Guernsey patois and its preservation, 1905

7th July 2016
Haye du Puits, Castel, in the 1830s by Celia Montgomery, Priaulx Library Collection

The introduction to 'The Guernsey dialect and its plant names,' by E D Marquand, Associate of the Linnean Society of London, and Membre Correspondant de la Société des Sciences Naturelles et Mathématiques de Cherbourg. 'The old Norman language which is still spoken in the Channel Islands deserves more study than it has yet received, because in all its main features it is the same that was used by the cultured classes of England as far back as eight centuries ago.' From the Transactions of the Guernsey Society of Natural History and Local Research, V (1905-1908), pp. 32 ff. The illustration is of the Haye du Puits, Castel, by Celia Montgomery, c. 1832.

In these sunny isles may be heard today the tongue which was spoken by the people of our mother-country under the early Norman kings, which Mr J Linwood Pitts has picturesquely described in his book on the patois poems of the Channel Islands as

the speech alike of court and camp, of trouvere and chronicler; the tongue in which William the Norman asserted his claims to the sovereignty, and Taillefer, the Jongleur, carolled forth his defiance of King Harold, as he heralded the onslaught at Senlac. 

It is quite a common mistake to suppose, as many people have done, that this curious unwritten dialect—which differs considerably in the various islands, both as regards pronunciation and vocabulary—is simply a distorted or corrupt form of modern French. Instead of being so, it is in reality very much older than classical French, for it is a survival of the language which was introduced into England at the time of the Norman Conquest, and which for some centuries afterwards continued to be the language of the English Court and the English nobility. That this venerable language is rapidly dying out at the present time in every one of the Channel Islands is beyond question. In Alderney it will certainly have become extinct in a very few years, for in proportion to its size, more English is spoken there than in any of the other islands. In Guernsey it will probably linger on for a generation or two, but hardly more; because, even in the country parishes, the children as a rule do not habitually speak to each other in French, and they will certainly not teach it to their children. It is in Jersey that Norman French will survive longest, owing partly to the larger size of the island, partly to its proximity to France, and partly also to the influx of French agricultural labourers, who spend some months in the island each year during the farmers' busy season.

In view then of the rapid obsolescence of this extremely interesting old language, in the only portion of His Majesty's dominions in which it is still spoken as a true vernacular, it seems to me that some special effort should be made to preserve its peculiarities in a more effectual manner than has yet been done. Year by year the critical study of local dialects is spreading further and further afield: and much is made nowadays of the homely and ungrammatical speech of many an out-of-the-way corner of England and Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Therefore it behoves us, as a small community of English men and women, who live on the confines of the United Kingdom, to take a share in rescuing our insular dialect from oblivion: those of us, at any rate, who are proud of our Norman descent. For, small though they be, the Channel Islands are among the very oldest and brightest jewels in the British Crown: they are British possessions by inheritance, and not by conquest. Although I speak of the insular vernacular as a dialect, it would perhaps be more correct to call it a patois; because it is an unwritten tongue, in the sense that it possesses no ancient local literature; but the difficulty is to write it so as to convey to a stranger a correct idea of its peculiar pronunciation. As regards the dialect of Jersey I cannot express an opinion: but in the form spoken in Guernsey, there are constantly recurring some very peculiar vowel sounds and combinations of consonants, which have no exact parallel either in English or French, and consequently they cannot be phonetically rendered in writing, without first inventing some special system of notation. Some years ago an American philologist spent many months in Guernsey carefully studying the grammar, idiom, and pronunciation of the local patois: and subsequently he published an elaborate Memoir on the subject; but in order to overcome the difficulty of phonetically rendering the pronunciation, he was obliged to construct such a complicated system of signs and symbols, that the result is hardly intelligible to an ordinary reader, however useful it may be to a critical student of comparative philology.

