Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands, an archipelago of six inhabited islands (and many more uninhabited ones) scattered over the English Channel, just over 14 miles from the French coast. Despite its proximity to France, it’s actually a British Crown Dependency, and as such, the island has two official languages: English and French. But it also has Jèrriais.

     Linguistically, Jèrriais’s closest relative is Norman French, a dialect that dates back to the days when Normandy was still its own independent kingdom. It incorporates many words from Old Norse, a legacy of the Normans’ own Viking ancestry. Jèrriais shares much in common with the other languages of the Channel Islands, including Guernésiais (Guernsey) and Sercquiais (Sark), which are still spoken by a handful of people, and Auregnais (Alderney), which died out in the late 19th Century.

     Jèrriais played a vital role in ensuring the island’s survival during World War Two. The Channel Islands had the dubious honour of becoming the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by Nazi forces. German troops landed on Jersey on the 30th of June 1940, and remained until the 9th of May 1945. With the British government focused on protecting the mainland from invasion (the summer of 1940 also marked the height of the Battle of Britain), the Channel Islands had little hope of rescue. Soon enough, food shortages, rationing, forced labour, imprisonment, and even deportation, became part of everyday life.

     Instead of taking up arms, islanders found other, subtler ways to resist. They engaged in a campaign of passive resistance, and Jèrriais became central to their efforts. With its complex vocabulary and regional variations, the language was all but impossible for outsiders – even French-speaking Germans – to follow. As such, it made the perfect secret code, and islanders increasingly used it to exchange information, make clandestine plans against their occupiers and, occasionally, even mock them right under their noses.

     Ironically, despite its wartime role, the use of Jèrriais declined at an alarming rate after liberation in 1945. Like many of Britain’s minority languages, such as Manx, Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish, Jèrriais was derided as a language spoken only by the uneducated, and it had been in gradual decline since the late 19th Century – a trend that accelerated rapidly after the end of WW2.

       Since then, a concerted campaign has been made to bring the language back from the precipice. From 1999, when L’Office du Jèrriais was formed, the language has enjoyed a rapid resurgence. Over the last decade, the development of an education program means all Jersey children can learn the language at school. Adult courses and language cafes have allowed older residents to learn the basics or brush up their vocabulary. Road signs and visitor sites are all now multilingual (in English and Jèrriais) to increase the language’s visibility. And people all over the world have begun to rediscover the language, using L’Office du Jèrriais’ online learning website, Learn Jèrriais, as well as language platforms like Linguascope and uTalk where Jèrriais has also been made available. Encouragingly, there was a huge uptick in interest during the Covid-19 pandemic.

       Most importantly of all, Jèrriais achieved a major milestone in 2019 when, for the first time in its history, it was adopted by the island’s government, the States of Jersey, as an official language alongside English and French.

     “It’s been extraordinary to see how quickly things have changed,” said Susan Parker, one of the island’s seven-strong team of Jèrriais teachers. “There’s no shame anymore. People are proud of their language again, which is just how it should be. That’s been so exciting to see.”

     The revival has involved difficult choices, however. One of the major obstacles has been how to preserve all of Jèrriais’ dialects – it is slightly amazing that there are several different dialects on an island that measures nine miles by five miles. For new speakers, it’s hard enough learning one language, let alone multiple versions. Modern Jèrriais has been standardised around the St. Ouen version, which is the most widely spoken on the island – a controversial decision, as it inevitably means the nuances and subtleties of the lesser-spoken variants will be lost as the last generation of speakers passes away.

       The Jersey-based film company Little River Pictures has recently been commissioned to make a feature-length documentary about Jèrriais and, in 2020, the 10-piece band Badlabecques made history when their first two albums were admitted to the British Library catalogue, the first Jèrriais musicians to be afforded the honour.

     For native speakers like Francois Le Maistre (picture above), who now devotes his time helping Jèrriais learners, it’s comforting to know that his mother tongue is now facing a brighter future than when he was a boy, eight decades ago. “What we haven’t realised is how important these ties to the language are for us as islanders,” he said. “Jèrriais is part of our culture. It’s part of our folklore, part of our history. Our language is so rich in words, phrases and expressions which simply don’t have any equivalent in English. If Jèrriais disappears, it’s not just words we’re losing. It’s much more than that. We’re losing part of who we are.”

     I just thought this was a heart-warming story in a time when recognizing history, and learning from it, seems to be going out of fashion.

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