Wednesday 8 September 2010

The Familiar Enemy

There are some interesting interpretations in a recent book that places Jèrriais in a literary and historical context of relationships between England and France.

The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language, and Nation in the Hundred Years War, by Ardis Butterfield (ISBN 978-0-19-957486-5)
The Familiar Enemy re-examines the linguistic, literary, and cultural identities of England and France within the context of the Hundred Years War.... Traditionally Chaucer has been seen as a quintessentially English author. This book argues that he needs to be resituated within the deeply francophone context, not only of England but the wider multilingual cultural geography of medieval Europe. It thus suggests that a modern understanding of what 'English' might have meant in the fourteenth century cannot be separated from 'French', and that this has far-reaching implications both for our understanding of English and the English, and of French and the French.
The book puts Wace in context, and refers to Victor Hugo's impressions of language in Jersey in L'Archipel de la Manche. Here are some snippets:

Both Wace's verse histories were thus written against a context of war and more particularly of doubts about possession and identity: although 'Norman' proved to be a more persuasive category than any of the others that were claiming recognition in and around the British Isles - Angevin, Français, Blois, Breton, Engleis, Jersiais - it was not a national one...

But Wace in particular reminds us that the boundary between 'continental' and 'insular' is itself more fluid than we often allow. His vantage point on an island offshore from both mainlands perhaps explains his special gift for writing about the sea...

Victor Hugo... to the quintessential French man of letters the Channel islanders become less French the more they open their mouths. Hugo registers here not only the islanders' imperfect control over their unwitting Frenchness, but his own delicately phrased impatience at their betrayal. He notes with sociological gusto list after list of phrases, idioms, and vocabulary that strike him as distinctive or, even more, in need of translation...

Hugo is quick to deny that Jersiais is merely a Norman patois: it is a real language. In fact he goes on to argue that it is original or 'primitive', and with an etymological sleight of hand, connects one of its characteristic syllables 'Hou' with words for questions about origins '' and 'ou' (Latin unda and unde), and thence with the sea. In short, in this glancing aside, which clearly betrays a more poetic than philological impulse, he searches for a way to see Jersiais as an expression of ultimate origin: of a people born of the sea rather than bound to competing 'English' or 'French' claims over land. In this, he bears yet another likeness to Wace, who spends much energy and linguistic pleasure on etymological speculation in his Roman de Brut.

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