La s’maine pâssée someone from the Jèrri Twitterarti described la langue Jèrriaise as ‘really ugly’, ‘a particularly unpleasant dialect’ and ‘defunct patois’ that ‘nobody understands… apart from those who are interested in it’.
I have been pondering this and wondering why such a tweet and the resulting exchange would touch a personal nerve, leaving me in the days since feeling somewhat subdued. Today I went for a swim and mulled it over again for the umpteenth time. What kept resurfacing as I crawled up and down la bangnérêsse was the word ‘ugly’.
It was only when I applied for the job as eune maitrêsse dé Jèrriais that I found out why the language had never been passed down to me. A great many people in my father’s generation were, and still are, ashamed to speak it; told they were not to speak it at school and made to feel inferior if they did. They were to learn and speak English. Jèrriais was the language of the farm, the language of the working classes, the unsophisticated, the uneducated, the poor, the stupid. This had a devastating impact. The Jersey population changed from being trilingual to monolingual in the space of two generations.
I am not a linguist and I have never had a personal preference for calling the language Jèrriais over what most Islanders refer to as Jersey-French, which is after all what mes grandpathents called it. I have also never taken offence to the term ‘patois’ as some others do. When I first started learning the language I did not realise that Jèrriais had evolved independently over hundreds of years alongside what a lot of native speakers refer to as ‘good French’. I didn’t know the language has 13 different dialects with unique vocabulaithe to describe Jersey’s landscape, maritime heritage and agricultural history. I also didn’t know that Jèrriais uses different tenses to other Latin languages and is still evolving through the daily use of at least 500 people. Perhaps I should have been taking as much offence to the term ‘patois’ as I have done to the word ‘ugly’. Perhaps I should have been thinking more deeply about the connotations that arise from the term; inferior, unsophisticated, low status, pidgin, nonstandard.
Ma fanmil’ye in the generation before me might have lost their language, but they did not lose their accent. Man péthe has a very strong Jersey accent and, although I cannot remember her voice, I have it on good authority that my ma méthe did too. Mes tantes et m’s oncl’yes all use the same characteristic flat ‘a’ sound that comes from the native Jersey tongue. Although not as strong as mes pathents et grandpathents, I too had a noticeable Jersey accent until I went away to University but very quickly shed it after experiencing ridicule. I did not yet have the maturity or self-assurance to not care what others thought of me or the confidence to demonstrate the pride I now publicly share in my cultural heritage. I didn’t want to sound difféthent or unusual. I wanted to fit in and be accepted.
Of course it is a matter of subjective opinion as to how attractive something may or may not be. The shame of it is that in this case the perceived ugliness of Jèrriais was equated with a lack of worth, an unattractive minority deemed as ‘defunct’ and ‘unnecessary’. We had taken a giant leap backwards half a century and I was being given a glimpse into how it must have felt to be told the language of my family and home was inferior and no longer of any practical use or worth.
I am not naïve enough to believe that Jèrriais alone will bring hordes of tourists to the Island. However, the language is integral to Jersey’s heritage and at the heart of what makes us unique. Difference has value and garners interest. Why not capitalise on this unique selling point as part of a co-ordinated tourism strategy? Do we really just want visitors to experience a ‘Little England’ with superficial reference to our Norman heritage through street names alone?
Since returning to Jèrri and starting this job I have gleaned a great deal of comfort from hearing man nom pronounced with the same rolling ‘r’ that my Granny and Pops used to use. For me, there is nothing ugly in the memories I have of the love they conveyed through the way that they spoke to me. Nor is there anything ugly in the warm friendships I have made within the Jèrriais speaking community and the shared passion they have for the effort to pass the language on. I can feel my accent, as well as the tendency to add ‘ay’ to end of every sentence, creeping back in. However unattractive this might sound to some, I am proud of my voice and the distinctive clues it conveys as to my place of birth.