Guernsey: year zero

I was sent recently by Tony Gallienne an essay called Guernseyness: In search of a Guernsey Identity (written as A C Gallienne). It is a remarkably thoughtful and sometimes lyrical piece which struggles with the idea of Guernsey identity, and the loss of Guernésiais as the dominant language.

I quote here from the essay, which was a first prize winner in the Guernsey Eisteddfod.

The granite bedrock of communal identity, to use the metaphor again, is language. By this measure I was disinherited from my Guernseyness the day that I was born. And not only me but my generation. Born in the nineteen fifties to Guernsey-French speaking parents we were brought up not to speak our parents’ own language. I heard it all about me – my parents spoke to each other in it – but it was out of reach. I could understand but could not speak. I had been made culturally autistic. I had been made dumb to the language that communicated the life about me. A language which could trace its roots back through the recent trauma of German occupation when, indiscriminate of source, it had incorporated the word kaput (Ch’est tche kaput), back through the centuries to Rollo, the Norman pirate who was given the Duchy of Normandy in 912 A.D., who dropped his Scandinavian tongue (what transmutation of identity was this – perhaps the same as ceasing Guernsey-French in favour of English) and adopted the langue d’Oil tongue of the native population of northern France (A few Nordic words were retained though and remain as part of the now fading language – words like mielles (sand dunes), dehus (dolmens), vraic (seaweed). In the case of vraic it may have just managed to jump into the Guernsey-English idiom and so may survive a bit longer). And further back to roots in the soup of Latin and Celtic and Frankish vernacular.

Guernsey-French was a mature language drenched in the lives that had been lived on the island over centuries, vowel sounds and consonant combinations with no exact parallel in French or English, phrases and sayings which used the local events of life to communicate some essence or other of thought – surely this must be an aspect of Guernseyness; the internal use of reference points – Guernsey culture taking its own experiences to use as expressions of its nature. I found these two entries in the Dictionnaire Anglais-Guernesiais: for the word “lengthy” – “en avant ni but ni fin ‘coum les pereieres de Jacques Ozaunne” (to have no ending like James Ozanne’s prayers) – Mr Ozanne was a Wesleyian preacher; and for the word “paunch”: “aen ventre de Doyen” (Dean’s paunch) – a well known country ecclesiastic of the late 19th Century was noted for the huge size of his belly which gave rise to the
expression.

And yet for all its vigour and history Guernsey-French has been given up without a struggle; pushed away, consciously severed, broken by the twentieth century. Guernésiais was vibrant but unprotected, a peasant language of unwritten rhythms and syntax which has had no shield against the long deep night of evacuation and occupation (what tests of expression to maintain the native tongue), and then the long attrition of the homogenising onslaught of the last fifty years. When I was born my parents, early in their adult lives, already knew that their own language was fading and that their children’s Guernseyness was going to be different to their own.

Their decision not to teach me the patois would sever a link with unknown ancestors. I was to become the ancestor of a new inheritance, of a new Guernseyness. My birth year was Year Zero.

About Peter Kenny

I lead a double life. Identity #1. A writer of poems, plays, libretti, prose, journalism and so on. Identity #2: A marketing outlier, working with London creative agencies and my own clients as a copywriter and creative consultant.
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