Wednesday 7 December 2011

Island language in a sea of change

L'Unnivèrsité d'Cambridge quémeunnique:

Norman languages spoken in the Channel Islands for a thousand years are severely endangered. University of Cambridge linguist Dr Mari Jones has been analysing the languages and tracing why they have declined.

It may come as some surprise that Norman is spoken in the British Isles today. In the British parliament, the use of certain Norman phrases, for example during the passage of Bills between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is a tradition that dates back to a time just after the Norman Conquest, when Norman French was the official language of government.

But on the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey and Sark, Norman is a native language, albeit now endangered. In fact, Norman has been spoken in the Islands for a thousand years and, despite the fact that the archipelago has been united politically with Great Britain since 1204, until relatively recently most of the inhabitants were Francophone.

The presence of English was probably first felt to any significant extent when, in the Middle Ages, military garrisons were established on the Islands to defend them against the French. But Norman French remained the everyday speech for most Islanders until well into the 19th century, when growing trade and transport links led to ever-increasing contact with the British mainland and hence to progressive Anglicisation.

Dr Mari Jones, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of French, has worked extensively in the Channel Islands, painstakingly analysing and documenting the dialects and examining the linguistic consequences of the contact that has taken place between English and the (three distinct) Norman French dialects of the Channel Islands (called locally Jèrriais, Guernésiais and Sercquais).

Her research takes place against a backdrop of dwindling numbers of native speakers, many of whom she has interviewed and recorded. “This is work that simply cannot wait until a metaphorical tomorrow,” she explained. “On Sark, for instance, speakers of Sercquais – the most vulnerable variety of Norman French and the least studied – probably number no more than 20 in a population of 600. Sadly, it may not be too long before the tongue shares the same fate as Auregnais, the Norman dialect of the island of Alderney that died out in the mid-20th century. Analysis of the languages of the Channel Islands is therefore essential while they are still alive.” Dr Jones’s recordings feature, in all likelihood, people who will be the last ever native speakers of these dialects.

Language loss

Languages become threatened for a variety of reasons – there might, for instance, be political, religious or cultural forces at play. “But for many endangered languages,” said Dr Jones, “the reason they are vanishing is because people don’t want to speak them any more. In a nutshell, they perceive the native language as outdated and the new language as the language of progress.”

A changing view of the world around them has, Dr Jones believes, had an impact on speakers’ motivations to speak Channel Island French. Events in the 20th century, such as the growth of tourism and the offshore finance industry, led to English being seen as a means to prosperity and social advancement, and also brought in their wake large-scale immigration to Jersey and Guernsey from the British mainland.

Moreover, before this, the evacuation of a significant number of the women and children from Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney in the days preceding the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War also had severe linguistic repercussions, as Dr Jones explained: “A considerable proportion of the child population of each island spent the next five years, until 1945, cut off from their native tongue and immersed in the very language with which it was in competition. On their return, many had either forgotten their Channel Island Norman French or chose to continue using English.”

Jèrriais is now spoken by just 2,874 (3.2%) of the Jersey population and Guernésiais by 1,327 (2.2%) of the Guernsey population, according to censuses carried out in the Islands in 2001. However, as Dr Jones pointed out, conscious steps are now being taken to safeguard the future of Channel Island Norman French: “What was once seen as a negative link between language and identity is nowadays regarded as a positive one and, on Jersey and Guernsey, the language is currently being taught in schools.”

Revitalisation efforts are focused by the ‘Office du Jèrriais’ on Jersey, where language planning has made the most headway in the archipelago.

Language contact

One element of Dr Jones’s research is aimed at understanding what happens when languages are in contact. In Jersey, for instance, bilingualism has been widespread since at least the mid-20th century and so-called contact phenomena abound: in the course of a conversation, speakers may alternate between one language variety and another (called code-switching) or transfer syntactic patterns such as word order from one language to another.

During several field trips to the Channel Islands, Dr Jones has interviewed and recorded speakers to examine precise instances where language change occurs. She has also conducted a detailed study of a remarkable corpus of 19th-century translations into Guernésiais that include the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays from which she has been able to gain insight into hitherto undocumented grammatical features of this dialect. Her work thus provides important clues as to how languages develop over time and the effects of contact with more dominant tongues.

“The presence of contact phenomena on the Channel Islands came as no surprise. Social conditions mean that no variety of insular Norman is used any longer by any speaker as their sole means of communication,” she said. “However, at the same time, we should be careful not to make assumptions about what we are likely to find. Just because a ‘big’ language is in contact with a ‘small’ one we should not take it for granted that the influence will all be one-way or that the speech of all members of a given community will be influenced in the same way. For example, and quite surprisingly, a significant number of Jèrriais speakers did not code-switch at all. It is possible that this desire to keep their language free of English words may be in some way linked to their positive attitude towards Jèrriais: they may be bilingual but they did not feel they had a dual identity.”

The Duchy’s legacy

Dr Jones’s newest research will take her to mainland France, to study the continental speakers of Norman. “Since the loss of the Duchy of Normandy in 1204, the Norman territory has been fragmented,” she explained. “Although the split was initially political, rather than linguistic, the fact that the Channel Islands have been governed by Britain, and continental Normandy by France, has meant that these territories have found themselves on different sides of an ever-widening linguistic gulf as English and French, respectively, become dominant in daily life.”

Linguistically, insular and continental Norman have never been further apart than today. Dr Jones’s project will investigate whether their contact with different standard languages (English and French) is leading to these varieties of Norman evolving via different linguistic mechanisms.

The impending extinction of Norman makes it vital that this comparison is undertaken while native speakers still exist – a linguistic situation that has parallels all over the world. As the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger makes only too clear, 230 languages reached extinction in the past 60 years, and some 3,000 languages are currently endangered.

Cambridge Group for Endangered Languages and Cultures (CELC): CELC brings together researchers from across the University, united by their common interest in endangered languages.

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