Guernsey’s Vanishing Language

For a small community, language is part of its identity that sets it apart from the global monoculture. Over 100 novels have been set on the island of Guernsey but most of them miss one of the key features of the island – its language. Glint of Light on Broken Glass is set at a time of great linguistic complexity in the island of Guernsey. In 1910, half the population spoke a version of Norman French called Guernesiais. Although the island is a triangle barely 7 miles by 5, there were ‘western’ and ‘northern’ variations in pronunciation and even in choice of words. It was primarily a spoken language with no agreed grammar or spelling.

Many, but not all, of these Guernesiais speakers also spoke English as that what was the schools taught after c.1906. Some, especially the older ones, also spoke ‘The Good French’, and the laws of the island were also in French. Townies in the east often forgot, or never learned, the island language as English was the language of trade. Out in the country there developed ‘Guernsey English’, a regional dialect with some speech patterns carried over from Norman. People would use whatever language came most naturally, and indeed could switch language mid-conversation.

So when writing the novel I had to confront the question of what language are my characters speaking?

I was very conscious of not packing the book with dialect (or faux dialect).Reading dialect can be tiresome; I’ve stopped reading some novels because I’ve grown bored of fighting my way around truncated words, missing vowels, quaint phrases and clunky phrasing that an author is using to represent dialect .

I am writing in English, so had to represent the complex mish-mash of speech in English, much as if my characters were Germans or Ancient Greeks. My choice with easy with those such as Edith, who speak only English. George and his brother Artie speak both Guernesiais and ‘Guernsey English’, although those such as Uncle Jack want to ‘get ahead’ in life so have started to drop the old ways. For the ‘Guernsey English’ I had to avoid parody and clichés. Instead I put just enough of the local speech patterns into the voices of the country folk to show they are not Eton-educated Englishfolk.

Diehard Guernesiais speakers such as Henri resist the insidious drift to English, but I have to ‘translate’ their speech into English for the benefit of the reader. I have retained a couple of their Guernesiais phrases where the context is clear, plus a couple of dozen nouns that emphasize the local character. Marie de Garis’ authoritative Dictiounnaire Angllais-Guernesiais was my guide though this.

Of the 6,500 languages on the planet, over half are in danger of vanishing in this century. Each year, we hear that some have been lost, or that the final speakers have no-one to talk to. Welsh and Gaelic still survive the tyranny of English; Cornish and Manx had all but died out before being revived. The Norman languages of the Channel Islands are however stuttering towards extinction. Speaking Guernesais was already frowned upon in schools before the Great War. As the twentieth century wore on, some people became ashamed to speak what was seen as a ‘country’ language. The evacuation of children in the Second World War, the influx of British settlers and the influence of radio and television all made deep impacts. Languages need to evolve to stay relevant but Guernsey’s language stopped evolving and its use fell away.

Only some 200 to 250 native speakers remain, most aged over sixty, so it is plain that Guernesais could die with their generation. A valiant rearguard action is fighting to keep the language alive. I can say “J’m’en vais au cabaret”, but when I arrive at the Rockmount and request “énne verraïe d’rouge vin” I’m likely to just receive a worried look from the barmaid. We feel the loss when a historic building is demolished or a great master is lost in a fire, and losing a language is just as painful.

Glint of Light on Broken Glass offers a sense of a different time and place, one that is gone forever. It is only to be hoped that Guernesais will live on.

À la perchoine

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Guernsey Literary Festival on 12th May 2017

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