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23 September 2014
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Guernesiais today
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.

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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.


Your Comments
What is your experience of Guernesiais?

Edwin Cross from Kent
I am very interested in seeing CI languages revived. AQre there any Bible portions in Guernsey or Jersey French. I have a few verses in Sark French - but not more.

Aidan Work from Wellington,New Zealand.
Thank you,Julia for answering my question about the various Norman French languages of the Channel Islands.It is very sad to hear that the Alderney Norman French language is extinct.

Julia Sallabank
To reply to Aidan's question: The last native speakers of Auregnais, the Alderney variety of Norman, died in the 20th century and Auregnais disappeared when the population was removed during World War Two. Only a few written examples survive (see and very few recordings. There are perhaps 50 speakers of Serquais, an offshoot of Jèrriais (Jersey) spoken in Sark. None of the smaller islands of the Bailiwick retains its own langaage variety.

Aidan Work from Wellington,New Zealand.
Does anyone know if Guernsey Norman French is spoken on Alderney? I know that the Sarkese people have their own language - Sarkese Norman French.

Nicola Holden, Guernsey
Guernesiais has never been a prestige language, as standard French was always the official language of Guernsey, prior to its replacement by English. In fact, there is not just one variety of Guernesiais. Despite Guernsey's small size, there are several varieties of it, all regionally defined by parish. Someone from the low parishes (in the north of the island) would find it difficult to understand someone speaking the language in the upper parishes. The variety of Guernesiais being revived is that of a specific location - many varieties of this language have almost certainly died out. Most locals find themselves using Guernsiais without realizing it on a daily basis when referring to small streams as douits (dwits) and describing itchy eyes as "picky".

Colin Le Bachelet, Guernsey
You asked on Radio Guernsey for examples of local words etc. I don't know if this is the correct place, but here are some of my own observations, from Guernsey expressions I did not realise were local variations until I went to the UK as a student: 1) the phrase "is it?" (pronounced "ers ert") added at the end of a sentence, similar to the use of "really?" in English, and probably from the patois equivalent of the French "n'est-ce pas?". In England, this produced the response " is it what?" 2)"bouzat" (unsure of spelling) is still used for a cow pat - probably related to the French " bouse" for dung. 3) "Budlo night" for Nov. 5th - I believe this is because originally bonfires were made on New Years Eve, or "bout de l'an" which was contracted to this word. 4) "lunch" in the growing and other industries (pron. "lonch") was used for your mid-morning snack - somtimes cold Guernsey bean jar cut into slices and put on bread. "dinner" was the midday meal ( lunch in middle class England) and "tea" the evening meal. I believe a lot of English people have the same usage of dinner and tea. I hope this is of some interest, but i will try to think of more examples, if this is the correct place to submit them.

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