the presence of a visitor like Quayle demanded it. However, his remark indicates that those in the higher echelons of Island society were thoroughly conversant with English as well as with two varieties of French.

One would like more precise information about the spread of English and about the relationship between Jèrriais and French. We know that the French Revolution brought thousands of French emigrés to the Island, although few if any of them settled permanently. There was a big influx of English-speakers then (mainly soldiers) and a little later, of immigrants who did settle permanently, with significant long-term effects. Our main source of information about the linguistic situation in the first half of the 19th century is the various books written about the Island or Islands during that period, but they do not always agree about language, except in so far as they all stress the spread in the knowledge of English in Jersey, often exaggerating the speed with which it will become dominant.

Writers' views

J Stead's A Picture of Jersey, published in 1809, says that "the Language of the natives is almost daily falling into disuse and discredit, and doubtless, in a few years hence, English will be the only prevailing Language among the People". [1] W Plees, in his Account of the Island of Jersey, published in 1817, does claim that English is "becoming daily more and more prevalent", but is also quite informative about French and Jèrriais. He says much the same as Falle about 'good French' being used in law-courts, churches and 'public acts', but adds that: "The upper ranks understand and occasionally speak it; but in compliance with custom, and to avoid the appearance of an affected superiority, over the lower classes, they, too frequently, converse in the provincial tongue, or, as it is called, Jersey French. This is a heterogenous compound of antiquated French, intermixed with modern expressions and gallicised English words, so may be termed a kind of linguafranca, and it is pronounced, especially in the country districts, with a most abominable patois. The different parishes even vary in these respects, so that there are more dialects in the language of Jersey, than there are in the ancient Greek".

This passages tells us two interesting things, firstly that the use of Jèrriais was general among the native-born at all levels of society - something that Plees in a footnote contrasts with the attitude of the German bourgeoisie of Hamburg with regard to the use of High and Low German - and secondly, that there were already very noticeable variations in the Jèrriais spoken in different parts of the Island.

H D Inglis, writing in the early 1830s, says that the 'universal language' of the Island was 'a barbarous dialect', confirming the widespread use of Jèrriais. He adds that French was not in common use even among the 'upper ranks', and comments that the command of English was imperfect outside the best society. However, he goes on to claim that 'children are now universally taught English, and amongst the young, there is an evident preference for English', and concluding that it was 'not improbable, that in twenty years more, English will be the language of the legislature, the judicature, and the people'.

It may have been true that middle-class children in town were being taught English, but given that compulsory education was still quite a long way off, and that such education as existed in the country was much more likely to be based on French, Inglis is hardly a trustworthy observer. His timescale for the spread of English is manifest nonsense, motivated perhaps by wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, there is general agreement among the 19th-century observers that knowledge of English was spreading, especially in and near the town. An anonymous guide published in 1826 claims that 'few are to be found in the neighbourhood of the town, even among the poorer classes, who do not in greater or lesser degree understand it'. Like Plees, the author also noted the wide variations in Jèrriais from one part of the Island to another.

A number of factors brought about considerable change by the 1820s or so. General Don, who became Governor in 1806, improved communications within the Island through the building of new roads to facilitate the movement of troops. New fortifications, including Fort Regent, were built. Much larger numbers of English-speaking troops garrisoned the Island, and an influx of English-speakers began.


Some, at the higher end of the social scale, were half-pay officers and their families who settled in the Island after the war. However, their numbers were exceeded by those of ordinary people in search of work, which was not easily available on the mainland, where conditions were rather depressed. Some were artisans, others ordinary labourers. They were joined by a large number of fishermen attracted to the oyster trade that developed in the Bay of Grouville at this period, with as many as 250 English fishing boats involved. It was for the benefit of these that English language services were provided in a new church at Gorey. There and in the town of Saint Helier, colonies of monoglot English-speakers established themselves, changing the previous pattern of a francophone community enjoying some acquaintance with English.