A considerable amount of published material exists in the Guernsey dialect, consisting of poems, tales, folk-songs, proverbs, folk-lore, and so on, all of which are extremely interesting compositions, as illustrating the habits, customs, pastimes, beliefs, and modes of thought of the people, besides affording examples of the curious grammatical construction and idioms of the language. The writings of Métivier, Lenfestey, Corbet, Robert and others, all of them composed within the last half century or so, are most entertaining and instructive; and, to a person who is thoroughly familiar with the language, nothing can be more delightful than to listen to these old Guernsey chansons read out aloud ore rotundo by a native. But the spelling is purely arbitrary, and the same word is often written in a variety of ways. All writers agree, however, in falling into one common error,—albeit an unavoidable one, perhaps,—and that is, in writing many common patois words—such for instance as quand (when), vin (wine), vient (comes), sang (blood),—exactly in the same way as they are spelt in modern French, although the sound is altogether different. The consequence is that in reading these compositions a stranger forms an erroneous idea of the true pronunciation, and would perhaps hardly recognise it when he hears the same words from the lips of a native. Is there, then, any possible means of registering the sound, tone and inflection in such a manner that a hundred years hence there may be no doubt whatever as to how the vernacnlar of these islands was spoken? I suggested the answer to this question eleven years ago, when I had the honour of occupying the Presidential chair of this Society. In the course of my valedictory address, alluding to the difficulty of phonetically recording the sound of many Guernsey words, I pointed out that 'the phonograph would do in a moment what the English and French alphabets are incapable of doing, even when combined.' In the Isle of Man the case is similar to ours. It is said that with the passing away of the present generation no one will be found who can speak the native language. But in the month of April last, the London newspapers announced that 'the Manx Language Society hope to avert this danger with the aid of Edison's phonograph. The instrument is being sent to different parts of the island, and old men, whose accent is pure, will speak into the receiver passages of Scripture, folklore stories, idiomatic sentences and proverbs. When the records are complete they will be kept at the Society's room in Douglas.' Some of the members who are present this evening may remember that at a meeting of our Society held in December, 1903, I advocated the adoption of precisely the same method, for the preservation of records in the Guernsey dialect.

Every native is aware that the vernacular of each island in the Channel group differs considerably in accent, idiom, and pronunciation from that of the other islands. An experienced ear can distinguish at once the dialect of Sark, Alderney, Jersey or Guernsey. But even in so small an area as our own island, local variations occur. On this point Métivier observes in the introductory pages of his Dictionnaire Franco-Normand:

Il est à remarquer que la prononciation du guernesiais n'est pas précisément la même dans toutes les parties de l'île. Il existe une différence bien appréciable entre la prononciation des habitants de ce qu'on appelle les basses paroisses, situées au nord de l'île, et celle des habitants des hautes paroisses, situées au sud. Cette différence est tellement prononcée qu'elle pourrait servir de bases à des questions ethnologiques. II est aussi à remarquer que des dix paroisses que renferme l'île, il n'en est pas deux qui prononcent le guernesiais absolument de la même manière; mais il serait bien difficile de donner une idée, même approximative, des nuances qui les distinguent.

When these words were penned, thirty-five years ago, the phonograph had not been invented. If the author were alive to-day, loyal Guernseyman as he was, he would plead, in far more eloquent terms than I can command, for the employment of this marvellous instrument, in order to preserve the quaint characteristics of the language he loved so well. Possibly in years to come far more weight will be attached to local pronunciation than at present: it may be that those trivial nuances which we now disregard, may help in settling knotty points undreamt of by students of to-day. But, be this as it may, it would certainly not be either very difficult, or very costly, to procure a series of carefully chosen phonographic records of all the variations of our insular dialect, together with those of the other islands in the Bailiwick, and preserve them for the benefit of posterity. It would then, I think, be found advisable that such records should be sealed up, and deposited somewhere to remain unopened for a fixed period—say, perhaps, seventy years. And I would venture to suggest that the most competent and fitting body to undertake and carry out this work, would be the Royal Court of Guernsey.

