Culture & History 25 November 2022

Which languages are spoken in Guernsey?

There is a rich history of language on the Islands of Guernsey, thanks in large part to the geographical location and the governing powers of the islands over time.

Uncover The Islands of Guernsey's rich linguistic history and Guernsey French language, visible in the physical environment through our many Guernsey family, building and street names. Guernsey French is even represented in a local range of jewellery!

Although English is our main language, did you know that French was the official language of Guernsey as recently as 1948 due to our geographic location close to the Bay of St Malo, near Normandy? The presence of English on the Islands is in fact only a product of the last century, influenced somewhat by the Occupation of Guernsey by German forces during the Second World War.

What is Guernesiais?

The traditional native language of Guernsey is Guernesiais (pronounced ‘JEHR-nehz-y-yay’), also known as Guernsey French or 'patois'. The language has no standardised spelling, as with many global indigenous and minority languages.

While often thought of as a corrupted form of French, Guernesiais is much older than standard French, and is considered to be more a cousin of it. There are many similarities in the languages. For example, Mercie bian means thank you very much (merci bien in standard French) and A la Perchoine to mean see you later (a la prochaine in French).

Guernasiais is in fact a variety of Norman, which was spoken on The Islands a thousand years ago when we were ruled by the Dukes of Normandy. After 1066, Norman French was actually the official language of England and English only took over some 300 years later. But in Guernsey, locals continued to speak Norman, which evolved over time into the distinct local Guernsey language.

During the occupation of Guernsey by German forces in WWII, children were taught German in school and were expected to speak to the soldiers in this or in English. Many parents chose only to speak in Guernsey French, however, knowing the occupiers didn't know what they were saying!

Over half the population of children were evacuated to the UK prior to the occupation and, on their return to The Islands five long years later, English had become their first language.

Nowadays, you may find islanders whose parents and grandparents speak Guernasiais, but these are in very low numbers and the language is now considered endangered. There is a movement to attempt to preserve the language by the Guernsey Language Commission, so visit the Guernesiais 'listening bench' in the Folklore Gallery at the Guernsey Musuem & Art Gallery to hear poems and phrases spoken in patois, and look out for the popular Guernsey Patois range of jewellery engraved with Guernsey French!

In literature, you can see a couple of Guernesiais words in Victor Hugo’s work, Toilers of the Sea, inspired by and written in Guernsey during his exile, where he uses the word pieuvre, meaning octopus.

What about the smaller Islands of Guernsey?

In Sark, there is a dialect of Jèrriais, called Sercquiais. Jèrriais is another Norman French dialect spoken on the other Channel Island of Jersey. Sercquiais is spoken by very few islanders, around 15 in fact, and the language is all but extinct as a result. The original inhabitants of Sark were in fact from Jersey and not Guernsey, which explains the lack of Guernesiais on the island, despite it now being a part of The Islands of Guernsey.

Alderney also had a local language, Auregnais, which is now sadly extinct. In the late 1800s, teachers had started to use French over the local language in classrooms and then, during the Second World War, the island was almost fully evacuated prior to the German Occupation (learn more here), where the language was lost over time. The last native speaker is thought to have died around 1960.

Today, you will see Auregnais mainly preserved in its presence in local toponyms - namely in street and building names. Only one audio recording is known to exist.

As for Herm, there is some proof that a version of Norman French to have been spoken on the island, but the island has a much smaller population and there are no records to show when it died out.

To find out more about the languages of The Islands of Guernsey, visit the following links:

A La Perchoine!

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