The Guernsey peasant and patois, 1846

The swarthy locals and their barbarous dialect, an excerpt from the Dublin University Magazine, 1846. This is no doubt based on Inglis' 1834 description of the Guernsey peasant: 'I cannot greatly compliment the personal appearance of the Guernsey country people. There are dark and sparkling eyes among the women .... The men are, with few exceptions, badly limbed; and among the women too, the bust is better than the ankles.'

Rocquaine children, c. 1870, from the Library Collection

Let us take a glance, now, at the Guernsey peasantry. As far as dress and neatness go, they seem thoroughly English; but in person they offer no resemblance to the muscular, firm-set figures of our sturdy yeomen, and their clean-built, fresh-complexioned wives and daughters. The men, generally speaking, are under-sized and ill-proportioned—the women, thick-ankled, inclined to be swarthy, and by no means graceful in their movements. They are not, however, without those 'precious jewels'—fine sparkling eyes, generally of a dark hazel. These are conspicuous in the children, who, being always neatly kept, and, of course, fairer skinned than the women, give a much higher promise of beauty than their after years fulfil.¹

If we address any of these country people, the answer will certainly be either in broken English, or in a kind of barbarous French, of which the stranger, albeit fresh from the Continent, will with difficulty make out a few isolated words. We have called this dialect 'barbarous;' and it certainly sounds so to the ear accustomed to the liquid accents of Paris or Rouen, but we have been assured, by an excellent authority, that this patois is, in reality, the purest Norman-French extant. Inglis advances the same opinion, adding, 'Indeed, the inhabitants of the Channel Islands, in those parishes where their families have constantly intermarried, are purer Normans than are now to be found elsewhere.'² This character of the language must, however, be limited, in application, to the rural district. In the town, where English is everywhere spoken, the Guernsey dialect takes a secondary place, and, as a natural consequence, is much encroached upon by its more powerful rival. Added to this, so many changes and improvements have taken place on every side; so many new processes of labour, new tools, new articles, and new wants have sprung up, for which the old dialect supplies no equivalent words or phrases, that a recourse to foreign aid is gradually becoming universal.

'During the last century,' observes the fair author of the Guernsey Guide,³ 'it has increased its vocabulary by various compounds of Latin, Welsh, Scotch, German, English, and Italian.' This polyglot list looks certainly a little like an exaggeration—but it must be accepted as some authority at least, and we lay stress upon the fact which it tends to establish, because it may be set down as certain, that, when a language recruits itself thus shamelessly—almost, too (as is the case here), without any attempt to assimilate the foreign elements imbibed—its principle of vitality is extinct—its destined course is run, and the sooner it is inhumed the better! We say this with conviction; and yet we could almost be tempted to regret the death of a dialect which, barbarous as it sounds from uneducated lips, is capable of being so gracefully moulded, as in the following imitation of Burns's 'Address to a Daisy,' &c., which the author has kindly permitted us to extract from a work still in the press, entitled: 'Rimes Guernesiaises.'

A une marguerite, minchie par la quérue

Flieur mignoune à frange écarlate,
Simplle, modeste, et délicate,
V'là qu'est paraï, ma main ingrate,
T'a copaï l'pid!
Te vlò, parmi les moquiaux d'frie,
Sale, entumie et meurderie,
Perle sans prix!

Ch'n'est pas, je l'sai, ta bien-aïmâïe,
L'alouette à gorge picotâïe,
Qul t'pllie, en prenant sa volâïe,
Sous not forment!
Tu n'l'orras pus, de nue en nue,
D'vant que l'soleil nou-z égalue,
Saluaïr l'orient!

Le nord-est g'lait l'alr d'sa triste halaïne,
Quand tu t'dehalis, sauve et saïne,
Noblle, pure, humblle et vierge raïne,
Malgré l'nord-est;
A païne au-d'ssus d'la verte bliaîte,
Au caoup du vent, tu l'vais la tête,
Et flieurissais.

Pour quiqu'flieur, superbe étrangère,
Nou-z a bâti des palais d'verre;
I'n'te fallait qn'un motté d'terre
Pour tout abri:
Jour fatal! sombre matlnâïe!
Te v'lò seulette et debliomâie.
L'coeur émaclli!

Ch'est bien là l'sort de la pauvrette!
Trop simplle pour être discrette
A's'fie à l'amour, qui la guette
En trahison;
Et nou la vét, déshonorâïe,
Hontaeuse, éfieillie, oublliâïe,
Au coin d'un rion!4

We must warn the reader, however, not to expect in the patois of the Guernsey peasant, any approach to the purity of diction which characterises the above elegant little composition.

The article continues with 'the farm-house and cottage'.

¹ See Inglis' Channel Islands, Vol. II, pp. 42 ff.

² Inglis, p. 209.

³ Louisa Lane Clarke, author of Redstone's Guernsey Guide, first published in London in 1843.

4 The penultimate verse of the poem as eventually published in Rimes Guernesiaises is missing.

Here is a short glossary for French speakers, taken from Métivier's own glossary in Rimes Guernesiaises, and from Marie de Garis' Dictionary: Déhalaïr = Tirer hors, surgir; Egaluaïr = Eblouir; Bliaîte = Pelouse découpée; Débliômai = Pâle, décoloré, 'bloomless'; Emacllir = Ecraser; Moquiaux = pl. of Motté, = Petite motte (Fr. Motéau); Rion = Sillon. Later in his Dictionnaire franco-normand Métivier announced that he should have called his daisy a berbiette, because daisies were only known as marguerites in St Peter-Port; elsewhere in the island, he says, 'marguerite' referred to the ox-eye or moon daisy (p. 61).

In the Star of June 7, 1866, under an article on local grasses, the author states concerning Lolium perenne: 'That zig-zag grass we used to play with and say, Soldiers, sailors, tinkers, tailors, etc., or 'il m'aime,' 'un peu', 'beaucoup,' as we pluck the marguerites and wishing for the 'Beaucoup' stifled a sigh at the 'point du tout.'