Sion Ditons | 2016
Nou n'peut empêchi la mé d'monter.
Time and Tide waits for no man.
Nou m'graisse pon la tèrre auve des fiers de tchethue.
Ploughing alone does not fertilise the land.
In 2016 I was approached by the CCA Gallery to create an artwork about Jèrriais (Jersey French), the native language of Jersey, as part of the islands Fête du Jèrriais. My video, Sion Ditons, talks about how even though I grew up within the traditional, rural Jèrriais culture, I could only be a passive participant in that space because I was never taught the language, and our circle of Jèrriais culture was diminishing.
I wrote the essay, Tatou Reo, tatou Taonga. Our Language, our Treasure: A critical social comparison between the languages of my islands to accompany the work. The work of sustaining an indigenous culture and language requires active participation, and an unwaivering insistance on its importance from the bottom to the top of society. This essay discusses two cases of endangered languages where the race to revitalise them within their relevant communities has taken very different paths.
Tatou Reo, tatou Taonga. Our Language, our Treasure:
A critical social comparison between the languages of my islands.
Rychèl Thérin, 2020
In 2016 I was asked by the CCA Gallery to create an artwork about Jèrriais (Jersey French), the native language of Jersey, as part of the islands Fête du Jèrriais. My video, Sion Ditons, talks about how even though I grew up within the traditional, rural Jèrriais culture, I could only be a passive participant in that space because I was never taught the language, and our circle of Jèrriais culture was diminishing.
In the 2001 island census, 2,874 people (3.2% of the population) identified as Jèrriais speakers, with 113 of them describing it as their main language. Two-thirds of the 2,874 speakers were over the age of 60 (1). As a comparison, the 1989 census recorded 5,720 Jèrriais speakers in 1989 - double that recorded in 2001 (2). In the 2009 UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (UNESCO AWLD), Jèrriais was categorised as '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' (3). My father and his siblings were native Jèrriais speakers. As adults, they spoke it mainly with their mother, my paternal grandmother, Rosalie Thérin (née Le Lay). No one in our family from my generation was brought up speaking Jèrriais, and certainly none of my school friends spoke it; actually, most of my friends were from families who had never spoken it, and for whom the language and culture was completely irrelevant.
In thinking about my artwork and my cultural heritage, I often contrast my experiences of growing up Māori in Aotearoa (New Zealand), to my later childhood years in Jersey because in both places I was part of the indigenous culture. As a kid in Aotearoa, I spent a lot of time in Māori settings, I spoke some Māori - I learnt it at home with my mother, and at school with all the other kids; I sang Māori songs and could play traditional Māori games, I had Māori friends. I felt at home in my culture; and my Māori world radiated outwards, beyond my family circle. When I came to live in Jersey, we lived in a very rural, self sufficient setting. Jèrriais was spoken some of the time at home between my father and grandmother, although they would also speak English. At school I learnt French, not Jèrriais, we also never learnt Jersey specific history beyond the Occupation during WW2. By the time I was growing up in Jersey in the late 1990's, early 2000's, Jèrriais had become a bit of a private relic of an old life that had been but to the back of the vitrine, a state of affairs that had been predicted over 200 years earlier by J. Stead: "the Language of the Natives is almost daily falling into Disuse and Discredit, and doubtless, in a few Years hence, English will be the only prevailing Language among the People" (4). It took a longer than Stead predicted, but he was correct.
Both Jèrriais and Māori had had a similar story of decline: Both languages had developed orally, and even though both languages were transcribed to fit the latin alphabet, (Jèrriais in, Māori in 1820) the language needed to retain its oral tradition to survive - it needed to be relevant and be used. If we look at attitudes from the mid 1800's- to late 1900's, the native language in both countries was seen to be the language of the workers and lower class, where as English in Aotearoa; and English and French in Jersey, were the languages of commerce and regarded by many to be the 'route to economic advantage' (5) (6). It is also worth noting that eventually English became the language of school instruction in New Zealand (1867) and Jersey (1912). Māori and Jèrriais was suppressed then banned in schools from the early 1900s; both my father and mother have stories about being beaten for speaking their native languages in school - this was in the late 1950s, early 1960s.
What separates and in the end effects where Jèrriais and Māori stand today is the languages percieved use and value for native speakers, and the wider local population. It has been noted that Jèrriais was historically widely regarded as a patois - a dialect of low status - by native and non-speakers alike (7). Rather than finding its way into being widely written and read, Jèrriais remained primarily a spoken language which was deeply rooted in the soil and the sea - it is full of vibrant descriptions for seasonal changes, states of tide, swear words etc., that would be most effectively used in manual labour and a self sufficient smallholder setting. As farming and agriculture across Jersey began to decline in the 1950's, tourism and eventually finance became the largest contributors to the islands GDP. Jèrriais began its severe decline at this point, whilst English grew and grew. Another noteworthy factor in the decline of Jèrriais was the Occupation of the Channel Islands during WW2. Many Islanders and young children left for England before the Occupation, and although many who stayed behind used Jèrriais to be able to speak in secrecy (like my Grandparents!), adults and children who returned after the war had become "Anglicised", and no longer spoke in patois. The view that Jèrriais was an inferior language was wide spread, and bilingualism was not valued in the way it is now; in a way, the Island missed the language revitalisation bus in the 1950's and 1960's. Jèrriais was not backed by any governmental policy until 1998, when it created the community education focussed L'Office du Jèrriais. Prior to this, it was independent bodies like the Societe Jersiaise and L’Assembliée d’Jèrriais who made it their goal to keep the language alive through research, archiving and events. The L'Office du Jèrriais now works with local primary schools, providing lessons in Jèrriais with native speakers, however Jèrriais is not a mandatory part of the school curriculum, so there is a limited transmission rate. There is a second wave revival happening in the Island at the moment, with the Fête du Jèrriais being held yearly since 2018, two younger bands, the Badlabecques, and Lihou, making new versions of Jèrriais folk songs, and Jèrriais source material being available via streaming platforms like soundcloud and Youtube.
