Feb 21, 2021
Today is International Mother Language Day.
So let me tell you about a language you may never have heard of.
It's called Jèrriais and it's the mother language of the island which I call home - Jersey in the Channel Islands.
So if you don't know where that is or what it is ... Jersey is an island within the British Isles (not the United Kingdom) and it's a self governing Crown Dependency.
Most importantly from the perspective of today's thought, Jersey is closer to France than England. Actually it lies just 12miles (19km) off the Normandy coast and around 100miles (160km) from the south coast of England. Most days, but especially on a good day, you can see the coast of France clearly from Jersey's East Coast!
So, with France so close, it may be no surprise to hear that Jersey's mother tongue is a version of French. Jèrriais is an ancient form of the Norman Language. It's often called "Jersey French" or "Jersey Norman French" but this gives an impression that it's a dialect of French, a 'patois' - but it's not. It's a language in its own right. As is it's closest 'sister' - the native language of nearby island Guernsey - Guernésiais - and the other Norman languages including those across the water in France. And the language of Sark, Sercquiais, is descended from the Jèrriais brought by the Jersey colonists who settled Sark in the 16th century. There's a commonality between Jèrriais and those Norman languages and there's a growing relationship between the speakers of these languages, all of which are in danger of dying out, but they are all different languages.
Over the last few years working at BBC Radio Jersey, the local station for the island, I've connected with the Jèrriais-speaking community. Every week, at the moment, I work with native speakers who record a weekly 'letter' - La Lettre Jèrriaise - which is broadcast just before 7am on a Saturday morning and is also posted online on a special languages podcast called 'Voices'. You can also get it via the Learn Jèrriais website,
In 2019 I made a radio series to coincide with the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, when I worked with the Jèrriais teachers at the L'Office du Jèrriais. I learnt 20 phrases in Jersey's mother tongue.
It was a challenge, but it was fun, and more importantly it helped me to reconnect with my own family history, and my own Dad who was native Jèrriais speaker. Although he didn't teach us the language - my mum was not a Jèrriais speaker - I remember hearing him speak the language with his family - my aunts and uncles.
That was common in the mid 20th century, when the language had fallen into decline.
What I've learned is until the 19th century, Jèrriais was used as an everyday language by the majority of people living in Jersey and even up to the beginning of the Second World War more than half of the population could speak the language. In fact, it was often used during the Occupation of Jersey 1940-1945 when the German enemy occupied Jersey and the other Channel Islands - it was not understood by French or German speakers!
But Jèrriais was consistently falling out of favour, with English becoming the dominant language. It was no longer used in schools, or business. French and English was used in the law, but not Jèrriais. Eventually it's decline was such that it is now officially listed as one of the world's endangered languages!
However, in recent years Jèrriais has had a resurgence. There's been investment in education, and it's now taught in local schools, and adult classes and conversation groups are also held. The teachers and the L'Office du Jèrriais are central to that, and there's also now a Jèrriais promotion officer for Jersey Heritage.
In 2019 the States of Jersey (the Government of Jersey) voted to put Jèrriais on signs when they next need to be replaced, with English translations underneath. It's also now an official language in the States Assembly alongside English and French.
This is all really down to the persistence of native language speakers. Down the years, stalwarts of the language made great efforts to keep it alive. in 1912, the Jersey Eisteddfod introduced a Jèrriais section - that still exists today. The L'Assembliée d'Jèrriais was founded in 1951 and they launched a quarterly magazine a year later. The Le Don Balleine Trust was established in accordance with the will of Arthur E. Balleine (1864–1943), in which he left funds for the promotion of the language.
Jèrriais dictionaries go back to the 19th century but in 1966 the Dictionnaire Jersiais–Français was published to mark the 900th anniversary of the Norman Conquest of England, based on meticulous research by Frank Le Maistre, who's family are still champions of the Jèrriais speaking community. This was followed by a Jèrriais–English dictionary, Dictionnaithe Jèrriais-Angliais.
Another individual who did a huge amount to promote the language was a certain George d'la Forge.
George was born in Jersey but after the First World War moved to the USA and became a successful businessman. But he had been raised speaking Jèrriais, and never forgot it. After he took early retirement in 1946 he returned to Jersey for a holiday, and later spent months every year in the island. He was a prolific writer in the Jèrriais language, and took the pen name 'George d'la Forge' based on the home he lived in as a youngster. He wrote around 900 articles for the Jersey Evening Post and also contributed to many other native language publications.
George's surname was Le Feuvre - and he was a distant cousin of my father. As a young child, I remember visiting 'La Forge' when 'Uncle George' was spending a summer in Jersey, and living as he always did in his very basic small family cottage. Later, when we were living in Kenya in East Africa Uncle George visited us. I remember then my Dad and him chatting away in this strange language, which I sort of recognised as French, but not.
Uncle George d'la Forge was a great man and in recent years, at a book sale, I managed to get hold of a bound copy of some of his articles.
One day, when I've learned a bit more of the language, I'll read it in Jersey's language, the mother tongue of my father and my family down the centuries.
Meanwhile, I'll make do with the few phrases I know and which I learned during the 20 in 2019 challenge. If you fancy learning a bit start by going to Learn Jèrriais (learnjerriais.org.je)
The title of this piece is 'Bouônjour' which, if you know any French at all, you'll recognise as being similar to 'bonjour'... hello!
But I'll end with this sign-off ...
À bétôt - Goodbye
À la préchaine - Till the next time!