Guernsey island image by Steve 2.0
The varied linguistic landscape of the British Isles is well worthy of exploration. One fascinating reminder is the fact that Guernsey has its very own language.
Known as Guernésiais, the language has just over 1300 speakers in total, almost all of whom were born in Guernsey, and hence 2% of its total population. Guernésiais is rooted in the Norman language, itself a regional language of France, ultimately rooted in Latin. Despite some similarities, Guernésiais is very difficult for present day Norman speakers to understand when spoken, although in written form the gist of a text is accessible to Norman readers.
Thus Guernésiais occupies the often vague boundary between a dialect – of Norman in this case – and a distinct, separate language. In general, it is often said that a language is just a dialect with its own army and navy. This alludes to the forces which throughout history have asserted one language’s supposed superiority over another’s.
If modern day media give rise to forms of cultural dominance, perhaps another formulation of this statement could be attempted – that a language is a dialect with its own TV channels, radio stations and web presence. In addition, its own translation of, say, the Harry Potter books would certainly be a good sign of health, whatever your personal literary taste might be. Guernésiais is painfully lacking all of these things and there can be no doubt that the language is now subject to immense pressure.
Indeed, 70% of the remaining fluent speakers of Guernésiais are aged over 64, which is a depressing statistic for certain islanders.
Earlier in October 2009, Guernsey’s ministers made a heritage tour of the Isle of Man, paying particular interest to the revival of the Manx language there. Although unlike Guernésiais, which still has surviving native speakers, the language of Manx was totally moribund and widely understood to have lost its last native speaker in the 1970s.
Like Manx and also Cornish, there are current efforts in Guernsey to promote its own language and consider it for introduction into the school curriculum.
There are few topics likely to provoke more emotion than education and exactly how finite time and money should be allocated to it. Would these resources be better allocated in the teaching of something else, perhaps one of the world’s majority languages? What about practical considerations and job opportunities in the global economy?
These questions, while not unreasonable, are predicated on a certain model and philosophy of education. But what is education for? What can education be for?
Undeniably, any given language survives because it has the strength and collective will to survive. It is parenting, education, everyday use and institutional will that sustain English, French and Mandarin. If the interest and effort is there, these will be the things that sustain Manx, Cornish and Guernésiais.
Indeed, what is language for?
A language can be thought of as a technology. It is a useful instrument which serves our diverse needs and interests in communication and human endeavours. One of these many needs might be work, commerce and the generation of wealth. These things adapt a language, as it adapts them.
But a language can also be considered in itself to be a form of cultural wealth. Among other things, Guernésiais has a notable resource of poems, some many centuries old. The poems are documents of the place and its history and heritage. But along with poetry, songs, stories and more obvious cultural products, the documentation is embedded and inseparable from its smaller parts – its words, phrases and idioms.
In complex ways, a language is also about identity. Guernésiais is a unique feature of Guernsey (even when considering the Jèrriais language, its Norman-derived counterpart on the island of Jersey!).
No doubt the Guernsey ministers are seeking to help Guernsey assert this distinctive identity. Arguably, the awareness of a shift towards a powerful Anglo-American homogeniety is a possible factor in their counter-efforts. For a young person of Guernsey, the language presents an opportunity to continue an unbroken link and celebrate what, ironically, all humanity has in common – diversity. Let’s leave the last word to George Métivier (1790-1881), the celebrated Guernésiais poet.
Veis-tu l’s écllaers, os-tu l’tounère?
Lé vent érage et la née a tché!
Les douits saont g’laïs, la gnièt est nère –
Ah, s’tu m’ôimes ouvre l’hus – ch’est mé!
Do you see the lightning, do you hear the thunder?
The wind is raging and the snow has fallen!
The douits are frozen, the night is dark –
Ah, if you love me open the door – it’s me!