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10 July 2014
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Jèrriais and Sercquiais today
The status of Jèrriais
The history of Jèrriais and Sercquiais

Jèrriais and Sercquiais today by Dr Mari C Jones

You may be surprised to learn that Norman French is spoken natively in part of the British Isles. Each of the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey and Sark has its own native dialect, all of which are closely related to the dialects spoken in Normandy. However, as each of the Island dialects has its own characteristics in vocabulary and pronunciation, a speaker from one Island cannot automatically understand a speaker from another, nor can it be assumed they will easily understand mainland Norman, nor indeed be understood by speakers of Standard French.

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Jèrriais and Sercquiais are, respectively, the Norman French dialects spoken on Jersey and Sark. Even though Sark is geographically close to Guernsey, Sercquiais is related more to Jèrriais than to Guernesiais (the dialect of Guernsey) since it developed from a form of Jèrriais after Sark was colonised from Jersey in 1565. Auregnais, the dialect of Alderney, became extinct in the twentieth century.

If you are able to speak Standard French, you will recognise many of the same features in Jèrriais and Sercquiais. This is because Standard French is closely related to these dialects. However, you may also be surprised to find that there are a number of noteworthy differences. For example, in both Jèrriais and Sercquiais a singular-plural distinction is made in words such as baté - batchieaux ('boat'; Jèrriais spelling used). This distinction is absent from spoken French, which has bateau - bateaux (both pronounced 'bato'). Another distinctive feature is the use of jé as both the first person singular pronoun ('I') and the first person plural pronoun ('we'). Standard French, of course, has a different pronoun in each case ('je' and 'nous').

Speaker Numbers
Even a brief visit to Jersey and Sark will leave you in no doubt that, today, English is their dominant language. The 2001 Census of Jersey recorded that, at that time, 2,874 of the Island's 87,186 inhabitants (3.3%) were able to speak Jèrriais, with some two-thirds of these speakers aged over 60. The Census also recorded that only 113 speakers declared Jèrriais to be their usual everyday language. Information about speakers of Sercquiais has never been gathered officially but in 1998 it was estimated that, at that time, fewer than 20 out of the Island's 600 permanent inhabitants (3.3%) were still able to speak Sercquiais.

Dialect Variations
One fascinating feature of Jèrriais is that, despite the fact that Jersey measures only 10.8 miles by 6.8, Jèrriais is not spoken in the same way throughout the Island. The different local varieties of Jèrriais are known as parlers. They differ from one another in terms of the way that certain sounds are pronounced and it is also common to find different words being used for the same object across the Island. These include words such as 'spider', which is 'pêtre' in West Jersey and 'aithangnie' in East Jersey. Despite these local differences, speakers of Jèrriais from different parts of Jersey have no difficulty in understanding one another.

Even though Sark is only 2 square miles in size, it seems that Sercquiais too, had at least two distinctive local varieties. However, by today, Sercquiais is relatively homogeneous.

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