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Purism, Variation, Change and ‘Authenticity’: Ideological Challenges to Language Revitalisation

  • Julia Sallabank (a1)


This paper is based on recent research into the small, highly endangered language Giernesiei 1 (Guernsey, Channel Islands). 2 Language documentation has found unexpectedly rich variation and change in Giernesiei usage, not all of which can be accounted for by regional and age-related factors. At the same time, our research into language ideologies and efforts to maintain and revitalise Giernesiei has revealed deep-seated purist or ‘traditionalist’ language attitudes that resist and deny language change. This nostalgic view of language and culture can hyper-valorise ‘authentic’ traditions (arguably reinvented 3 ) and can lead to reluctance to share Giernesiei effectively with younger generations who might ‘change the language’, despite an overt desire to maintain it. This mismatch between ideologies and practices can be seen at language festivals, in lessons for children, and in the experiences of adult learners who were interviewed as part of a British Academy-funded project. I present a taxonomy of reactions to variation in Giernesiei, which confirms and extends the findings of Jaffe 4 in Corsica. I also discuss recent revitalisation efforts that try to bring together older and ‘new’ speakers and promote the role of adult learners and ‘re-activate’ semi-speakers. The findings support the view that full evaluation of language vitality should include documenting the processes and ideologies of language revitalisation. 5 , 6



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1. The name of the language has been spelt in numerous ways: Giernesiei, Dgernesiais, Guernesiais, Guernésiais, Djernezié, etc. This paper uses the Progressive Learner Spelling that the author and local researcher Yan Marquis have developed to aid pronunciation and learning. Sallabank, J. and Marquis, Y. (2017) Spelling trouble: Ideologies and practices in Giernesiei / Dgernesiais / Guernesiais / Guernésiais / Djernezié…. In M.C. Jones and D. Mooney, (Eds) Orthography Development for Language Maintenance and Revitalisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 235–253.
2.The research was carried out in collaboration with local researcher and language teacher Yan Marquis, to whom I am indebted for information, discussions and insights.
3. Johnson, H. (2013) ‘The Group from the West’: Song, endangered language and sonic activism on Guernsey. Journal of Marine and Island Cultures, 1, pp. 99112.
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5. Sallabank, J. (2012) From language documentation to language planning: Not necessarily a direct route. In F. Seifart et al. (Eds) Language Documentation and Conservation Special Publication No. 3: Potentials of Language Documentation: Methods, Analyses, and Utilization (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press), pp. 118125.
6. Austin, P.K. and Sallabank, J. (Eds) (2014) Endangered Languages: Beliefs and Ideologies in Language Documentation and Revitalization (Oxford: Proceedings of the British Academy/Oxford University Press).
7.One positive development is that one of the youngest adult speakers has a small child who is being raised in both English and Giernesiei.
8.The Channel Islands were part of Normandy at the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066; some islanders therefore consider England to be their oldest possession. Although it could be seen as an expression of pride, this phrase is usually used to stress the unchanging nature of Giernesiei.
9. Marquis, Y. and Sallabank, J. (2013) Speakers and language revitalisation: A case study of Guernésiais (Guernsey). In M.C. Jones and S. Ogilvie, (Eds) Keeping Languages Alive: Documentation, Pedagogy, and Revitalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 167180.
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11. Grinevald, C. and Bert, M. (2011) Speakers and communities. In P.K. Austin and J. Sallabank, (Eds) The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 4565.
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14. Ferguson, C. and Sallabank, J. (2011) Ideologies of ‘authenticity’ in an endangered language: Change and ‘correctness’ in Guernsey French. Paper presented at the British Association for Applied Linguistics Annual Conference, Bristol, September.
15.These terms reflect the island’s topology and have nothing to do with the sociolinguistic terms ‘High’ and ‘Low’. The island is triangular in shape, and the south-eastern varieties of Giernesiei are no longer extant.
16. Dorian, N.C. (1994) Varieties of variation in a very small place: Social homogeneity, prestige norms, and linguistic variation. Language, 70, pp. 631696.
17. Ferguson, C. (2012) The subjunctive in Guernsey French: Implications for gauging authenticity in an endangered language. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of the West of England, Bristol.
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19.Giernesiei speakers often drop the first person pronoun.
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22. Sallabank, J. (2010) Standardisation, prescription and polynomie: Can Guernsey follow the Corsican model? Current Issues in Language Planning, 11(4), pp. 311330.
23.Since 2004 extra-curricular lessons have been run informally in approximately half of the island’s primary schools, but there are no moves to make these lessons official (see Section 2.2) .
24. Sallabank, J. and Marquis, Y. ( 2017) ‘We don’t say it like that’: Language ownership and (de)legitimising the new speaker. In C. Smith-Christmas and M. Hornsby, (Eds) Ideologies and Practices of New Speakers of Minority Languages (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).
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26.It is interesting to note that members of this informal group prefer the name ‘Rememberers’, although in the terms of Grinevald and Bert (Ref. 11) ‘rememberers’ have less linguistic competence than semi-speakers. Group members consider remembering to be a more active notion than passive or latent. Terms such as semi-, passive and latent speakers (like ‘obsolescent’ or ‘moribund’ languages) are felt to have negative connotations by community members, who prefer non-disparaging terminology.
27. Sallabank, J. (2010) Endangered language maintenance and revitalisation: The role of social networks. Anthropological Linguistics, 52(3), pp. 184205.
28. This quasi-official body was founded by a member of the island parliament in (2013) with the aim of supporting bottom-up language revitalisation efforts through fundraising. Although it reflects growing support for maintaining Giernesiei, its initial promise has not yet been realised.
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30.An edible shellfish and local delicacy; a pun and calque based on the English saying ‘the world is your oyster’.
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34. Thieberger, N. (2002) Extinction in whose terms?. In D. Bradley and M. Bradley, (Eds) Language Endangerment and Language Maintenance: An Active Approach (London: Routledge), pp. 310328.
35.As part of a research project into learning small languages conducted in collaboration with Yan Marquis and funded by the British Academy.
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39. Spitulnik, D. (1998) Mediating unity and diversity: The production of language ideologies in Zambian broadcasting. In B.B. Schieffelin, K.A. Woolard and P.V. Kroskrity, (Eds) Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 163188.
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43. In some cases, older islanders had little access to education themselves. Some grew up before the full implementation of upper secondary education in rural areas. Crossan, R.M. (2016) The States and Secondary Education 1560–1970 (Guernsey: Crossan). In other cases, education was interrupted by the German occupation of Guernsey from 1940 to 1945.
44. Moore, R.E. (2013) Discussion paper: ‘Taking up speech’ in an endangered language: Bilingual discourse in a heritage language classroom. King’s College London Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies, 112.
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46. Austin, P.K. and Sallabank, J. ( Forthcoming) Language documentation and revitalisation: Partners or just good friends? Paper presented at British Association for Applied Linguistics Annual Conference, September 2014.


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