J’voudrais bian qué vous séyiz ichin! (Wish you were here!)

21st February 2022

Found in: Blog  -  

Author: Locate Guernsey

Did you know that Guernsey has its own language? Guernesiais – pronounced ‘DJERR-nehz-yay‘, it is also known as ‘Guernsey French’ or ‘patois’.

Guernesiais is unique to Guernsey with its roots set deep in the history of the Island. It remained as the everyday tongue of the majority of those living in Guernsey from the time of the Normans up until the Second World War.  Large numbers of local children were evacuated to England and this is cited as a large contributory factor to the decline in use of our local language.

Unfortunately, Guernesiais is now classed as endangered. Nowadays, you may find islanders whose parents and grandparents speak Guernesiais, but these are in very low numbers.

International Mother Language Day is observed across the world every year on the 21st February and was introduced to promote and preserve native languages of the world.

It is currently estimated that there are around 6,000 languages spoken in the world and of these, about half will die out this century, meaning that one language dies roughly every two weeks.

In honour of International Mother Language Day, we decided to speak with Guernesiais language consultant, Yan Marquis about our native language’s roots.

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to learn Guernesiais?

Bianvnu en Guernesi (Welcome to Guernsey)! My name is Yan Marquis and my family is from Guernsey.

When I was a child we didn’t speak Guernesiais at home, but I used to spend time with my grandparents who lived in Torteval. In this Southwestern corner of the island, many people spoke Guernesiais, at home, in the greenhouses and when they were out and about – it was bilingual Guernsey.

Unfortunately, in those days children were discouraged from learning Guernesiais, so I didn’t speak it. I don’t know why, but Guernesiais interested me so one day when I was a little older, I decided to learn it. I used to speak to the old people, and in this way after a short time I was able to learn Guernesiais. However, learning it was not enough, consequently I have been involved with its promotion and teaching for some 30 years.

2. Where does Guernesiais originate?

Guernesiais is a variety of the Norman language spoken by the Dukes of Normandy, it is a Romance language that is related to, yet predates, modern French. It is assumed that some form of Romance language has been spoken in Guernsey for some 2000 years, the predominance of English is relatively recent.

Following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Norman became the language of the English court and remained so until ‘English’ established itself several centuries later. However, Norman (Guernesiais) remained the everyday tongue of most islanders until well into the twentieth century, it has been transmitted by an oral tradition and has no universally agreed writing system; nevertheless, it has a substantial body of literature.

3. Is Guernesiais an endangered language?

Arguably all languages are endangered, but in terms of languages in need of urgent action to reverse language decline and extinction, Guernesiais is definitely in peril. The loss to humanity of this enormous linguistic and cultural wealth is incalculable and of serious concern.

It is not easy to say how many Guernesiais speakers there are, but we know that the number has declined sharply, the reasons for this decline are complex; tourism, a nineteenth-century English-speaking military presence, mass media, social changes and the WWII evacuation to the UK of large numbers of children are amongst contributory factors often cited.

4. Why is it important to preserve Guernesiais?

It is often said that Guernesiais is a mark of Guernsey’s unique cultural heritage and identity, and that it is important as it makes the island distinctive. People often talk about the sense of ‘Guernsey-ness’ that the language evokes. This distinctiveness has an economic value when marketing the island and its products; it also has cultural value when the island represents itself at international events and conferences.

Furthermore, many Guernesiais students report feeling more positive about and connected to their island home after learning even a little of the language. Learning languages has many benefits beyond simple communication, amongst these are numerous intellectual advantages. Furthermore, people who learn a second language, often go on to learn other languages – this is an enriching experience for the individual and has benefits for the whole community.

5. What is being done within the community to preserve Guernesiais?

For a number of years The States of Guernsey have provided a small budget to support the language, but in 2020 they voted overwhelmingly to substantially increase this budget. At the time of writing work is in hand to form a Language Commission which will co-ordinate language promotion and revitalisation projects such the development of learner materials etc.

In 2020 Guernsey Museums held the successful Voice-Vouaïe exhibition which comprised photo-portraits and audio of people who grew up with Guernésiais. The project was a partnership between photographer Aaron Yeandle, Guernsey Museums and me. Please click here  to see a 3D tour of the exhibition with audio.

Over the past few years various children’s books have been translated into Guernesiais – these include: The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, My First Guernesiais Word Book, Teach your cat Guernesiais; Warro! You can watch the videos to accompany these publications on the Island Language’s YouTube channel – here.

You can also attend weekly Guernesiais lessons at the Guernsey Museums, for further information please visit their website – Learn the language – Guernsey Museums (gov.gg).

6. What do you love most about island life in Guernsey?

There are many things to love about island life, for me some of these include the many beautiful beaches where you can walk or swim, but beware, the sea can be quite icy! Nevertheless, I am one of a number of people who have been enjoying swimming in the sea throughout the year for decades.

Remaining with the outdoors, I am a keen cyclist and as well as cycling to and from work, I love cycling through the network of country lanes where even today I can discover some secluded corner of the island.

Finally, I love researching and learning about Guernsey’s rich heritage and its wealth of history which goes back millennia. As a Silver Accredited Tour Guide, when I am not promoting Guernesiais, I am able to share this island knowledge with both visitors and locals on my walking and cycling tours –  https://www.facebook.com/yanmarquistourguide

If you would like to find out more about life in Guernsey, then please get in touch with Locate Guernsey today.

A bétaot!

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