Conversely, throughout the period of suppression, Māori remained the language of Māori cultural interactions and institutions, such as in wananga and at marae. There were Māori newspapers and books from the late 1800's onwards; the bible was translated in to Maori, and church sermons in some areas were held in Te Reo (the language). Te Reo Māori remained the daily home language among native speakers in rural areas. This is not to say that the use of Māori was not at risk. English was the dominant language for most daily interactions, and numbers of native Māori speakers began to fall as gradually more and more Māori people moved to urban areas to find work. By the 1980's, under 20% of Māori people spoke Māori to some extent (8) and the language would have been classified as as 'Definitely Endangered' by UNESCO AWLD current criteria. However by 2013, Māori had been upgraded to 'Vulnerable' on the UNESCO AWLD, primarily due to the many varied actions taken firstly by Whanau (families), Hapu (Sub-tribe) and Iwi (tribes), to protect and rejuvenate the language from the 1960's onwards. In 1972, a Maori language petition was signed by 30,000 people was presented in parliament. Iwi began giving Māori lessons in their tribal areas, the Te Ātaarangi movement of the 1980's focussed on teaching Māori to adults, and the first Māori language radio stations were set up. 'In 1985 the Waitangi Tribunal heard the Te Reo Māori claim, which asserted that te reo was a taonga (treasure) that the Crown (government) was obliged to protect under the Treaty of Waitangi' (9). By the ends of the 1980's, the Māori Language Act had been passed in Parliment and was declared an official language of Aotearoa, New Zealand; additionally, Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust - the official body which oversees Māori language schooling for nursery and school age children was also established (9). In the 90's, a Māori focussed broadcasting agency Te Māngai Pāho was established, and began to make television as well as radio content. The want for this kind of content grew, and in the early 2000's, a free-to-air Māori language television channel was launched. Today, Te Māngai Pāho creates all kind of entertainment content across all mediums, for all age groups, in Te Reo Māori. Two of my favourite examples of the resergence of modern Te Reo and are: the Te Wiki o Te Reo (Māori Language Week) catchphrase - "It's cool to Korero (speak Māori)!" - it can be heard on English and Māori TV and radio stations, in Schools and in Playgrounds all year round, not just during the language festival. It's snappy, catchy and used by everyone, Pakeha (Europeans) and Māori alike. Secondly, the worldwide success of teenage Māori rock band Alien Weaponry shows that the language is not static, it is relevant to general youth culture and can have a worldwide appeal with the right riff!
The growing use of Te Reo Māori in New Zealand* (10) is result of a wide range of revitalisation initiatives from private, public and government sectors. Unfortunately the opposite is true of Jèrriais in Jersey. The language is still in decline, mainly because there is not a widespread grassroots movement to save it, coupled with a distinct lack of sincere political will to give sustained support to revitalisation initiatives. Luckily, there are a few, who are working to keep the flame of the language burning, like Geraint Jennings, Ben Spinks and Joan Tapley to name a few. Although Sion Ditons discusses in more poetic terms, my personal relationship to Jèrriais; I will say here that for me, as a person with Jèrriais heritage, I would be interested to learn more of the language if I had a cultural and familial use for it. I no longer live in the Island, and when I do go back, I don't have any family or friends with whom I can speak Jèrriais. The Jèrriais culture I grew up with is largely gone now, and when I think about its disappearance, I feel a great loss, especially when I compare it to my experiences with Te Reo Māori. When I go back to Aotearoa, I'm greeted by a tomokanga (carved gatway) at the airport arrivals hall; I order a coffee and the barista will say 'Kia ora, what can I get you?'; and I can be put in any Māori situation and mihi (introduce myself) in Te Reo without a second thought. I can do this because I have always had access to the language, and was taught to be proud of it. The key to retaining our wonderful cultural differences is learning that there is beauty in our own specificity. A monocultural, monolingual world leaves us with nothing to learn from each other, don't you think?
If I forget my native speech,
And the songs that my people sing
What use are my eyes and ears?
What use is my mouth?
If I forget the smell of the earth
And do not serve it well
What use are my hands?
Why am I living in the world?
How can I believe the foolish idea
That my language is weak and poor
If my mother’s last words
Were in Evenki?
Alitet Nemtushkin, Evenki poet (11)
*In 2013, the Te Kupenga survey for Maori culture found that '257,500 (55 percent) Māori adults had some ability to speak te reo Māori; that is, they were able to speak more than a few words or phrases in the language. This compares with 153,500 (42 percent) in 2001' (10).
(1) - - accessed 20.2.2020
(2) - - accessed 20.2.20
(3) - - accessed 20.2.2020
(4) - Stead, J., 1809. A Picture of Jersey. Taken from - accessed 20.2.2020
(5) - Sallabank, J., 2011. Norman Languages of the Channel Islands. - accessed 20.2.2020
(7) - Sallabank, J., 2011. Norman Languages of the Channel Islands. accessed 20.2.2020
- Spence, N. 2001. Language Changes. - accessed 20.2.2020
(11) UNESCO. 2011. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. - accessed 20.2.2020