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The history of Guernesiais
Guernesiais today by Julia Sallabank
The Channel Islands are popular destinations for holidaymakers, but many visitors, and even some people living in Guernsey, are unaware that they have their own language. Yet 200 years ago there were very few Guernsey people who could speak English. The language they spoke was Guernesiais, a variety of Norman French, which has been spoken in the area for over 1000 years.
The main language spoken in Guernsey nowadays is English. According to the 2001 census, only 2% of the population speak Guernesiais fluently, although one in seven say they can understand some. Portuguese is probably spoken by almost as many people as Guernesiais, as many Portuguese people have come to work in the island. Quite a few people can also speak French, which was the official language until 1948. There is also a Guernsey dialect of English, with some Guernesiais elements such as 'buncho' ('somersault').
Despite its historical importance, Guernesiais has suffered from a lack of prestige for the last few hundred years. It does not have any official recognition or status. There is not even an official name: many people call it the 'patois', French for 'dialect', but some speakers now object to this term. It is also often called 'Guernsey French' but native speakers prefer to call it 'Guernesiais'. Very little is heard in public life or in the media: only five minutes a week of news on Radio Guernsey, and the odd article in local papers.
Most of the people who speak Guernesiais nowadays are over 50, and there are few, if any, children learning it in the home. As speakers get older they have fewer and fewer people they can speak Guernesiais with, but there is still a community of several hundred people who use Guernesiais for their entire social life. Even in such a small island there are regional variations, and speakers can tell to within a mile or so where someone comes from.
There are several groups dedicated to saving Guernesiais, under the umbrella of the Coumité d'la Culture Guernesiaise (Guernsey Cultural Committee). Groups such as Les Ravigotteurs and L'Assembllaïe d'Guernesiais hold social evenings where people are encouraged to speak Guernesiais. Evening classes are held at the College of Further Education, and since autumn 2003 Guernesiais has been taught in three primary schools as an optional after-school activity. These lessons are very popular, and parents and other teachers often sit in.
Until recently people who spoke Guernesiais were often ridiculed; quite a few did not admit they spoke it when they went to school. It is only recently that linguistic heritage has been seen as important, and people who speak Guernesiais now feel proud of their ability. There is increased interest in island identity, as many people feel that Guernsey is becoming too similar to the UK. As the indigenous language declines there is an increased sense that this unique part of Guernsey heritage should not be allowed to die out.