Jèrriais is the ancient language of Jersey – still spoken today by around two thousand people and closely related to the Norman language spoken by a minority in mainland Normandy (especially the dialects of the Cotentin), to Guernésiais and to Sercquiais.
The Romans spread Latin across their Empire, but over the centuries different languages arose. Just as Italian, Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese developed in the South of the former Roman Empire, and Romanian developed in the East, different languages formed on the basis of Latin in different parts of Gaul.
One of these became what we now know as Jèrriais.
It is commonly known as Jersey-French in the island, but that is a misnomer, because it is not a Jersey version of French, it is a Jersey version (or versions, because words vary from parish to parish) of Norman French. So it should be known as Jersey Norman French, but the name in the language itself is Jèrriais.
When the Norsemen arrived and acquired the territory which was given the name of Normandy, they gradually abandoned their Norse language and started speaking a hybrid tongue, being a mixture of Norse and the Latinate language of their new subjects. However, they introduced many of their old Norse words to their new Norman language.
Jèrriais words of Norse origin that are familiar from placenames include:
- mielle - dune
- hougue - mound
- greune - rock lying just under water
- nez - headland
When Jersey was incorporated into the Duchy of Normandy, the influence of the language extended to the Island and continued for centuries.
After centuries of daily use in the homes, fields and markets of Jersey, the Norman language acquired its own specifically Jersey features – and Guernsey’s language followed its own distinct path. One of the distinctive features of Jèrriais is the “th” (pronounced like the English “th” in “father”) which is not found in Guernsey, mainland Normandy, or even Sark, which was colonised by Jersey families in the 16th Century.
Some Jèrriais words adopted into English:
The Anglo-Norman language Wace, the earliest known Jersey writer, wrote in is variously regarded as a dialect of the Norman language, a dialect of Old French, or specifically the precursor of Jèrriais. Writers in Jersey have looked on Wace as the founder of Jersey literature, and Jèrriais is sometimes referred to as the language of Wace, although the poet himself predated the development of Jèrriais as a literary language.
There is no Bible in Jèrriais (due to the use of French bibles in churches, interpreted by preaching in Jèrriais), and no long tradition of novel-writing in it, but since the introduction of printing in Jersey at the end of the 18th Century, thousands of stories, typically satirical and poking fun at States Members and Parish notables, have been published, often in newspapers and almanacs.
Matthew Le Geyt was the first poet to publish in Jèrriais following the introduction of printing. Writers such as Philippe Langlois, Augustus Asplet Le Gros, Philippe Le Sueur Mourant, Jean Dorey, Edwin John Luce and George William de Carteret followed, producing literature that varies from the high-flown to low comedy in prose, verse and stagewriting.
The first whole book of Jèrriais literature printed was Rimes et Poësies Jersiaises published in 1865.
Now, with classes in primary and secondary schools, a CD-ROM, programmes on the radio, and thousands of pages in Jèrriais on the Internet, efforts to ensure the survival of the ancient language appear to be bearing fruit, although the number of homes, in which it is spoken on a daily basis as the first language of the household, continues to decline, and unless children from two such homes continue to marry and set up home together, daily use of Jèrriais will inevitably disappear.
Decline of French
Until the early 20th century French, but not Jèrriais, was the official language of the Island and was used in all public notices, in the Court and the States and the Churches. But the great invasion of English residents, which began in Victorian times, together with the influence of English-trained teachers in the schools and the far-reaching effects of radio and television, have made English the dominant language. In 1900 the use of English was made optional in the States, and one by one all the Churches have dropped their French services.
The local language was given a tremendous boost by the German Occupation during the last war, when it was the perfect medium of conversation, and incomprehensible to the occupying forces. Shortly afterwards an organisation, L'Assembliee d'Jerriais, was formed to preserve it, and a Dictionnaire Jersiais-Francais, by Frank Le Maistre, was published. Although the terms are translated into French, the English counterparts are frequently given. The preservation of the language is thus ensured for all time.
- Jerriais words to National Anthem
- A Jersey Bishop fails to understand
- The programme to further the teaching of Jèrriais in the island
- Jersey's poor standard of French, a 1999 newspaper article
- A 1947 talk by Frank Le Maistre on the history of Jèrriais
- The Jersey Language from La Société Jersiaise's members' website
- A brief history of Jèrriais
- A Glossary of Jersey-French