How Jèrriais, the Secret Language of Jersey, Helped Win World War II

On the Channel Island of Jersey, a little-known native language called Jèrriais was vital in resisting Nazi occupation in World War 2.

As the BBC recently reported, Jèrriais is a Norman French dialect that was once spoken by most islanders but declined rapidly during the 20th century.

Jèrriais Once Spoken By Most Islanders

Jèrriais (pronounced Jerry-EH) is a Norman French dialect native to the British island of Jersey in the English Channel.

It was once spoken by a majority of islanders, with each parish having its own distinct words and accents.

The first known examples of written Jèrriais date to the 12th century.

But even as late as the 1930s, most Jersey-born residents still used Jèrriais as their primary language at home, only learning English upon starting school.

Wartime Use as a Secret Code Against Nazis

During World War II, Jersey’s location made it the only part of Britain to suffer a full-scale Nazi occupation.

From 1940-1945, islanders resisted through passive means like work slowdowns.

A key tactic involved using their native Jèrriais as a secret code.

The complex local idioms of Jèrriais were indecipherable to German forces.

Islanders exchanged messages, made plans, and mocked the occupiers right under their noses in the language.

The nazis soon caught on and imposed censorship, but Jèrriais remained a vital covert tool.

Postwar Decline and Near Extinction

After liberation in 1945, English dominated Jersey more than ever.

Jèrriais was stigmatized as backward and uneducated.

Within a generation, most children spoke only English.

By the 1980s, only a handful of mostly elderly islanders remained fluent in Jèrriais.

The language verged on complete extinction, just like its sister language Auregnais had a century before.

Jersey faced the prospect of permanently losing a core piece of its heritage and identity.

Revival Through Activism and Education

In recent decades, efforts by advocates have fueled a Jèrriais revival.

L’Office du Jèrriais was formed in 2009 to promote the language through activities like adult courses, road signs, and multilingual visitor sites.

Most significantly, Jèrriais became an official island language alongside English and French in 2019.

It is now taught in Jersey schools so children can learn it.

Online lessons have made the language accessible worldwide.

Interest surged during the pandemic.

Preserving a Culture and Identity

For native speakers like 85-year-old Francois Le Maistre, the revival is reassuring.

It ensures Jèrriais, intertwined with Jersey’s culture and history, will survive.

Activists are also archiving dialects and oral histories as fluent elders pass on.

After barely avoiding extinction, Jèrriais has been brought back from the brink through grassroots activism.

This little-known language that secretly helped win World War II now has a more hopeful future!

Listen to the sound of Jèrriais below:

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Douglas Heingartner

Douglas Heingartner, the editor of SayWhatYo!, is a journalist based in Amsterdam. He has written about science, technology, and more for publications including The New York Times, The Economist, Wired, the BBC, The Washington Post, New Scientist, The Associated Press, IEEE Spectrum, Quartz, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, Frieze, and others. His Google Scholar profile is here, his LinkedIn profile is here, and his Muck Rack profile is here.