Island Voices: Not' Identité Însulaithe


Jèrriais encapsulates Jersey's French and British heritage. Geraint Jennings discusses the Island's local language and its persisting cultural impact on the Island's identity today.

Many first-time visitors to Jersey will have a realisation of an important aspect of our Island Identity on arriving and seeing not only "Séyiz les beinv'nus en Jèrri" (Welcome to Jersey) but names of roads and places as they head to their hotel, meeting, or the home of their friends or family. When they start using Jersey banknotes, they may notice the trilingual text.

Much of our story is told in Jèrriais, not only to visitors, but also to ourselves, whether born here or more recent arrivals. Even if we think we don't speak any Jèrriais, we can talk of hougues, mielles, côtis, branquage... Students at Hautlieu continue to have an annual Chique Week (chique being Jèrriais for rag), and the increasing use of branding for commercial marketing means that products we buy may carry Jèrriais names. We can go to events with Jèrriais names, like La Faîs'sie d'Cidre at Hamptonne, or La Fête dé Noué, or more specifically culturally Jèrriais events such as La Fête du Jèrriais.

We may greet friends and neighbours as "Man vyi" or "Ma vielle", whether or not we or they bear Jèrriais names. And we may say goodbye to them with "À bi!" or "À bétôt!".   

The way we talk about where we are in English is also made distinctive by the influence of Jèrriais. We are in Jersey, because in Jèrriais we are en Jèrri. In French as spoken and written here, we are in les Îles de la Manche - a much older name than the recently-invented and inaccurate Parisian term les îles Anglo-Normandes.

All this living tradition is supported by the intangible heritage passed down to us: poetry, ditons, toponymy, legends, beliefs and ideas expressed and recorded in Jèrriais.  

So much of our history and culture is described only in Jèrriais - the myth that Jèrriais has never been a written language has been harmful to the recognition or our literature, the legacy of our prose writers and poets, and to the wealth and beauty of the descriptions of places, people, events, nature, customs and institutions.  

We can be proud of figures like Wace, our first known Jersey-born poet, who wrote for the Anglo-Norman court of the King of England & Duke of Normandy, helping to develop a basis on which French literature was later built. Wace links us with mainland Norman and also with the Anglo-Norman tradition of England. If we were a little more assertive, we could do a lot with the fact that Wace was the first writer to mention that King Arthur had a round table. National identities have been promoted on much less.

We can look at how countries with less of a history of self-government than us have developed their national identities along with their languages. Jèrriais has a longer literary history than a number of languages which are now official languages of the European Union, for example. The use by our institutions of Jèrriais abroad helps to distinguish ourselves as a small Island nation - as well as immediately making sure we're not confused too often with New Jersey, or assumed to be part of England - and to represent an Island confident to project its culture in all its historic and contemporary variety.  

With a newly expanded teaching team in schools, we have the opportunity to ensure that, in putting children first, everyone can benefit from song, verse, stories and an understanding of the landscapes current and future generations grow up in. 

Jèrriais has for too long been a hidden treasure. A shared identity encourages everyone to participate in its riches.