The newcomers were numerous enough in the urban areas to resist linguistic assimilation, and the language split into francophone country and primarily anglophone urban communities had begun to take shape, and was to increase as the years went by. According to J D Kelleher, there were almost 12,000 English immigrants (out of a total population of 57,000) in Jersey by 1851, concentrated in urban areas, only 14% of whom were people of independent means (mainly half-pay officers and their families?), the vast majority being artisans or labourers.

An investigation by M Le Gros in 1906, quoted by Pierre Dalido in his 1948 book Jersey: ile agricole anglo-normande, showed that of the children born as early as 1841 in Jersey, only 48.2% had typical Jersey surnames, as opposed to 44.4% with surnames typical of the British Isles. These are numbers based on births, not on gross population or language affiliation, but they must represent a drastic change in the numbers of inhabitants who represent anglophone 'invaders' or their children, rather than the old Jersey stock. By 1901, the percentage of children born to families with 'Jersey' surnames had further declined to 37.47%. Obviously, some of those with English or 'foreign' names settled in the country and became Jèrriais-speakers, but conversely, some with Jersey surnames in the urban areas were anglicized.

English institutions

It must also be accepted that not all Jersey people regarded the spread of English as a bad thing. There were those who favoured English as the prestige language. One can pinpoint various milestones in its acceptance. For instance, although the courts, the legal draughtsmen and the States remained faithful to French to the end of the century and beyond, the proceedings of the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society were published in English from its foundation in 1833. Victoria College, founded in 1852, was from the beginning an English-language school run on the model of the English public schools. It may have been founded largely for the benefit of the children of the more prosperous English residents, but nearly a third of the pupils in 1860 were Jersey boys - and there was no comparable French-language institution.

Although there were those who resented the decline of the francophone tradition, there were obviously local anglophiles, not just the English immigrants, who were convinced that the future lay with the English tradition and culture. It should not be forgotten that this was the Victorian era, when Britain's power and prestige were at their height: the acceptance of English as the prestige language by the native upper and urban middle classes was the thing that finally determined the eventual eclipse of French, and for those groups, the abandonment of Jèrriais also.

That is not to say that there were not attempts to counter that change: La Société Jersiaise, founded in 1873, had as one of its major aims the defence of la langue - but it seems, as in the debates about the use of language in the States, that the emphasis was on the retention of le bouon francais rather than that of Jèrriais itself. What was taught, and inspected, in the schools was French, not Jèrriais. The country children mostly did not need to be taught Jèrriais - they already spoke it - and as a spoken medium, it would have been difficult to teach it even if anyone had wished to do so.

The improvement in communications between the Islands and Britain and shifts in the patterns of trade towards the English mainland were other factors that went to reinforce the English connection, but in the first half of the 19th century, the single most important factor was probably the immigration of English-speakers on a scale that would have defied assimilation into the community that spoke Jèrriais and French, even if it had not been for the fact that many of the latter were accepting English, rather than French, as the prestige language.

Breton immigrants

There was a considerable influx of French nationals - mainly Bretons - into Jersey as agricultural labourers in the second half of the century, many of whom remained as permanent residents: the number of such residents rose from 2,100 in 1851 to 5,836 by 1901. They settled in the country rather than the town, and may have helped to swell the number of Jèrriais speakers when their children grew up in Jèrriais speaking environments. However, according to Pierre Dalido and C Vallaux, the children of the French immigrants sought to integrate into the community by abandoning French at the earliest opportunity in favour of English, which, if true, again indicates that the tide was flowing in its favour, and away from French (and Jèrriais).

The fact that the rural community was on the whole antagonistic to the Bretons may have something to do with the attitude adopted by the latter. However, it was the urbanized areas that were becoming predominantly English-speaking, with some Jersey people as well as immigrants opting for English as their normal language. The country areas were still predominantly Jèrriaiss-speaking, but were moving towards the acceptance of English as being of equal or greater importance than French. In his 1893 revision of The Channel Islands by D T Ansted and R G Latham, E T Nicolle wrote that the English language had made vast strides in the course of the century, so that it was difficult to find a native of Jersey or Guernsey, even in the country parishes, who could not 'converse fairly well' in English - a significant, if not very precise, remark.

