By Marianne Coutanche of l’Office du Jèrriais
THE European Day of Languages, which takes place on 26 September, aims to promote linguistic diversity, highlighting the importance of lifelong language learning in order to increase cultural understanding and democratic citizenship.
The Day was started by the Council of Europe off the back of the success of the European Year of Languages in 2001. Through annual celebration, the Council aims to keep language diversity in the spotlight, encouraging educational establishments, charities and the general public to organise and take part in events that champion different languages.
The hope is that building awareness of the benefits of pluri-lingualism will gain the support of policy makers, increasing language learning opportunities and diversifying the range of languages people learn across the Continent. There is a particular focus on less widely used languages and their importance for strengthening knowledge and understanding of different cultures.
Although Jersey is not officially a member state, European Day of Languages is celebrated by l’Office du Jèrriais and marked each year with the publication of books and poetry in our own native language. This year sees the publication of La P’tite Gruffalinne, a Jèrriais translation of ‘The Gruffalo’s Child’ by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.
To mark the forthcoming European Day of Languages in September this year, Marianne Coutanche spoke to fellow Jèrriais student Sarah Grigson (née Frigot) about her passion for the Jèrriais language
THERE are just 24 official languages within the European Union, yet more than 200 indigenous languages are spoken throughout the continent. Each year at the end of September, Europeans celebrate this rich linguistic diversity and the plurilingualism that enables them to exist and communicate within different cultural settings.
Jersey’s own indigenous language, Jèrriais, is listed as ‘severely endangered’ by UNESCO. This is a fact that deeply concerns Jersey-born language student Sarah Grigson.
‘Letting the language die out would be a partial loss of identity,’ she says. ‘Multiculturalism is really important and the point about multiculturalism is that you celebrate the different elements of people’s traditions. For Jersey to lose the language completely would be a shame because it’s a unique part of the Island’s heritage.
‘I’ve got a really strong sense of pride in coming from Jersey. I lived away for a long time – for 14 years – but spent those years extolling the virtues of Jersey to everyone I met when travelling around the world. I’m passionate about the Island’s history and I feel that people who live here should know something of the history, culture and unique heritage of the Island. It helps to give us a sense of belonging to the place we live in, regardless of where we are from originally, and language is very much a part of that.’
Sarah describes Jèrriais as a ‘lyrical language’ and appreciates its coarseness. ‘It’s a language suited to humour, and I think the nature of the vocabulary and the idioms reflect the personality of the Jersey people,’ she says.
Despite Sarah’s grandparents on both sides of her family being fluent Jèrriais speakers, neither passed the language down to their children. The reasons for this are complex, a combination of a change in attitude toward the language and the impact of world events.
‘My parents were both born just after the Second World War,’ she explains. ‘In my Dad’s case, his father was in the army in South-East Asia and his mother and siblings went to the UK for the duration of the War. Having been away for five years, they tended to speak English at home after they returned, so Dad didn’t learn in the way his older siblings did.
‘My mum’s family were in Jersey for the Occupation and never stopped speaking in Jèrriais. But although her parents spoke Jèrriais to each other at the dinner table and in the house, when they addressed Mum they spoke to her in English.’
Jèrriais was already in severe decline at the start of the War due to increased movement of people between the island and the UK during the 19th Century, and English becoming the main medium of education in schools. Then, due to the displacement of islanders during the War, the language was much less likely to be passed on. The result is a lost generation of speakers and the survival of the language now depends upon new initiatives and preservation in creative ways. Time is of the essence.
‘It’s a pity I didn’t get to learn Jèrriais as a child’, says Sarah. ‘And my mum regrets that she didn’t learn to speak it at the knee, because it’s a connection between us and the generations that went before us, which is being lost.’
Sarah suggested to her mum, Jenny, that they take lessons and they both now attend weekly evening classes with 87-year-old native Jèrriais speaker Joan Tapley.
‘It’s quite hard to fit in learning a language amongst the busyness of daily life, but I had an opportunity to learn with a native speaker and I couldn’t miss that. Hearing a native Jèrriais speaker, you can understand some of the idioms that you occasionally hear locals still use in their speech in English, which are direct translations. If you hear a Jerseyman say, “I’m off to town, me,” it’s because adding the “me” at the end of a sentence is how you say it in Jèrriais. Other phrases cause hilarity when translated into English. For instance, if you’re unwell and go to the doctor, in Jèrriais you would say, “I’m under the doctor now, me!”’.
Although Sarah passionately believes in the importance of language for celebrating individual cultural heritage, she is under no illusions as to the future of Jèrriais and its place within everyday modern society.
‘I do appreciate that Jèrriais is never going to become a living language again, in the sense that it’s someone’s first language. Those days have gone. The key is to keep it alive in some form and not just consign it to history, and that can be done in lots of different ways.
‘I love the effort organisations like Jersey Heritage, the Government and local businesses are exerting to bring the language back. For instance, seeing Jèrriais words and phrases on the buses, or seeing the words ‘À bétôt!’ (goodbye) at the airport. I’d like to see a lot more of that. The more people see Jèrriais words, the more it gets into the collective consciousness. If you start seeing it all around the Island, for instance, if every menu or every receipt says à bétôt and mèrcie bein des fais (thank you very much) at the bottom, people will then start to use those words.
‘One lovely example is that children in local schools sometimes call each other “morv” as an affectionate term which is a shortening of man vyi (my old friend). That’s a wonderful example of using Jersey’s unique language in a new, modern way. Languages do morph and change all the time and if we keep words alive and in use then this unique selling point of Jersey will continue to exist, and we should encourage and celebrate that.’
For more information about how you can learn Jèrriais go to www.learnjerriais.org.je
During the month leading up to the European Day of Languages,. the RURAL website and RURAL POST will be accentuating its Jèrriais content