A ‘unique record’ of our ancient language

Professor Mari Jones, of Cambridge University, was intrigued by a box of jumbled cards containing Norman references deposited in the Priaulx Library. They were the work of the late JP Collas, who seems to have been engaged in a project comparing the Norman vocabulary of the different Channel Islands. Jill Chadwick caught up with Mari, local publisher Steve Foote, and Sir Richard Collas to discover how they have worked together to compile JP Collas’s field notes into A Glossary of the Norman Language in the Channel Islands...

MARI JONES, Professor of French linguistics and language change at the University of Cambridge and born in Wales, would seem an unlikely warrior fighting to retain a part of Guernsey’s linguistic heritage. But following a chance encounter at a conference, she is at the forefront of a unique local campaign which has at its heart the study of the Norman language of Guernsey.

‘I have made many trips to Guernsey and Jersey to undertake research into the Norman language. I have also been fortunate to be invited to deliver after dinner speeches at the Assembllaie d’ Guernesiais and Assembllee d’Jerriais, judge the Guernesiais section of the local Eisteddfod and give talks at the Societe Guernesiaise and the Priaulx Library.

‘My interest in the Norman of the Channel Islands began after I attended a paper at a linguistics conference, where the speaker was highlighting how the English being spoken in Guernsey had obviously been influenced by Norman.’

For Mari this ignited an interest in Guernesiais, its origins – as well as the sister languages spoken in Jersey, Sark and Alderney – and a passion to create a body of research on the language to be passed down through the generations.

It has also led Mari to meet up with the former Bailiff, Sir Richard Collas, nephew of the late JP Collas. He brought to her attention the fact that some of his uncle’s work had been deposited in the Priaulx Library and this started her on a search that would take over her life for the next three years.

‘I have been coming to Guernsey since 1998 and had learned Guernesiais in preparation for this,’ she said.

During her first trip, Mari spent time with local language revivalists including Jan Marquis, Anne Bewey, Peter Le Lacheur and Keith Le Cheminant, who share her will to keep Guernsey’s local language alive. ‘I spent a month in Guernsey speaking Guernesiais to different people every day and recording them so that I could study the make-up of the language.’

On one of my latest trips, I went to the Priaulx Library to look at that box of Collas slips that Richard had referred to and realised I had found something significant.

‘I suspected that the slips were intended as the basis for a glossary. However, it was apparent that the material in Guernsey was incomplete. After some further detective work, I succeeded in locating three more boxes of slips in Aberystwyth, which were clearly part of the same collection of work.’

Once the slips were assembled, the hard work of deciphering them and creating the glossary began.

She is full of praise for Sue Laker and her staff at the Priaulx Library and, once published, all royalties from the sale of the glossary will go to the library funds.

Mari, who speaks several languages, including Welsh and French, and who teaches a course about how Latin becomes French, used these linguistic skills to decipher those Norman language slips and the vision to create the glossary began to build.

For each English word, the slips record the Guernesiais, Jerriais, and often Sercquiais equivalents – and occasionally even the Auregniais words.

‘In addition to the Norman words, most of the entries also provide quotes from literature to show how the words were used as well. The words are also recorded in phonetic transcriptions to illustrate how they were pronounced. The glossary is not intended to include all the words of Guernesiais, Jerriais and Sercquiais: it is not a comprehensive dictionary, but it will certainly complement the existing dictionaries of Guernesiais and Jerriais.’

Mari admits that the project took over her life, but she is proud of what she has been able to achieve.

‘Cambridge University has taken great interest in the glossary and granted me a period of sabbatical leave to enable me to complete the work.’

Sir Richard Collas and Steve Foote looking at a trial print of the Glossary in the Priaulx Library. (Picture by Cassidy Jones, 29915832)

On one of her research visits, Jo Dowding of the Guernsey Museum Service introduced Mari to Blue Ormer publisher Steve Foote, who quickly got behind the project and offered to help her publish the glossary. The island archivist, Dr Darryl Ogier kindly negotiated with the Priaulx Library for Mari to be allowed to loan the slips and Steve delivered them to Mari in the UK.