The next milestone in the triumph of English over French was the introduction of English in the last decades of the 19th century as the principal medium of instruction in many schools. Many of the children then - as much more recently - started school in the country parishes knowing no English, but grew up to speak it and use it fluently, given that many of their fellow-islanders knew no other language. In the country parishes, this led to a stage of 'triglossia', with three language systems in use, each with its own sphere of usage.

The role of Standard French weakened gradually, as many of its functions were taken over by English. English did not, of cours, rapidly eliminate French, which remained the language of the courts, of the States and of the Methodist chapels in country parishes for many years. English only became a 'permitted' language in the States in 1901, and preaching in French in Ebenezer Chapel in Trinity and some other Chapels continued into the 1920s. A French visitor reported in 1889 that services in the Anglican churches were nearly all in English in Saint Helier, which one might have expected, while they were still exclusively in French in the parishes of Saint Ouen, Saint Lawrence, Saint Peter and Saint Mary, but alternated between French and English elsewhere, with the English services being more popular. Legislation was mainly drafted in French until the 1930s, the reports of school inspectors were written in French, not English, for many years, and in one parish at least, Saint Martin, the minutes of the Parish Assembly were kept in French until as late as 1965.

English has triumphed

Today, of course, that is a thing of the past. Parish announcements in the press may be headed 'Paroisse de St Clement' or 'Paroisse de St Helier', but the rest is in English. The conveyancing of properties is still in French, [Editor: This has also now changed] and various French formulae are still in use in proceedings of the States - but by and large, English has triumphed over French, and to a great extent, over Jèrriais as well. That the States should have opted to be members of the Association de Parlementaires de Langue Francaise, and that Jersey should have chosen to be classed as part of la Francophonie, is difficult to understand, except as an example of wishful thinking, given that few members of the States could carry on their business in French, and the vast majority of Jersey people are not francophone, either as speakers of French or of Jèrriais.

The decline in the ability to use French is, of course, related to the decline of Jèrriais, since the speakers of the latter achieved some competence in the use of French even after English replaced French as the main language of choice. The survival of Jèrriais as a mother tongue of some Islanders, beyond the general replacement of French, runs counter to the general development of language in France itself, where it is in general the vernaculars that have been absorbed by provincial variants of the standard language. The Occitan dialects of Southern France have almost disappeared, and the regional vernaculars of Northern France have disappeared from the towns and are hard-pressed in the countryside.

Because of their political separateness, the Norman vernaculars of the Channel Islands were spared the impact that French centralism, compulsory education in French and ocher factors have had on the dialects of the French mainland, and therefore have been able to retain purer forms of Norman French than the latter. The acceptance of English as the standard language has, however, had a devastating effect, not on the forms of Jèrriais, but on its vitality, given that it is no longer a language that is transmitted to the young at their mother's knee, as the saying is, but one that people are trying to save from extinction by making it a language that one learns at school - which is not at all the same thing.

It is interesting to note that French in its various forms has elsewhere been extraordinarily resistant outside France, as can be seen in Quebec and other parts of Canada, in Louisiana in the United States, in Haiti and in various British colonies that were once French, like Mauritius and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean or Dominica and Grenada in the West Indies, where French or French creoles have survived for centuries. The massive immigration of English speakers has obviously been a major factor in bringing about the replacement of French, as has the impact of English institutions and media, but, as Henri Gaidoz and Dr Hellmut Losch have suggested, "it is also probably due to the fact that France was for many centuries the arch-enemy, whose troops ravaged the Islands many times during the Middle Ages, and remained a menace until relatively modern times. That hardly made for any feeling of loyalty to 'Frenchness'".

The present enthusiasm about 'our Norman cousins' and the links which have been forged with them seem to be quite recent. One's impression is that although Jersey people had no great love of the English - or of their fellow Channel-Islanders in Guernsey - they were even less fond of the French. H Gaidoz commented in the late 19th century that 'Norman' was an insult.