In the meantime our Society should strive to collect every possible scrap of fresh material illustrating, or relating to, or bearing upon the Norman-French dialects of our islands. Those of our members who are, as unfortunately I am not, able to converse freely in the patois have large opportunities of adding to what is already on record. For example, comparatively little is known about the popular chansons and dittons of Alderney and Sark; and yet it is almost certain that they offer many interesting peculiarities when compared with those of Guernsey. Half-an-hour's chat with some talkative old farmer, or fisherman, would often yield rich results to a judicious enquirer. But above all things, beware of letting him suspect that 'A chiel's amang ye, takin' notes, And, faith, he'll prent it.' For several years past I have been collecting the local patois names of the wild plants of Guernsey, together with whatever fragments of plant-lore I could discover. But on every side I have heard the same tale of wonderful old herbalists and cattle-doctors, not many years dead, who could have supplied me with invaluable stores of information—but they have all passed away. People no longer practise the art of making simple remedies and medicines for their families and their cattle, and as a consequence, even the very names of many herbs are forgotten. This year, however, I have succeeded in adding largely to my notes, owing to the hearty assistance I have received (and for which I am deeply grateful), from two members of the Society—Mr J S Hocart, of Les Mielles, Vale, and the Rev. R H Tourtel, Rector of Torteval. Numbers of other people, some of them unknown to me, have added, here a little, there a little, to my list, so that it has grown much longer than I had originally anticipated. The net result is that I have now compiled a catalogue of about 230 dialect names of Guernsey plants, every one of which, I have been assured, is still used at the present time in this island. This is a point which I wish to emphasise, because in many cases these names are quite unlike any which occur in Normandy, so far as I can ascertain. Another point which I wish to make very clear is that I have taken great pains to write the names phonetically—taking them from the speaker's lips, and spelling them in my own way. In every case therefore, the etymology must be traced by the ear, and not by the eye; that is, by the sound and not by the spelling: which is rather an important distinction.

And there is yet another matter which I wish to state, so as to avoid doubts and disputations: and that is, that I have invariably insisted on seeing for myself fresh specimens of each plant named, so that I can guarantee that the patois name recorded was given me for the particular species noted. This fact should be borne in mind, because some of the names are applied in Guernsey to one kind of plant, and in Normandy to another. A word or two as to the spelling of the names. As a general rule I have followed the conventional mode employed by Métivier and other local writers. Thus, the vowel-sound represented by â is pronounced like the English word awe, and has no equivalent in modern French. The vowel-sound written  is a very curious one, and cannot quite accurately be reproduced either in English or French. It is the long i spoken shortly and quickly, something like the first syllable of the English word idea. The sound written aeu approaches that of the French words à eux when uttered so rapidly that the whole makes one short vowel. Another sound which is unwritable is an—as in the words grand (large), bian (white), efant (child), quand (when). It resembles the first syllable of anchor but drawled out with a strong nasal intonation. The sound in in words like vin (wine), fin (end), matin (morning), is about as different from the same words in classical French, as the English word van is from vain, or fan from fain; but it is impossible to express this difference in ordinary writing. The letters tch represent the English ch as in church. A few other peculiarities I shall endeavour to make clear in giving the names—which are arranged in alphabetical order for convenience of reference.

There are two excellent books which are well worth the study of those persons who are interested in this subject. The first is entitled Philologie de la Flore scientifique et populaire de Normandie et d'Angleterre, by Mons. Edouard Le Hericher;¹ the second is the Flore populaire de la Normandie, by Prof. Charles Joret (1887). The latter is an admirably-arranged compendium of information on the local plant names at present used in various parts of Normandy. In comparing our present list with the one so carefully compiled by Mons. Joret, one cannot fail to notice that a large number of Guernsey names are apparently unknown in that part of the Continent which lies nearest to our shores. So the question suggests itself: where did these patois names come from?² It is an interesting question, which cannot be answered off-hand. Probably some came from Brittany, others from remoter parts of France, and some possibly had their origin in distant conntries. If we could determine the etymology of these names it would help us, but at present we cannot. There are some common Guernsey names which seem to baffle all attempts at tracing their derivation: they appear meaningless, because we have not discovered the key which will unlock the mystery of their origin: and yet they are not less interesting on that account.

As far as it has been possible I have carefully preserved in the following pages local information about the medicinal virtues, fancied or real, attributed to plants by the old Guernsey people: as well as a few curious dittons and popular rhymes connected with them. But what I have done is, after all, only fragmentary. The old generation of country folks who knew all about these things has died out, and very, very few persons are now to be found who care at all for the plant-lore of our islands. Let me then earnestly appeal to those who still have the opportunity, to collect and preserve these fast-fading memories of the past, and thus testify to those who shall come after us that we, in this generation, do not altogether despise the venerable language of our Norman forefathers.

¹ In the Library Collection.

² A question at least partly answered by the Atlas Linguistique de la France.