Saturday, 22 June 2013

Jersey - Pâl'-ou l'Jèrriais?

Something I didn't know about Jersey and, indeed, the other Channel Islands, is that they have their own languages, which are considered to be dialects of Norman French and, therefore, not closely related to English.  In Jersey, the Norman language is known as Jèrriais and this was regularly spoken in Jersey until the 1950's, when the last monolingual speakers died and English finally took over.  It's now estimated that less than 2,000 people speak Jèrriais as a native language - although it still has an important ceremonial role in Jersey's political and legal systems.

The World's 'big' languages

Unfortunately, the experience of Jersey is pretty typical in a constantly globalising world.  The reality of the early 21st century is that more than 50% of the world's population speaks one of the top 24 languages (ie. those with more than 50 million speakers).  We've met some of these already when I blogged about Chinese linguistics in December last year: Mandarin, Wu and Yue (Cantonese) have around 987 million speakers between them.  Then there are the big languages of South Asia: Hindi, Bengali, Lanhda (which I'd never heard of), Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu.  The other big East Asian languages include: Japanese, Javanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Malay.  The big languages of the Middle East are: Arabic, Persian and Turkish.  Finally, the big European languages are: Spanish, English, Portuguese, Russian, German and French.

Sign in English and Jèrriais by Man Vyi
Interestingly, not a single language originating in sub-Saharan Africa, Australia/Pacific or the Americas has made it onto this list and I think this says a lot about the role language has to play in colonisation.  The biggest language from sub-Saharan Africa is probably Hausa, which has 40 million native speakers - you can read more about African linguistics in my blog post from 2010.  The biggest American language is Quechua, which has about 7 million native speakers in Peru and Bolivia.  Most Australian languages are endangered or extinct and you'll probably find more Russian or Mandarin speakers in Australia, than speakers of native Australian languages!

Countries with the greatest number of 'endangered' languages

For most other languages, survival into the 21st century and beyond will be something of a challenge.  UNESCO has published an interesting online map of endangered languages including Jèrriais, which you can visit by clicking on the following link.  I looked at the 'hotspots' for endangered languages around the world and it's surely no coincidence that the countries where languages are most in danger of extinction are also those where the 'big' languages listed above are spoken - according to UNESCO's map, the ten countries with most endangered languages are:

India (197)
The United States (191)
Brazil (190)
Indonesia (146)
China (144)
Many sign posts are written in Jèrriais, photo from Man vyi
Mexico (143)
Russian Federation (131)
Australia (108)
Papua New Guinea (98)
Columbia (68)

Exactly how endangered?

UNESCO employs a useful system of categorisation, to describe exactly how endangered a language is considered to be.  They define the following five main categories:

Vulnerable - most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home)
Definitely endangered - children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home
Severely endangered - the language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves
Critically endangered - the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently
Extinct - there are no native speakers left

Under this categorisation, Jèrriais is considered to be severely endangered, as is the language of Guernsey, DgernesiaisAuregnais, the language of Alderney, is already considered to be extinct.

So what can we do about it?

Coming from Ireland, I feel quite passionate about language revitalisation.  There have been some successful attempts to revitalise languages, probably the most famous example being Modern Hebrew as well as the Celtic languages, which are receiving a lot of government-level support.

Unfortunately, despite all of the hard work people having been doing to revive the Irish language, it seems to be constantly in decline and is considered by UNESCO to be definitely endangered, whereas neighbouring Welsh is merely vulnerable and the revitalisation of Welsh in recent years has been fairly successful. 

Losing a language means losing part of the cultural richness of the human experience and it's a real shame to see the world's big languages take over, even if one of them, English, is my mother tongue.  My partner's mother tongue is Russian, but his people speak Kalmyk, which is definitely endangered, just like Irish, so we are very much part of this shift in language use.  I can't help but wonder how many of these languages will be left in 100 years time?

On a more positive note, I'm going to leave you with a link for the Endangered Languages project - it's great to know that there are people out there who are willing to advocate for linguistic diversity in the 21st century.

I'll also leave you with a video of Jersey poet Michael Vaûtchi, reading a poem in his native Jèrriais


Image credits:

Both images have been released into the public domain by Man vyi, who has shared lots of images of Jersey on Wikimedia Commons - thanks Man vyi for sharing these images with us. 

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