Guernsey's language (Guernesiais)
Some Frequently Asked Questions about the language of Guernsey
What is Guernesiais?
It is the native language of Guernsey. Some people call it Guernsey French or simply 'patois'. You may also see it written as Giernesiais or Dguernesiais and this is because the language has no standardised spelling. This is a very common feature of indigenous and minority languages around the world.
How do I say 'Guernesiais'?
Guernesiais is pronounced with a soft 'g' (like in the word 'gin') and has 3 syllables: JEHR-nehz-yay.
It's a corrupted form of French, isn't it?
This is a myth we hear from time to time. On the contrary, one could say it's the other way round: modern French is a corruption of Guernesiais. This is because Guernesiais is much older (and some would say purer) than the standard French we hear today. Guernesiais is a variety of Norman and a cousin of standard French.
Where did Norman come from?
Many different regional languages were spoken in France before the modern 'standard' French was agreed. One of these languages was Norman, and it is assumed that it was spoken in the Channel Islands a thousand years ago when we were ruled by the Dukes of Normandy. The language is Guernsey's link to the Norman empire, which at its heyday once stretched from Norway to Syria. The vocabulary, word order and sounds of Guernesiais show evidence of a Norse/Germanic linguistic heritage. This combined with local everyday Latin and some Celtic influences to form a distinct language.
People say it's never been written down. Is that correct?
No. Guernesiais is not often thought of as a written language, but it has a substantial body of literature. This includes the works by Georges Métivier (1790-1881), featuring several volumes of poetry and his monumental dictionary of Guernesiais (1870). Here is an example of his work:
La Victime - Métivier
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 streams are frozen, the night is dark -
Ah, if you love me open the door - it's me!
At the same time, Thomas Martin devoted his life to translating great works of literature into Guernesiais, including the bible and the entire works of Shakespeare. Marie De Garis produced her dictionary in 1967.
Can you teach me a common phrase?
Here are a few. Scroll down for more information on learning.
Bian v'nus - Welcome
Coume tchi que l'affaire va? - How are things going?
Énn amas bian merci - Very well thank you.
Quaï temps qu'i fait? - What's the weather like?
I fait caoud ogniet. - It's warm today.
A la perchoïne! - Until next time!
How many people speak the language today?
The latest data we have is from the 2001 census which stated that:
* 1,327 (1,262 Guernsey-born) or 2% of the population speak Guernsey Norman French fluently while 3% fully understand the language. However most of these, 70% (or 934) of the 1,327 fluent speakers are aged over 64. Among the young only 0.1% (or one in a thousand) are fluent speakers.
* Those speaking and understanding Guernsey Norman-French a little are about three times the number who are fluent speakers or full of understanding. Therefore 14% of the population (or 1 in 7) have some understanding of Guernsey Norman-French. However 84% of the Guernsey-born have no understanding compared to 91% for the UK born and 78% for the nearly 3000 who are European born. It seems that it is an advantage to be European if one is to understand Guernsey Norman-French.
You can view the 2001 census online here (Guernesiais is on page 61).
It is estimated that at the time of writing (in May 2020), there are under 200 people who can speak the language with fluency.
Is it taught in schools?
The language is not taught as a formal lesson within the school timetable. Some schools choose to hold lessons at lunchtime or after school in the language and these are usually hosted by volunteers.
Why should we bother with a dead language?
First of all, people use the language so it cannot be classified as dead. Secondly, we believe that learning, speaking or using Guernesiais can have many benefits. Here are just 5:
1. To provide a sense of identity, foster a sense of belonging and nurture positive mental health and wellbeing.
2. To feel a connection to the Island and a sense of 'Guernseyness' eg. recognising the meanings of surnames and place names.
3. Economically, using the language of a place makes sense to provide a unique 'difference' to a product or service. Many other places in the British Isles have used their languages to promote a sense of 'difference' in tourism, hospitality and business. This includes Wales, the Isle of Man and Ireland.
4. There are proven intellectual benefits of second language acquisition (eg. learning one language makes it easier to pick up others). Furthermore, research suggests that being bilingual can mitigate the development of dementia.
5. For enjoyment. Many learners remark on the humour and character in the language. Some learn it to communicate with friends or family.
We provide a translation service for short translations, partly supported by Martin & Martin Designer Goldsmiths. You can see some of these translations online here. Please contact us for more information.
Can you help me translate something?
Yes. We offer a free translation service to the public for short translations. This service is kindly supported by Martin & Martin Designer Goldsmiths. Your request might have already been translated, so please take a look at our list of translations here before contacting us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I want to learn it. Where do I go?
In the first instance you are very welcome to contact us directly (on the Contacts page) and we can suggest resources best suited to you.
If you would like to learn in person:
- we arrange lessons for adults.
- we arrange social gatherings (including 'Speed Patois' and 'Pure Patois') from time to time. (Many islanders refer to Guernesiais simply as 'the patois'). 'Speed Patois' is for all levels and you can watch a video about it here. 'Pure Patois' is a gathering for those people who can speak the language for a longer time without using English. Please contact us for the latest dates.
If you would like to learn online:
I would like to learn with my children. What can I do?
We would be delighted to help you connect with other families doing the same. We can also suggest resources best suited to you. At the end of this page you can download some resources for children and families:
- Warro! Activity book. Videos to accompany this book can be found on YouTube, please click here to be directed.
- Follow along with the Gruffalo in Guernesiais (kindly supported by Island Language), click here to see the video.
- 'Counting 1-10' resource