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Review of  Jersey Norman French

Reviewer: Claus D. Pusch
Book Title: Jersey Norman French
Book Author: Mari C. Jones
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Issue Number: 13.2115

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Date: Mon, 12 Aug 2002 11:54:19 +0200
From: Claus Pusch
Subject: Jones (2001) Jersey Norman French

Jones, Mari C. (2001) Jersey Norman French. A Linguistic Study of an Obsolescent Dialect. Blackwell Publishers, paperback ISBN 0-631-23169-2, xvi+240pp, $34.95, Publications of the Philological Society 34.

Claus D. Pusch, Albert-Ludwig University Freiburg

Until recently, the (Norman) French dialects spoken on the Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, Sark) have encountered little interest among scholars of Romance linguistics. If they received any attention, then as part of the Norman French dialect landscape as a whole, in which these insular varieties play a natural, albeit somehow "exotic" role due to the fact that political ties with France started to be cut as soon as in the 13th century and that these 'langues d'oïl' dialects have come since then in increasingly intense contact with English. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that most older work on Channel Island Norman French was written in a dialectologic perspective, focussing on diachronic and synchronic phonology and the lexicon. Only recently have appeared studies that, apart from these traditional areas of research, dedicate broader space to morphology and syntax, such as Liddicoat (1994), curiously not mentioned in the monograph under review, and to the external history of these varieties, or some of them (Spence 1993). Sociolinguistic studies which go beyond short and general descriptions such as Brasseur (1977) took even longer to be available, but in the last years, some more comprehensive work has been published (e.g. Brasseur 1998 and Lösch 2000, both again not mentioned by Jones) or is in preparation (cf. Sallabank 2002).

The study by Mari C. Jones, based on fieldwork carried out between 1996 and 2000, fills a gap in providing us with up-to-date information on the situation of Norman (and, to a lesser extent, Standard) French on the Channel Islands, on the historical bases that have led to this situation, and on the linguistic peculiarities of the Norman French dialect and different phenomena of language contact on the largest of these islands, Jersey. As the sub-title of the book suggests, the study is based on current approaches to language death situations as developed particularly in the work of Nancy Dorian. Starting from the assumption that "obsolescence is a sociolinguistic process rather than an exclusively linguistic one" (p. 5), Jones intends "to give equal prominence to the external setting, speech behaviour and structural consequences" (ibid.) of language decay on Jersey, an intention in which the author brilliantly succeeds.

Although the book is divided into 9 chapters, it has actually a tripartite structure: after an insightful introduction, chap. 2 and 3 give background information on the historical and sociolinguistic development and on the general characteristics of Jersey Norman French (henceforth: JNF), for which Jones uses the autochthonous term "Jèrriais". Chap. 4 and 5 are dedicated to JNF's current sociolinguistic status and to language planning issues. Chap. 6 to 8 present the internal state of today's JNF, with a focus on language obsolescence symptoms including contact phenomena involving JNF, Standard French (SF) and English. The conclusion (chap. 9) is followed by two appendices, one of which illustrates the results of a lexical questionnaire task analyzed in chap. 7, extensive notes and references, and three indices, one general, a second of authors and a final one of languages and dialects mentioned.

Chap. 2 "The Sociolinguistic Setting" gives an overview of the political history of the Channel Islands and, more particularly, of Jersey, which, despite the fact of being only 25km away from the French Mainland but at about 150km from the British coast, forms part of the kingdom of England since the mid-13th century but is otherwise largely self-governed. The presence of Englishmen and, consequently, the English language increased from the 15th century on, but thorough anglicization started in the 19th century, favored by better transport links with Britain, the advent of tourism and the socio-economic changes due to the development of trade and financial services on Jersey. Therefore, SF - the traditional medium of written communication and still, today, Jersey's official language - and JNF as the oral correlative lost more and more communicative domains to English. However, the most important event for the current obsolescent situation of JNF, according to Jones, was the evacuation of about 20% of Jersey's population in the Second World War, when Britain judged the island indefensible against the German army, which occupied Jersey between 1940 and 1945. As many of the 10,000 people evacuated to Britain were women and children, this event provoked a radical cut in language transmission, from which JNF has not been able to recuperate. This leads to a specific status of JNF in language death terms, as Jones reiterates on many occasions: JNF 'dies intact', i.e. today's last fluent native speakers of JNF - most of them aged 60 and above - are followed by generations who almost do not have any proficiency in the dialect, so "on Jersey we are currently witnessing a type of obsolescence that differs from the 'gradual death' pattern that has been the subject of many case studies" (p. 152).

Chap. 3 "The Jèrriais Dialect" gives a dialectologic profile of JNF in the context of the Norman French dialect continuum, emphasizing that JNF (and Channel Island Norman French in general) contains all the "defining features of Norman" (p. 19), with only few differences. Jones also describes the regional variation within JNF, which despite the fact of Jersey being an island of mere 120 square kilometers is considerable. The author illustrates this dialectal variation with regard to phonology and lexis and emphasizes the east-west divergence within the subvarieties, among which the western dialect of the St Ouen parish (St Ouennais) is of particular importance because it was to become the basis of recent standardization efforts. It is also in this and other north-western parishes where, according to the 1989 census, most native speakers of JNF are to be found. However, the total number of L1 speakers now amounts to less than 7% of the entire population.

