The struggle of the languages

19th July 2023

From the Star, January 3, 1895. (The historical assertions are not necessarily accurate). "The following is translated from an article by [journalist and theatre critic] Francisque Sarcey (1827-1899) in Le Petit Journal:

"Our tongue has been during two centuries the language of good company. This good company, in speaking it, had learnt to like, not only our literature, but our habits and the thousand and one ideas which emanate from Paris. For the last sixty or eighty years our language has to stand the rude assaults made upon it by two rival languages, English and German, which are on the fair way to outset ours, not only from a large portion of Europe, but entirely from America. We are also combated by the Italian language in the East, where for so long our influence has been predominant, and where today we have to reckon upon a very serious adversary.

At lsat it was seen that our language was in peril, a fact which did not in the least seem to cause anxiety to the Government, and it is for this that the Alliance Française has been founded. Through this means everywhere the mother tongue seemed to languish it has reorganised the struggle. It has created new schools and subvenes schools which were not self-supporting. It has also supported by monetary grants all those which presented themselves to be, in countries just opened up, the pioneers of the language not only of civilisation, but upholding our influence.

I need not tell you that I am one of the most ardent supporters of this Association. I read with the greatest interst the bulletin which it publishes of the progress it has made. It also publishes where it has failed. In the report I find many curious, and sometimes very disheartening facts, as to the manner that our language has been replaced or limited in its area. The last report of the Association speaks of the struggle that for the last fifty years has been going on in the Anglo-Norman Islands. My reades are well aware that this is the name of the Channel Islands, so near our coast, and of which Jersey and Guernsey are the most important. Victor Hugo has made them famous, and they are annually to our tourists a place of pilgrimage.

Fifty years ago the only idiom really employed in these islands was French, the real French, or else the patois which in various forms resembles the patois of the Cotentin, or of the Maine, which after all were nothing but variations from the original tongue. The English language then was known and used only by a few townsfolk.

Yes! it is the bulletin of the Alliance Française which has made this painful statement: and now today, the English language is predominant in Jersey, in the towns of St Helier and St Aubin; in Guernsey in the towns of St Peter Port and St Sampson, and on the fair way to make itself dominant in the country parishes.

If this continues in another fifty years neither French nor even the patois will be spoken in the Channel Islands: the English language will have submerged it.

Whence comes this revolution? From two causes. I only give the first as an instance, as we are unable to do anything regarding it. There is to these islands a large English migration; the number of tourists from England is very great; and all know that when English voyagers arrive they bring with them their ways, habits and language. This flood of invaders we are unable to resist by another of ours. We therefore are unable to do naught. But the other cause is not out of our reach. It is the system of education which obtains in these islands. It appears that it is only in Sark where French has as the fundamental language. Elsewhere it is only taught as a foreign language by English teachers, to whom it is immaterial if it is acquired. The school is an important factor in this regard. In the primary schools of Alsace and Lorraine, they have not absolutely suppressed the teaching of the French language, but they have reduced it to such limited means so well that year by year the use of the French language becomes less and less until finally it will disappear.

These families who still remain French at heart preserve it with jealous care, but they are compelled in carrying out the ordinary ways of life to speak the tongue of their German conquerors. But these families will finally become accustomed to their surroundings and the newer generation will eventually know no other.

This is what is now occurring in the Channel Islands. Listen to what the Bulletin of the Alliance Française says:

Outside the country parishes, already deeply affected, where French and patois are preserved more by tradition than by instruction, French is scarcely ever spoken. In the town neither French nor patois is heard. The inhabitants make use of English only. English has become their language; they even think in it.

It would soon be all over with French in these islands if, fortunately, it was not the official and legal language, as English has now become the language of commerce and of the home. Thus only is the French language (by those at least who  are reasonable enough to acknowledge it) known to be the safeguard of their autonomy.

'From the day', said a Jersey citizen to us a little time ago, 'when we use only the English language in the Royal Court or in the Assembly our Norman usages will be at an end; that is to say we will lose our civil rights. With the advent of the English language we shall receive magistrates from England, and those magistrates whom we have elected ourselves will find their occupation gone. Instead of our States Assembly the influential party will move for the direct representation of the islands at Westminster; farewell to our autonomy. Farewell to our freedom of excise!'

These fears, unhappily too well founded, are, however, the means of retaining the French language in the official world. But understand in the offical world only. And remember that out of 54,000 inhabitants in Jersey, there are only 8,000 of pure French descent; in Guernsey out of 35,000 inhabitants there are but 3,500. Few, if any, French schools. 

In Jersey there are but six schools where French is taught concurrently with English by French masters; in Guernsey there are but three, 'All', says the Bulletin, 'are in poor circumstances and solicit help.'

The Association we have formed will found and subsidize schools everywhere. In so doing we will preserve Frenchmen to France. Could money be better laid out? But this money, we must have it. It is for you to give it to us.


More on this subject can be found in the Library: Crossan, Rose-Marie, The States and secondary education, 1560-1970, Guernsey, Melody Press, 2016; Gourley, Ilma C S, A Survey of the history and development of education in the Bailiwick of Guernsey Channel Islands Pre-Reformation - 1976, thesis, 1976.