Steve explains: ‘I set up Blue Ormer as I have a passion for the history and heritage of the Channel Islands – I have published books about the history of Guernsey, books about famous Guernseymen (like GB Edwards and Sir Donald Banks), the German Occupation, Victor Hugo’s exile and others. The major gap for me was something about our language – it was my mum’s native tongue and it’s such a shame that it is dying out. I have been doing evening classes with Jan Marquis over the last couple of years and have become increasingly interested in it. Working on this book with Mari was my small contribution to preserving this important part of our heritage.’

Sir Richard Collas, who supported the research project from its inception, has contributed a foreword to the glossary.

He explained: ‘The first time I met Professor Jones I mentioned that my Uncle John had done some research about which I knew very little, but which was contained in numerous slips of paper stored in the Priaulx Library. I had no idea of their value or significance, but I spiked her interest enough that she set about locating and studying the pieces of scrappy paper. I never imagined that they would come to dominate her life to the extent that she would become preoccupied with them in the way she has been.

‘Guernsey has a long and distinguished history with a rich and diverse cultural heritage of which islanders are proud, but there are very few islanders who appreciate the true depth and significance of what it is that we value and cherish. It often takes an outsider to explain the importance of features of island life that we take for granted and do not properly respect.

‘The notes recorded by my late uncle, Professor JP Collas, from which the present glossary has been compiled, is a unique record of how Norman French was spoken in different parts of the Channel Islands in the 1930s before English became the overwhelming first language of islanders.

‘If it were not for Professor Mari Jones, this valuable and unique record would likely have been lost forever.

‘The tenacity, professionalism and passion with which Professor Jones approached the task is exemplary. She has faithfully transcribed my uncle’s research notes, thereby preserving their authenticity without attempting to create a comprehensive dictionary.

Collas Family, Summer 1945:back row from left: Peter Renouf Collas, Gaby Collas (née Cassel) (John’s wife), Mary Alice Collas (née Bichard), Nora Kathleen Collas (née Turner) (Peter’s wife), Eileen Collas (néeMahy) (Edward’s wife), Edward Domaille Collas;front row from left: John Peter Collas, HughUrquhart Rose (Marion’s husband), Marion Bichard Rose (née Collas). (29935288)

‘The work will now be accessible to others who wish to study the Norman tongues of the Channel Islands. It provides a unique and extraordinary resource which can be drawn upon by all those who seek to promote, teach, or simply enjoy the richness of the Norman language; it is an important legacy that could and should enrich future generations of Guernesiais, Jerriais and Sercquiais speakers.

‘Professor Mari Jones has enthused me with an excitement for our ancient language thanks to the passion with which she speaks about it. She is able to assess Guernesiais from the perspective of an independent and objective expert who can appreciate the detail and subtleties of the language.

‘The islands owe an enormous debt of gratitude to her for compiling and editing my late uncle’s work and creating a source of reference material that will endure for all time and for all people.’

Ben Spink, head of Office du Jerriais, added: ‘Without Professor Jones’s meticulous and painstaking work, JP Collas’s material would probably have remained inaccessible and largely forgotten. The glossary she has produced will be of enormous importance to scholars and students of Norman. The wealth of vocabulary that it makes available will also assist greatly in the ongoing endeavour to revitalise our precious indigenous Channel Island languages.’

Collas Family, 1919: John William Collas (standing), left to right: Mary Alice Collas (née Bichard), Peter Renouf Collas, Edward Domaille Collas, John Peter Collas (standing), Marion Bichard Collas. (Picture courtesy of the Collas family) (29956869)

How to get involved

While much of the hard work to compile the glossary has now been completed, islanders can make an investment in our literary heritage by contributing towards the costs of printing and launching the book through a crowdfunding campaign.

There are four different levels of contribution:

  • Supporter: receive a copy of the book on the day of publication (£30).

  • Subscriber: receive a copy of the book and your name listed as subscriber in the tabula gratulatoria (£50).

  • Sponsor: receive a copy of the book with a personalised signed bookplate and your name listed as sponsor in the tabula gratulatoria (donation between £250 and £500).

  • Patron: receive five copies of the book with personalised signed bookplates and your name listed as patron at the top of the tabula gratulatoria (an investment of £1,000).

Full details are on the Blue Ormer website – www.blueormer.co.uk

Subject to the success of the crowdfunding campaign, it is hoped that the book will be launched in spring 2022 with a special launch event for patrons, sponsors and subscribers (travel restrictions permitting).

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