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The History of Guernesias

Discover the history behind our unique local language

Known as 'Guernsey French' or 'patois' the local language is actually a form of Norman. Old French evolved from the Vulgar Latin spoken in the region when it was part of the Roman Empire. Many different regional languages evolved in France before the modern 'standard' French was agreed. One of these languages was Norman, and was spoken in the islands a thousand years ago when we were ruled by the Dukes of Normandy.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Norman French became the official language used at court and by the nobles. It was three hundred years before 'English' became the official language of England, and by this time a lot of Norman French words had been added to English. In Guernsey however the local people continued speaking Norman. It gradually changed into a distinct local language and indeed, words and pronunciations used in the north of the island can differ from those in the west of the island. Sark, Alderney and Jersey all developed their own variations of Norman.

Guernsey's Royal Court and officials employed standard French from the Medieval period to the early 20th century and this was also widely spoken by the merchants and upper classes in the town. When schools were set up, these taught standard French which was referred to as 'The Good French'. English was spoken by the many soldiers stationed here and by British people who moved here to live or work in town. In 1926 English was made an official language of the States, but people of the countryside continued speaking Guernesiais well into the middle of the 20th century.

It is primarily a spoken language and there is still debate over how its words should be spelled and what its proper grammar is (pronounced Gièrnesiais it can also be written as Dgernesais). To those who know French it looks rather strange. The first dictionary was written by Georges Métivier, who with a small number of writers aimed to preserve the language with poems and stories. These included the poet Denys Corbett.

The German Occupation of 1940 struck a heavy blow to the language - apart from the attempt to get all islanders speaking German! Many children were evacuated to England and forgot how to speak Guernesais. Some adults joined the British forces, travelled the world and married non-islanders. After the war, an influx of British settlers, tourists and the influence of radio and television further diluted the language. Marie De Garis compiled the first Guernesais/English dictionary which was published for the first time by La Société Guernesiaise in 1967. It remains a vital reference to a language now classed as 'endangered'.

In the year 2000 there were about 1,300 fluent speakers and perhaps twice this number spoke some phrases. The number has fallen away sharply since then and most native speakers are aged over 65, raising the prospect that the language could vanish with this generation.