Chap. 4 "A Sociolinguistic Profile of the Jèrriais Speech Community" presents data that Jones gathered through a sociolinguistic questionnaire administered to 50 informants all of whom are fluent L1 speakers of JNF. If these, about one third made regular use of the dialect in their daily life. As Jones shows with regard to contexts where JNF is spoken, use of the dialect drops dramatically when these speakers address children. Attitudes of the informants towards the dialect are overwhelmingly positive, with vast majorities being favorable to language preservation and revitalization measures but skeptical about the success of such activities.

Chap. 5 "Language planning on Jersey" describes the major instigators and agents of such language preservation and revitalization initiatives. Jones shows that, as far as status and corpus planning of JNF is concerned, "no official state-controlled body exists to contribute to either of these areas, which are both in the hands of a small, non-linguistically trained, group of enthusiasts" (p. 71), a situation which, despite the merits of such enthusiasts' action, explains the numerous shortcomings of, e.g., the standardization process and the fragility of the language-planning measures as a whole. Jones maintains that JNF is in a lucky situation, compared to other varieties facing language death, in that a 'natural' selection of one sub-variety, the above-mentioned St Ouennais dialect, as 'first among equals' took place due to the fact that the reference dictionary, 'Dictionnaire Jersiais-Français' (1966), and the only two substantial volumes of literature published hitherto in JNF were written by speakers of and in this sub-variety, and that this choice seems to be uncontroversial among JNF speakers. The author highlights the introduction (in 1999) of JNF as an (optional) subject in primary schools as perhaps the most important achievement of the revitalization movement so far, but points out that the dialect is still virtually absent from broadcast media.

Chap. 6 "Linguistic Developments in Modern Jèrriais" goes over to the analysis of linguistic features of nowadays JNF as produced by the author's 50 informants in tape-recorded conversations, and to the question if, and to which degree, obsolescence phenomena are exhibited in this speech sample. Jones' goal is twofold: on the one hand, retention or loss of linguistic peculiarities common to all JNF sub-dialects (such as the use of certain prepositions or affirmative particles, the pre-position of adjectives, or the use of present and past subjunctive forms) is checked, but, on the other hand, the maintenance of features that differ between these sub-dialects (all of them phonetic, e.g. the assibilation of intervocalic [r]) is also subject to scrutiny. Jones finds that, whereas the latter differences are mostly conserved, with little dialect leveling being manifested in the corpus, the former characteristics seem all to be in a situation of change, although the author concedes that the findings do "not always admit a straightforward interpretation" (p. 136): Although many current developments - such as a certain weakening of distinctive gender marking - may be attributable to the influence of English - which one would expect in a situation of language decay in a diglossic setting - others are also found in (unrelated) spoken varieties of French and, sometimes, even in Standard French, so that, for these changes, language-internal motivations might be advocated. Following Thomason / Kaufman (1988), Jones describes this as a 'multiple causation' situation.

Chap. 7 "Lexical Erosion in Modern Jèrriais" has the same goal as the preceding chapter, i.e. to analyze maintenance or loss of dialect-specific features, but takes a different methodological approach (elicitation of items through a questionnaire-based translation task) and focuses on the lexicon. The word list presented to the informants included semantic domains of everyday life such as 'weather', 'house', 'animals', and only one 'exotic' domain (in JNF terms), 'technology', where - not surprisingly - most informants could not produce autochthonous terms. However, Jones concludes that "lexical erosion in modern Jèrriais is not particularly advanced" (p. 152) in the generations under examination. When lexical gaps exist, they are more frequently filled with borrowings from English than from SF (whereas Jersey language planners mostly give preferences to loanwords from this latter tongue). Finally, the symptoms of dialect mixing are slightly more evident in the lexicon than on the phonologic level.

Chap. 8 "Cross-Linguistic Influence on Jersey" is a stimulating, albeit partially superficial examination of linguistic influence that JNF has on both the SF and the English spoken on Jersey, and on the influence exerted on JNF by SF. This part of the study complements the preceding two chapters, where signs of language attrition and loss had been investigated mainly with the potential influence of English on JNF in mind. If the analyses presented in this chapter are less profound than in the aforementioned chapters, this might be due to the fact the author only draws partially on original data but otherwise comments and reinterprets data documented in other studies such as Hublart's unpublished (and hard to access) thesis (1979) on Jersey SF. Jones finds out that the Norman dialectal features shine through both in Jersey SF and English, but whereas Jersey English may be classified as a full-fledged regional variety of that language, Jones rejects Hublart's proposal to call Jersey SF a 'français régional' because the constellation is too different from the standard-dialect interaction in France, for which the term has been coined.

