In July 2019, we had the pleasure of meeting Ben Spink from L’Office du Jèrriais at Cornwall Council’s UK Minority Summit at Falmouth University.
Established in 1999, the Office has been working hard to increase the profile and status of Jèrriais throughout Jersey and beyond whilst teaching the language to people of all ages. They undertake a wide variety of projects, from translation requests and language learning events to advising the Government of Jersey in their current roll out of bilingual English-Jèrriais signage and branding.
Here at Go Cornish, we are keen to support the work that others do in promoting minority languages. We caught up with Ben to find out more about the language and his involvement with L’Office du Jèrriais.
For those of us who aren’t familiar with Jèrriais, can you give us a bit of background on the language?
Jèrriais is a variety of Norman French, unique to Jersey. It is essentially a Romance language from the Oïl family, with influences from Norse and, more recently, French and English. It is likely that Jèrriais descends from the same language spoken by William the Conqueror and the 12th Century writer Wace, himself a native of Jersey. Jèrriais was adopted by the States of Jersey as an official language in 2019.
Whilst Jèrriais bears a resemblance to French, much of its vocabulary is very different to that of French and the pronunciation differs greatly. For example, Jèrriais has an alveolar or rolling ‘r’ sound, as opposed to the guttural or uvular French ‘r’. Another distinctive feature is the ‘voiced dental fricative’, where an ‘r’ is replaced by a ‘th’, for example in the word ‘méthe’ [French: mère], meaning ‘mother’. Accents and apostrophes are common in Jèrriais, giving the written form of the language a distinctive symbolic appearance.
The latest figures come from the Jersey Annual Social Survey issued on 5 December 2012. It showed that 18% of the population could speak some Jèrriais words and phrases with more than 7% of those over 65 being fluent or able to speak a lot of Jèrriais. Two-thirds of adults said that they could not understand spoken Jèrriais, but more than a quarter are able to understand some, and 5% can usually or fully understand someone speaking Jèrriais. We think there are fewer than 500 native speakers alive today.
Are there any Jèrriais phrases or idioms that you’re particularly fond of?
There are so many in Jèrriais, it’s such a wonderfully earthy language! Here are a few of my favourites:
‘I vente la pé du dgiâbl’ye’
It’s very windy [literally ‘it’s blowing the skin off the devil!’]
‘Pliein comme un ticl’ye’
Drunk [literally ‘full as a (tea) kettle’]
To take snuff [verb, which gives snoqu’rêsse – female snuff taker]
‘Man Doue d’la vie!’
Oh my goodness!
In your view, what are the challenges and opportunities facing minority languages?
A major challenge for Jèrriais is the decline of the native speaking community. That said, we are very fortunate to have native speakers still with us and they are a resource we must treasure. Many minority language communities do not have that luxury.
Another challenge faced by all minority languages is convincing people that what little funding we get is money well spent. In the age of austerity, it is understandable that people don’t view the revitalisation of a minority language as a priority. However, I would argue that we need to try and avoid the ‘either..or..’ argument, i.e. ‘Why are we spending money on that, when we should be spending it on this?’ Instead, we should ask, ‘How critical is this?’ This reframes the debate in our favour, because it’s pretty clear that if we don’t fund language revitalisation (and it can’t be done on the cheap!) then we risk losing a vital part of our heritage and identity forever.
In terms of opportunities, there is so much we can learn from each other. There are so many minority language communities on the same journey, but at very different stages of that journey. If we support and talk to each other, we can achieve much more than if we try to go it alone. We love our Cornish friends and the fantastic work you are doing and if we can help each other that’s undoubtedly a good thing!
Did anything strike you about the Cornish language in your recent trip to Cornwall?
There are many parallels between our languages – issues of standardisation, funding, status etc. There was one striking difference though; the strength of the Cornish identity, which is somewhat lacking in Jersey and the hunger for autonomy, which we are fortunate to possess. We love the creative work that Go Cornish is doing to raise the profile of the language and we would love to emulate it here in Jersey. We feel we’ve made great strides when it comes to teaching our language and would love to share ideas with you all. In short, we must keep talking!