French Around the Globe: Guernsey French
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.
Likewise, Victor Hugo’s time in Guernsey proved particularly productive. While there in exile from France, Hugo described Guernsey as “the rock of hospitality and freedom” in the dedication for his 1866 novel Les Travailleurs de la Mer. Some Guernésiais words leaked into this novel, evidently influenced by the island. Visitors to the island can tour Hauteville House, Hugo’s home on the island for fifteen years.
Guernsey French Recipes
Guernsey, being an island, means that seafood is incredibly common fare, and incredibly delicious. For instance, you’re likely to find crab sandwiches or crab salad in most of the restaurants. These are hearty dishes, where the sweet, meaty flavour of the crab stars. Similarly, you’ll find fresh lobster caught that morning off the coast and served with butter sauce.
Guernsey is also well known for its dairy delights. Guernsey cheese - including goats cheese - and butter is an absolute treasure. These products are rich and creamy, and to some, absolutely unbeatable. Likewise, Guernsey ice cream is some of the softest, richest, and creamiest in the world.
The same milk and cream used to make these products helps to make the clotted cream found in a Guernsey cream tea. These include local cream, fresh scones and butter, jam (made locally too!), and fresh, nutty Guernsey clotted cream. The Moulin Huet Tearooms are very well known for their cream tea and ice cream, showing again a wonderful combination of French and English influence.
If scones aren’t really your thing, test out the Guernsey Gâche - a fruit bread that’s served either savoury, with local Guernsey cheese, or sweet with Guernsey butter and jam. A recipe for Guernsey Gâche can be found here. This is a fun, simple dish to make with the kids that they will absolutely love.
Finally, a traditional dinner was the Guernsey bean jar. This is a homier version of French cassoulet. Traditionally, this was combined into a jar that the local bakers would then let individuals bake in their ovens overnight. As such, it shows the community of Guernsey. In days when housewives conducted all of the cooking and cleaning, this dish was enjoyed reheated on a Monday when housewives had spent the day doing laundry, and therefore did not have the time to cook. The dish is rich and hearty, with beef shin or pork trotter, beans, onions, carrots, bay leaf, and some stock. Super simple so the kids can even help, and crockpot is all you need.
There’s no end to the vastly different cultures and dialects that have sprung up from French around the globe. We find Guernsey’s history particularly interesting, as it shows a unique case of a thousand-year-old Norman French surviving and growing and changing over the years.
Let us know if there’s another French-speaking country that you’d like to see in our blog!