In chap. 9 "Conclusion", Jones sums up by emphasizing that the linguistic situation of JNF represents "a mixture of both gradual and radical death" (p. 181). Whereas the ongoing drop of L1 speakers and of communicative and geographic areas where the dialect is used corresponds to language death scenarios of the gradual type, the abrupt interruption of language transmission and the fact that, as far as linguistic features are concerned, the variety dies comparatively 'intact', refer to the radical type of language death. Although now, after decades of complete indifference, some language revitalization action is on the way, Jones is not too optimistic about the effects of such tardy initiatives, as the last L1 speakers of JNF might have died when the first generations of fluent L2 speakers - if at all - leave schools. Jones rightly insists on the necessity to take supporting measures, apart from and complementing education, in order to enlarge the communicative radius of revitalized JNF. The author also states that "the only hope for Jèrriais is if it can survive as a symbol of Island identity" (p. 186), an aim for which also the English-speaking non-Jersey rooted part of the island population has to be motivated. The inter-dialectal variation which, as shown in the study, is at present still relatively well conserved will most certainly disappear as soon as the JNF-speaking community will be made up predominantly of L2 speakers; but this seems to be the price to pay in order to achieve standardization.

It is precisely the way that JNF is being standardized that calls for some critical remarks. As Jones clearly shows, the current revitalization movement tends to constitute JNF as a variety or language "à part". This might certainly be justified for psychological reasons and with aims such as, e.g., a higher valuation of the communicative possibilities of the autochthonous idiom by its own speakers in mind. However, it may be worth considering whether the revitalization efforts in favor of JNF could not be more efficient if, at the same time, measures were taken for the re-introduction of SF into communicative domains that this language occupied until the first half of the 20th century. This, obviously, would have some bearing on the way JNF is standardized. Suffice it to mention briefly the orthography of current JNF: as Jones explains, this developed out of a typical 'dialect orthography' which certainly included many grapheme-phoneme correspondences found in the French orthography but which, by attempting to reproduce as many 'typical' phonetic and sentence-phonetic features of the sub-dialect transcribed (St Ouennais JNF), makes generous use of apostrophes, digraphs and diacritics, features shared by other 'young' orthographies such as that of Luxembourgish or certain standardization proposals for Occitan, and which make standard JNF writing both difficult - especially, but not only to non-native speakers - and somehow "strange" when compared to SF orthography. Although such types of dialect orthographies may bear precious hints for linguists, they are probably not best suited for rescuing dying varieties through their (re-)introduction into the realm of scripturality. By maintaining written standard JNF in as close proximity to written SF as possible and by promoting instead, as markers of identity, the use of typical JNF morphosyntactic devices and lexemes, it might be easier to attain the ultimate goal of making JNF more 'interesting' to learn for anglophone Jerseymen and to secure the dialect's future.

This critical remark, however, is not directed to Mari Jones' study, which, as indicated before, is based upon a convincing methodological approach and original empirical data. The book is clearly structured and well written; also its accurate technical presentation deserves special mention, so that the reviewer found only very few misprints or errors (p. 23: "pullover tricoté à la main" instead of "tricoté la main"; p. 23: "be reluctant to apply", not "to to apply"; p. 47: "the conflicting results [...] mean" instead of "means"; p. 83: "Wolkenkratzer" instead of "wolkenkratzer"; p. 108: "although there is no firm evidence", not "although no there is no firm evidence"). The book is an interesting read for both scholars of Romance and English linguistics and sociolinguistics, and for readers interested in contact-induced language change and minority language endangerment.


Brasseur, P. (1977) Le français dans les îles anglo-normandes. Taverdet, G. / Straka, G. (eds.) Les français régionaux. Paris: Klincksieck, 97-103.

Brasseur, P. (1998) La survie du dialecte normand et du français dans les îles anglo-normandes: remarques sociolinguistiques. Plurilinguismes 15, 133-170.

Hublart, C. (1979) Le français de Jersey. Mons: Université de l'Etat à Mons.

Liddicoat, A. (1994) A Grammar of the Norman French of the Channel Islands. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lösch, H. (2000) Die französischen Varietäten auf den Kanalinseln in Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft. Wien: Edition Praesens.

Sallabank, J. (2002) Multilingualism in Guernsey: history and prospects. Paper presented at the Workshop "Multilingualism and Language Endangerment", Mannheim, Febr. 27 - March 1, 2002.

Spence, N. C. W. (1993) A Brief History of Jèrriais. Jersey: Le Don Balleine.

Thomason, S. G. / Kaufman, T. (1988) Language contact, creolization and genetic linguistics. Berkeley / Los Angeles / London: University of California Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Claus D. Pusch earned his PhD from Freiburg University (Germany) with a study on Gascony Occitan morphosyntax and now teaches Romance linguistics at that same university. His research interests include pragmatically-driven language change and the pragmatics-morphosyntax interface, corpus linguistics, and the sociolinguistics of Romance minority languages. He currently works on a 'habilitation' thesis on Romance imperative and prohibitive constructions in a grammaticalization perspective.

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