Decline of Jèrriais

The decline of Jèrriais is obviously bound up with the spread of English, although it is worth making the point that that decline would necessarily not have been prevented by the retention of French as the prestige language: regional vernaculars have lost ground everywhere in Europe in the modern world, and it is only recently that this has become a matter for concern for more than a few people. In many societies, the upper and middle classes of the towns looked down on local vernaculars, which they regarded as the speech of peasants. The French state, from the revolutionary period on, until quite recently, regarded regional languages as somewhat suspect, and sought to extend the use of 'the national language'.

Attitudes in Jersey were not much better, in so far as children were discouraged from using Jèrriais at school, and the English-speaking community looked down on it. Many teachers may well have felt that they were acting in the best interests of the children in boosting the prestige language at the expense of the vernacular, but it cannot have been helpful. There was some conflict between the partisans of English language and culture, and those who stood for the old ways and against the anglicisation of Island culture, including its Norman vernacular. It is, however, noticeable that those who started to write in Jèrriais and in defence of it were generally men of substance.

However, most ordinary speakers of Jèrriais spoke it because it was their mother tongue, and came naturally to them, not because they treasured it as a national heritage or attributed any particular value to it. Many of them, like their contemporaries in France in similar situations, accepted the view of urban society that it was only a patois, and were only too ready to abandon it. In other words, the main reason for the decline of Jèrriais - other than the presence of a large English-speaking community - was that most of its speakers did not have any real respect for it: Arthur Balleine and Frank Le Maistre, who sought to defend it, were voices preaching in the wilderness.

In some families, particularly since the end of the Second World War, it was the children who started to refuse to speak Jèrriais, even though they knew it, because they regarded it as old-fashioned. The effects were cumulative. Where only one partner in a marriage was a native-speaker, Jèrriais was not normally transmitted to the children of that family, even when the mother was the speaker. That was because the ability to speak Jèrriais was not seen as 'useful' in the way that the ability to speak French or German could be seen as a useful additional skill.

The result has been the progressive decline in the number of native speakers. It is well-known that the only occasion on which islanders were asked about their knowledge of Jèrriais was in the Census of 1989, when 5,720 people answered in the affirmative to a question whether they spoke 'Jersey Norman French'. We do not know how many of them were fluent native-speakers - but even if they all were (and Dr F Le Maistre thinks the real number was less than half that), that represents just under 7% of the population of the time, the vast majority of whom were over 40 years old, and will have been significantly reduced in numbers since then, given that 44% of those who said they spoke Jèrriais were over 65 in 1989.

In view of the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, no children are now being brought up as native-speakers of the vernacular, it is obvious that the number of native-speakers will decline to nothing in time, unless inter-generational transmission can be restored - and it is difficult to see how that could be accomplished. The decline in the acceptability of Jèrriais after the Second World War provoked some reactions in favour of the vernacular, with the setting up of the Assernbliee d'Jèrriais, the introduction of free evening classes for those who wished to learn Jèrriais, and the publication of articles in Jèrriais in the local press (many of those by George F Le Feuvre, writing as 'Georges de la Forge', have been published by the Don Balleine). In 1985, the Don Balleine published a grammar entitled Le Jèrriais pour tous, a complete course on the Jersey Language, written by a young graduate in Welsh with the help of local speakers. The campaign has been gathering momentum in the last few years. In 1995 a group of enthusiasts created a section of La Société Jersiaise dedicated to la langue Jèrriaise, and Jèrriais has been added to the list of 'minority languages', and as part of 'Channel Island French', has been added to the Unesco list of Threatened Languages, in spite of the obvious fact that 'Channel Island French' - or 'Jersey Norman French' - as their names indicate - are varieties of French, closely related to the Norman dialects of the Cotentin, not independent languages. The Jersey Evening Post has also been giving strong support to measures aimed at reviving Jèrriais and is publishing frequent features about it.

