Guernsey gained some popularity in recent years with the film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018) and the novel upon which that film is based. Prior to this film, you may not have heard of this small island off the French coast in the English Channel but it has quite an interesting history. First off, Guernsey French was the official language until 1948, when it switched to English. The Guernsey language is unique due to its insular island origins, but stems back to the Norman era. Second, this is due to Guernsey’s experience of occupation in World War Two.
Ready to learn more about this fascinating island country? Read on!
The Basics of Guernsey
Guernsey is part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which is a British Crown Dependency, meaning that the island uses the Guernsey Pound (the British Pound). Prior to 1921, however, the island mainly used the older French currency, the franc. The other islands in the Bailiwick are Alderney, Herm, Jethou, and Sark. The population of Guernsey is approximately 62,800 people and its capital is St. Peter Port.
The Languages of Guernsey
Because Guernsey is a Crown Dependency, its first official language is English, which is used by a majority of the inhabitants. English is also used in judicial, governmental, and official settings. However, its proximity to France (just 48 km west of Normandy) also means that a portion of residents are native speakers of a dialect of Norman French, or Guernsey French, also called Guernésiais. Moreover, English has only been the official language since 1948, influenced by the Nazi occupation. Prior to 1948, French was the official language.
Guernsey French, or Guernésiais
This YouTube video offers insight into how Guernésiais is different to the French you might be used to. According to the Guernsey website’s explanation of the island’s languages, Guernésiais, or “patois”, does not have standardised spelling, and “While often thought a corrupted form of French, Guernesiais is much older than standard French, and is considered to be more a cousin of it.”
As we’ve gone into before, Norman French influenced the British Isles generally over time. A thousand years ago, Guernsey was ruled by the Dukes of Normandy, and therefore the inhabitants spoke Norman French. Norman French remained in Guernsey, even after the English language took over in Britain, but its separation from mainland France meant that Guernsey French is based on these very old Norman origins. In fact, the other islands in the Bailiwick all use different variations of this original Norman French.
English began to take over during the Second World War, when the occupying Nazis taught German in schools and expected children to speak either German or English. Of course, their parents still spoke patois, and the end of the war meant that many children preferred either English, or Guernsey French like their parents. Unfortunately, this also meant the endangerment of the language. There are far fewer indigenous Guernésiais speakers now than prior to the Nazi occupation, and the island is concerned about losing this unique language.
For a good guide on differences between French and Guernsey French, see guernseydonkey.com. There you will find charts with pronunciations included for greetings and farewells, phrases for health and weather, and an assortment of phrases and expressions used in that language. You’ll quickly notice once more that there is not a standardised spelling but this guide should help you should you find yourself in Guernsey and speaking French!
Historical French Connections
Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis in the Second World War. As such, the island still carries marks of that period, with bunkers and fortified ancient fortresses still along the coasts.
However, more of the historical influences are French. Around the island you will also see aspects of a culture far predating the Second World War. Neolithic structures and castles dating back centuries, as well as Victorian gardens and shops, can still be found. These show an intriguing combination of the English and Norman roots. While the Victorian aspects are, of course, British, other historical sites are evidently French in origin.
Les Fouaillages, for instance, dates back 8,000 years and, according to the Guernsey website, is “a prehistoric burial mound [...] considered one of the largest man-made monuments anywhere in Europe.” On Rue de L’Eglise, you’ll find La Gran’mère du Chimquière at the St. Martin parish church. This, the Grandmother of the Cemetery, a statue dating from the Neolithic period, was born more than 4,000 years ago. She shows a particular connection to France, as two similar statues reside in Brittany in Southern France.
Another interesting site is le Trépied, which is a burial chamber dating from the Megalithic period. This chamber makes an appearance in 17th century witch trials on the island, with accounts of these trials alleging that witches met at this chamber to convene with the devil. This chamber, apparently, was his throne.
Guernsey in Popular Culture
Of course, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is far from the only portrayal of this gorgeous Channel island. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings depict the coastline of the island. These paintings are so popular and well-known that the island has created a Renoir Walk to track where the great Impressionist walked and painted.