Guernésiais is the language of Guernsey. Pronounced 'JEHR-nehz-yay', it is also known as 'Guernsey French' or 'patois'. It is a form of Norman French, which evolved from the Vulgar Latin spoken in the region when it was part of the Roman Empire. Many different regional languages evolved in France before the modern 'standard' French was agreed. One of these languages was Norman, and was spoken in the islands a thousand years ago when we were ruled by the Dukes of Normandy.
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Norman French became the official language used at court and by the nobles. It was three hundred years before 'English' became the official language of England, and by this time a lot of Norman French words had been added to English. In Guernsey however the local people continued speaking Norman. It gradually changed into a distinct local language and indeed, words and pronunciations used in the north of the island can differ from those in the west of the island. Sark, Alderney and Jersey all developed their own variations of Norman.
Guernsey's Royal Court and officials employed standard French from the Medieval period to the early 20th century and this was also widely spoken by the merchants and upper classes in the town. When schools were set up, these taught standard French which was referred to as 'The Good French'. English was spoken by the many soldiers stationed here and by British people who moved here to live or work in town. In 1926 English was made an official language of the States, but people of the countryside continued speaking Guernesiais well into the middle of the 20th century.
It is primarily a spoken language and there is still debate over how its words should be spelled and what its proper grammar is (it can also be written as Dgernesais). To those who know French it can look strange when written down. The first dictionary was written in 1870 by Georges Métivier, who with a small number of writers aimed to preserve the language with poems and stories. These included the poet Denys Corbet (1826-1909) whose house in the Forest now has a blue plaque dedicated in his memory.
The German Occupation of 1940 struck a heavy blow to the language - apart from the attempt to get all islanders speaking German! Many children were evacuated to England and forgot how to speak Guernesais. Some adults joined the British forces, travelled the world and married non-islanders. After the war, an influx of British settlers, tourists and the influence of radio and television further diluted the language. In 1967 Marie de Garis researched and published a Guernesais/English dictionary which was reprinted in its fourth edition in 2012.
The most recent figures available on the number of Guernésiais speakers is from the Guernsey Census (2001), which states:
1,327 (1,262 Guernsey-born) or 2% of the population speak Guernsey Norman-French fluently while 3% fully understand the language. However most of these, 70% or 934 of the 1,327 fluent speakers are aged over 64. Among the young only 0.1% or one in a thousand are fluent speakers.
Those speaking and understanding Guernsey Norman-French a little are about three times the number who are fluent speakers or full of understanding. Thus 14% of the population, or 1 in 7 have some understanding of Guernsey Norman-French. However 84% of the Guernsey-born have no understanding compared to 91% for the UK born and 78% for the nearly 3000 who are European born. It seems that it is an advantage to be European if one is to understand Guernsey Norman-French.
Source: Guernsey Census 2001
The number has fallen away sharply since then and most native speakers are aged over 65, leading the language to be classed as 'Endangered'.
Guernsey Language Commission, last updated 20 October 2016