1884: The Channel Islands

December 12th, 2012

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1884: The Channel Islands

Office du JerriaisGuernsey, history, Sark

Language-related snippets from The Channel Islands. By Charles W. Wood, F.R.G.S. Author of “Through Holland,” “The Cruise of the Reserve Squadron.” (published in The Argosy, VOLUME XXXVII. January to June, 1884. ed. Mrs. Henry Wood.)

In Jersey:

The women all seemed to speak English and French equally well. Amongst themselves they have a sort of French patois, sufficiently unintelligible to render it an unknown tongue to the ordinary outsider. But they dispense with this when you address them, and reply in a language easily understood.(…)

In Guernsey:

We came upon two old fishermen in our walks — luckily not far from the inn. Heavily-laden baskets weighed upon their shoulders, and we asked their contents. They put down the baskets and rested themselves on the slope of the cliff, and entered into conversation. Not a word of English spoke they ; nothing but a French patois, not too remote however from the mother tongue, and easily understood.(…)

One of the first things to strike you in Guernsey, is, that though there is no Tower of Babel, there is a confusion of tongues. Or perhaps it would be better to say a confusion of country. English and French are so blended together that you grow bewildered and begin to wonder where you are. The very names of the streets are written up in both languages.(…)

For there are quarries in Guernsey : and one of them, I especially remember, seemed worked by a race of idiots. Men and boys spoke no language we understood, and possibly returned us the compliment. They could tell us nothing about their work ; appeared incapable of comprehending the most dramatically significant signs ; could not inform us how to enter the quarry ; and when we at length managed to get in by a series of labyrinthine twists and turnings, were quite unable to tell us how to get out again. It gave us a depressing view of the intellect of Guernsey quarrymen. Our driver, however, saw the matter in a different light He had surveyed our difficulties from a distance, and gave vent to his opinions in language that to us was not more intelligible than that of the quarrymen. But strong waters betray themselves by their perfume, and by some such subtle process we knew that the strong words of this unknown tongue was not calling down blessings on the heads of these hewers and chippers of stone. (…)

In Sark:

It was a strange and powerful scene. The boat having safely braved the perils of the sea, was lying at the harbour steps. For the first time we found ourselves the centre of quite a crowd, on the stone pier. Everyone was excited, and everyone chattered in wonderful Sark patois. They might have been so many magpies wrangling over their possessions, and to us they were not one whit more intelligible than those sensible but mischievous birds. (…)

The man at whose mercy we now felt ourselves, was a grim and gaunt, ungainly specimen of mankind. His clothes looked as if he occasionally delighted, like his pigs, to wallow in the mire. He spoke not a word of English, and his French was the Sark patois which is always wonderful, and frequently, very frequently, obscure.You have to guess at much that is said, and sometimes make extremely awkward blunders. The English, too, of those who have any is often peculiar. They change the first letter of some of the words, make hard soft and soft hard, and so vindicate human nature by playing at the rules of contrary. Thus when one day, exploring, we met an old woman trundling a barrow, and asked her whether it was possible to return to the hotel by another way than that we were taking :

“Oh yez, sir,” she said : “you may gome down the gommon, and co round by that liddle hill, and if you co down to the pottom you will zee a sthream and a zmall cate, and then if you chust gome up the falley, why there you are at Stock’s Hotel.”

We thanked the old lady as well as we could, but laughter and politeness had a hard fight for victory. She went off with her barrow, and looked back every now and then, wondering, no doubt, whether her description had been sufficiently graphic. It had indeed ; every word had told. And the next time she met us, on this occasion without her barrow, she stopped us quite as old acquaintances, and entered into a conversation that, for the sake of the inventors of the next new language, it is to be regretted space forbids the record. (…)

But the century has worked less changes and wonders in Sark than in the outer world. Many of the ways and customs then in existence exist still. The very language must be unchanged ; it certainly sounds as though it might have adorned the middle ages.(…)