By Clàudia Sacrest
Saint Helier, Dec 24 (EFE).- The welcome message at the airport on Jersey in the Channel Islands is curious to most arrivals: “Seyiz les beinv’nus à Jerri”. It is neither English nor French, but Jèrriais, the traditional tongue that, during the Nazi occupation in World War II, served as a “secret language” for the inhabitants of this autonomous territory in the English Channel.
While the island belongs to the British Crown and its residents mainly speak English, the French coast of Normandy is only 22 kilometers away, so it is not surprising that Jèrriais is actually a sub-dialect of Norman.
Only a few people, mainly the elderly, still speak it fluently: a mere 1% of the little more than 100,000 inhabitants of the island, while another 25% understand the most common phrases.
To prevent the language from being lost to history, in 2019 the Jersey government declared it an official language of the territory, along with French and English. A promotional campaign in education and local administrations was launched and the language was even used on the island’s pound notes.
“Sonne les clioches, les p’tites clioches, sonne les clioches d’hivé!”. The chorus of the popular Christmas carol “Jingle Bells” rings out in Jèrriais in a classroom at the Jersey College for Girls, in Saint Helier, the island’s capital, where 8- and 9-year-old students learn from their teacher, Susan Parker.
The is one of seven teachers who go from school to school to teach Jersey’s traditional language and culture, a new pilot program in primary education that has already reached a dozen schools and more than 500 students.
“We always ask when we start if they have any family members or friends who speak jerriais and there’s usually three or four in each class who say yes, my grandma or my granddad speak Jerriais,” Parker explains.
That historical and generational link is a key reason why Parker and others work to protect the language and culture of the island, pointing to the delight that one of her students felt when she was able to understand a Christmas greeting card her grandmother had sent her.
“It said “Bouan Noué” on it and she now knows that it means ‘Merry Christmas in Jerriais’ so she was really happy”, she says with a smile.
“SECRET LANGUAGE” UNDER NAZI OCCUPATION
Born in 1937, François Lemaistre lived through World War II and the German occupation when he was little, between 1940 and 1945, a period when the Romance language provided an escape from Nazi surveillance.
“During those five years, everyone in the country spoke in Jerriais, pure and simply because unfortunately for the Germans they didn’t understand our language”, says Lemaistre sarcastically, in an interview with Efe from his home in Saint Peter, on the west of the island.
In fact, it was difficult for “even those who understood French”, due to the linguistic heritage of the Viking peoples who occupied northern France, leaving non-Latin words, such as “hougue” to refer to a mount (“haugr” in Old Norse).
According to politician and linguist Geraint Jennings, the “secret language” that confounded collaborationist French interpreters suffered “a big rupture” brought by the war and occupation, when many families were evacuated to England and their children were sent to school there.
The fact that “many of the adult menfolk left Jersey at the beginning of WWII to join the British Armed Forces and therefore served their entire wartime careers speaking English” accelerated the language’s decline.
Both factors undermined the cultural and linguistic roots of younger generations, at the same time that English became a symbol of modernity through the arrival of local tourism and the financial sector, the new engines of the Jersey economy.
Jèrriais was discredited as a “language of the peasant” even when Lemaistre himself was little, so that even in the playground he was forced to speak in English under threat of “slap risks” if he did not. “And the sad thing was that my first teacher in Primary School was a Jersey lady who spoke jerriais but she forbade it in school,” he laments.
While Lemaistre could not learn to write Jèrriais in a classroom, he did learn it from his father, Frank Lemaistre, who investigated the origin of words to standardize their spelling releasing the first Jersey-French encyclopedic dictionary, which the octogenarian still treasures in his bedroom. EFE