Jersey Norman French: A Linguistic Study of an Obsolescent Dialect

My interest in minority European languages has taken me to Switzerland, where for four summers I have pursued an intensive study program in Romansch, and also to France, where I enrolled in an introductory course in Breton. I can more often be found at home perusing my vast library of books devoted to these and other endangered languages. Most of these books were read before I started writing reviews, however Jersey Norman French: A Linguistic Study of an Obsolescent Dialect by Mari C. Jones, a Schoenhof’s find from several years ago, never got the cover-to-cover treatment. I remember standing in the Cambridge, Massachusetts store reading various chapters, nose buried and oblivious to all staff and customers milling about, and then reading more of it on the plane home. However my reading experience was an excerpts-only pursuit as I jumped from chapter to chapter and I never later sat down with the book to read it in its entirety from cover to cover until now.


Jersey Norman French, or Jèrriais is the French dialect spoken on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. It is a severely endangered language, threatened with obsolescence before the end of this century. Jones analyzes linguistic developments and lexical change in the language, and even provides a brief analysis of the influence Jèrriais has had on the idioms of Jersey English and standard French (still the official language of Jersey). This academic study was a slow read (it took me eleven days to get through its 239 pages) but that was more on account of its compact formatting, where pages were filled with a tiny font, supplemented by ten pages of endnotes printed in a typeface that was borderline microscopic. Jones started with a brief history of the Channel Islands and the volleyball effect of being tossed back and forth between France and the British Isles. While painfully slow in places, when I could only get through ten pages in an hour, its chapters detailing the reasons for the rapid decline of Jèrriais, methods of revitalization, and outlook for the future kept my eyes glued to the page.

Why is Jèrriais dying out? Jones explains in a compact paragraph in the book’s conclusion:

“After centuries of being spoken throughout Jersey, Jèrriais is now undergoing territorial contraction and speaker reduction characteristic of language obsolescence…However, as mentioned in the introduction, the sociolinguistic history of Jèrriais differs from that of many documented case studies of obsolescent languages in that, rather than decreasing gradually from one generation to the next, the decline in speaker numbers has taken place over a relatively short time span. In 1989, 45 per cent of self-declared speakers of Jèrriais were aged 65 and over. This percentage remains more or less constant (44 per cent) for the next youngest age-group (those aged between 40 and 64). However, when the statistics for the two youngest age-groups are examined, we see that, of all the speakers of Jèrriais living on Jersey in 1989, only 10 per cent were aged between 15 and 39 and under 1 per cent were less than 15 years old. This makes the linguistic ‘tip’…quite easily locatable as the late 1940s and early 1950s: in other words, the decade immediately following the Second World War, when, as discussed in the introduction, the considerable and atypical amount of population movement had serious repercussions for the dialect. This corroborates the remarks made in the same chapter about the case of Jèrriais representing a mixture of both gradual and radical death.”

The Channel Islands were occupied by the Germans during World War II, and, while the Norman varieties had shown signs of decline since the start of the twentieth century, owing, in part, to the increased level of contact with Great Britain, there is no doubt that the German occupation dealt a devastating blow to all the Channel Islands dialects. Alderney French, or Auregnais, for example, disappeared when the island’s population was evacuated. It never recovered when the island was resettled. As the demographic figures show, Jèrriais experienced a shocking decline in mother-tongue transmission immediately after the war. As the population was dispersed, close-knit Jèrriais communities dissolved. The loss of community gave parents no need to pass on the language, nor to speak it themselves. Vibrant, although small hubs, where one could hear Jèrriais spoken as an everyday language, were lost as English established itself even more firmly as postwar liberator.

A revitalization movement has introduced Jèrriais into the elementary classroom yet television and radio programs are minimal at best. In spite of Jersey’s small size (119 km2) and population (almost 100,000) there are seven sub-dialects, or parlers, of Jèrriais still spoken. In order for an endangered language to survive, standardization of the language is vital. This has been the source of endless debate in Switzerland in terms of finding a Romansch standard. Does one pick one of the five Swiss idioms of Romansch and use it exclusively as a teaching medium, or should one create a new idiom, combining elements from all the various forms? Although Jones never makes the comparison to the Swiss situation, I could see the similarities with the Jèrriais predicament. Instead of creating a synthetic language such as Rumantsch Grischun, in Jersey it was decided to promote the parler where the greatest concentration of Jèrriais speakers still reside. Thus the western parler from St. Ouen parish has taken on the role of “standard Jèrriais”. Internal communication will be in the St. Ouennais form as will all language instruction. The Jèrriais-English/English-Jèrriais dictionaries that I own are thus in the St. Ouen parler. Unfortunately as St. Ouennais is promoted, the other parlers will eventually disappear; it is a sacrifice worth making in order to preserve the language at all.

Jones however takes a pessimistic outlook on the future of Jèrriais and believes it will die by the end of the century. No amount of in-class instruction, television or radio programs, street signs, heritage awareness campaigns or even financial rewards can save a language. The only way a language can continue–no matter how small the language–is by family instruction, where there is transmission in the home from childhood on. There are exceptions to this rule: look at the revivals of Hebrew, Welsh and even modern-day Manx, whose revival is still in its infancy. The figures, though, do not support new generations of Jèrriais speakers. I am afraid I have to side with Jones and say that, despite all current efforts, Jèrriais will disappear from Jersey.

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