Jersey Languages

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Jersey has been multilingual throughout its history. Nowadays, most business is conducted through the medium of English, which is the first language of most of the inhabitants; historically, i.e. up until the 20th century, this would have been in various forms of Norman French. There is also a substantial difference between the legal French used in Jersey, and the local spoken dialect known as Jèrriais. Records may, however, be difficult to read because of unique local words, Latin words, or different handwriting styles.

Jèrriais was never the language of the Royal Court; documentation from there (and subsequently from the States) was always written in Jersey Legal French. Equally the business of the church (and later the chapels) was done in French. But for most of the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century, most people in rural Jersey were trilingual or at least triglossic - English was the language of commerce, Legal French the language of church and law, and Jèrriais the language that did for everything else.

Jersey Legal French[edit | edit source]

Legal French is still used to some extent in the administration of the island. It is closer to standard Parisian French than Jèrriais, the local spoken form, but also contains some words and phrases which are local to the islands.

A number of terms from Jersey Legal French are used by local English speakers when discussing administrative issues, and can still be heard in the States (the local parliament.

Select Jersey legal French. Parisian French equivalents are shown in brackets.

Jersey legal Words English Translation
Connétable constable (maire, elected head of parish)
cueillettes a division of the parish of St Ouen
écrivain notary or solicitor (notaire)
en désastre bankrupt (en banqueroute)
greffier clerk to the States of Jersey
Messire Sir (title of knighthood)
septante seventy (soixante dix)
nonante ninety (quatre-vingt-dix)
principal principal (rate payer of a certain value)
Procureur du Bien Public elected attorney of a parish
vergée a local measurement of land equivalent to 19,360 square feet (1,798.6 m²)
vingtaine a division of a parish (literally a twentieth)
Vingtenier honorary police officer
voyeur sworn witness

Jèrriais[edit | edit source]

Historically, the local spoken language in Jersey was Jèrriais. This is still alive, and is sometimes referred to as "patois", although some consider this name disparaging. This is best understood as the Jersey branch (or branches) of the wider Norman language; the branches spoken in Guernsey, Sark and Alderney are recognisably of similar origin but differ considerably in detail.

The Norman language is a curious fusion: the structure is that of a Romance language (derived from Latin), but to this was added considerable Nordic vocabulary - bear in mind that the Normans were so called because they were by origin Norse-men - Vikings who had come south.

Jèrriais has two broad dialects, western and eastern. It may come as a surprise to find that an island just nine miles across would have two recognisably different dialects, but travel across the island was for centuries a difficult exercise - it was said that in 1800 the island had the worst roads in Europe. Consequently, not only were there the two major dialect grops, but also small isolated pockets (such as La Moye, at the southwest corner of the island) where distinctive forms of pronunciation and vocabulary developed.

There is a considerable corpus of written Jèrriais, including over 900 articles written for the Jersey Evening Post by George Le Feuvre (who wrote as George d'La Forge), and proceedings of L'Assembliée d'Jèrriais, a group founded in 1952 which gathered speakers of the language from across the island.

The rise of the school certificate and broadcast media changed this, and Jèrriais was largely squeezed out (although it had a brief renaissance during the Occupation, as the German forces could not understand what was being said!). Thanks to the efforts first of L'Assembliée d'Jèrriais and subsequently of  L'Office du Jèrriais, the language has not yet become extinct, and it is thought that several thousand local inhabitants can speak at least a minumum amount of Jèrriais, with thousands more able to recognise it and gist its meaning. However, the number of people who are first-language speakers continues to decline, and is now believed to be barely above one hundred.

The rise of English[edit | edit source]

English only became a significant language in Jersey after the beginning of the 19th Century.

As has already been mentioned, the roads in Jersey were very poor in 1800, but shortly thereafter General George Don was appointed as the Island's Lieutenant-Governor. General Don set in motion a substantial programme of infrastructure works designed to make defending Jersey from French invasion easier; this included various fortification works and a network of new roads. The island could not supply sufficient manpower; consequently a massive immigration of English people began. Between 1821 and 1851 the population doubled from about 28600 to just over 57000.

Until this point the English Parliament in Westminster had been largely content to let Jersey run its own affairs, not least because the practicalities of maintaining links across a stretch of water patrolled by the hostile French Navy were difficult, to say the least. However, as the threat of war with France receded, and communications became easier, Parliament rapidly discovered that the English community in Jersey were deeply unhappy, and with good reasons.

Their most vocal representative was Abraham Jones Le Cras - a man of Jersey descent, but born and raised in England. Le Cras wrote a book in 1839, entitled The Laws Customs and Privileges and their Administration in the Island of Jersey, which contained a 52-clause petition to Parliament. Royal Commissions were appointed in 1840, 1846 and 1853 to investigate matters and step by step the States yielded to some of Le Cras' demands. Court proceedings were translated into English; elected Deputies came to the States, some of whom spoke neither French nor Jèrriais. Gradually the influence of English increased.

But old habits died very hard. Property transactions continued to be recorded in French in the Public Registry right through the 19th Century and nearly all the way through the 20th - only in about 1990 did contracts finally come to be written in English. Similarly a large corpus of Jersey legislation still exists only in French.

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The use of French was not entirely limited to law and the church. There were a series of migrations to Jersey from France: the last and largest of these began in about 1850.

The vast majority of immigrants were agricultural labourers who had left Brittany and western Normandy in search of better wages and working conditions. By working hard they began to acquire property and became farmers employing labourers rather than hired men and women, and naturally some of these were French also (it was noted many years ago - by a Jerseyman - that the French were prepared to work for each other, but the Jerseyman was only prepared to work for himself). At its peak, between 1890 and 1914, the French-born population numbered about one in ten.

The population was significantly reduced in 1914 - many men were called up to the French Army and never returned - and in 1920 the States clamped down hard on further immigration, allowing only a strictly-controlled flow of seasonal labour. Gradually the remaining population integrated into the existing population of Jersey.

Modern additions
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French is no longer the island's second language. When Britain joined the EEC (as it then was) in 1973 the traditional benefits in employing French contract labour disappeared. The gap was filled largely by Portuguese nationals escaping the last years of the Salazar dictatorship. Most came from Madeira, at that time an impoverished province neglected by the authorities. It is now thought that about one tenth of the population of Jersey is of Portuguese origin.

More recently, in line with the rest of the UK there has been a significant influx of "new Europeans", most of them originating in Poland and Romania.

See also[edit | edit source]