Funding for lessons

Most significantly, a plan to introduce voluntary classes in Jèrriais into the primary schools was approved almost unanimously in 1999 by the States of Jersey. Tony Scott-Warren (not himself a native-speaker) has been appointed as a co-ordinator of studies, and classes have now been running for over a year. In a further move, the Education Committee has been granted a further £500,000 to fund teaching in the secondary schools, and classes there have been running for some time. Classes are at present voluntary, and take place outside ordinary school hours.

In spite of a rather euphoric report by Mr Scott-Warren in the Jersey Evening Post of 1 November 2000, it is difficult to see what can be achieved by such means, if the aim is to produce fluent speakers of the vernacular. Intensive compulsory classes covering several hours a week for several years would be needed to achieve anything of that kind, and it is difficult to see parents or children, whatever their original enthusiasm, sanctioning a level of commitment that would seriously encroach on the time available for teaching other subjects, and in any case, even concentrated teaching would not produce native-speakers of Jèrriais.

In other words, expectations should not be raised too high. Something will be achieved in keeping the memory of Jèrriais alive, and there will always be some whose enthusiasm and commitment allows them to achieve a fair standard of competence in Jèrriais - though present emphasis seems to be as much on learning to write it as on speaking it - which is not all that appropriate, given that we are dealing with a medium that has always been primarily a spoken one. Mr Scott-Warren would like there to be a GCSE qualification in Jèrriais, on the model of that existing for Manx, a language that has been 'resurrected' after its last native-speaker had departed this world. Unfortunately the standard achieved by candidates obtaining a GCSE does not guarantee any real competence in a language, and in any case, such examinations (and ones at higher levels) have mainly tested the use of the written, not the spoken, form of a language, which seems hardly ideal in the case of Jèrriais. It is unfortunate that the major grammar available, Paul Birr's Le Jèrriais pour tous, is also primarily a guide to writing Jèrriais, not speaking it.

The teaching campaign needs to be compared to what has been attempted elsewhere, notably in Ireland. The Irish have tried extremely hard to revive the use of Irish, with intensive compulsory teaching of it, including some schools in which all subjects are taught through the medium of Irish, and the obligation to pass examinations in Irish when trying for certain jobs. In spite of these efforts, the Irish language is not gaining ground, since the number of native-speakers is still falling. English remains the first language of most Irish people, and Irish is little used by the average person once he or she has left school.

This is understandable: one naturally prefers to speak one's mother-tongue (which is English for the vast majority of Irish people) unless there are significant reasons for using one that one has learnt at school, and most Irish people manage perfectly well without Irish in Ireland itself, let alone abroad. As a result, their Irish gets rusty, since the command of a learnt language tends to deteriorate when it is not used. This would also apply to any Jèrriais learnt at school, particularly at the primary level.

The local enthusiasts who think Jèrriais is going to be saved by much less concentrated teaching than that which has failed to make Irish a really live language after three quarters of a century of serious commitment, should ask themselves how they think Jersey can even match that rather unsatisfactory outcome. It is not impossible to learn languages when the motivation and the need are there, but when one considers how poor is the French of most Jersey people who have had compulsory classes in the language at school, one wonders how sporadic occasional classes in Jèrriais can be expected to do any better. They may inspire a few students to go on to master Jèrriais and keep its memory green, but will that be enough to justify the belief that 'Jèrriais is saved'? Linguists would certainly maintain that once the last native-speaker departs this world, it will be a dead language. [2]

Notes and references

  1. Stead's prediction was correct but it took about a century longer than his suggested 'in a few years'.
  2. Two decades after this article was written, and despite further substantial investment in schools and a belated belief that Jerriais should be used on government documents and roadsigns, the death of Jerriais as a living language cannot be far away. In the early days of Jerripedia there was pressure for a more substantial section on Jerriais, written in the language, but despite initial enthusiasm from Mr Scott-Warren's department, there was a total lack of active support when it came to bring the project to its next stage and the idea was lost - Editor
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