Linguist and budding historian Martin Neudörfl is on a mission to codify and save two languages from extinction: Sercquiais, a Norman dialect from the Channel Island of Sark only four people speak as natives, and Šumava Bavarian, the West Germanic language of his ancestors from Český Krumlov – where he’s helped revive the Schwarzenberg guard, of which he is the youngest captain in history and official archivist.
I began by asking Martin Neudörfl how his love for languages began and what led him to the tiny island of Sark, the last feudal state in Europe and first Dark Sky Island in the world, where cars are banned and the population peaks at about 600 in the summer tourist season.
“Maybe it’s because of my grandfather – I’m told he was a polyglot, so maybe it’s in my genes. But I always loved studying languages, and my first was English. I was five. Then I started to study French, Japanese, German …”
“I learned about Sark when I was studying in England. We had this amazing history teacher who was telling us about the period when the Channel Isles were occupied by the Nazis. And he mentioned that there was this little island called Sark, and that it is or was the last feudal state in Europe.
“I remember looking for more information about Sark, and that’s when I learned about the Sarkese language. Actually, I was interested in the Anglo-Norman language, which is not the same – it’s the language that was born after the invasion of England by the Normans. But, later on, I told myself it’s a dead language, and not as interesting as the Norman language spoken in the Isles.
We should explain who he is – Dr. Richard Axton is chairman of the Société Serquaise.
“Yes. And he’s become a good friend of mine and invited me to Sark to realise my project, to learn more about Sarkese. The initial idea was that we would create a codified orthography that would allow us to produce dictionaries and textbooks. But the problem was when I arrived in Sark, I realised that the documentation hadn’t been finished, really.”
When did you first arrive there for an extended period, and how many speakers of Sark were there?
“When I arrived in Sark there were seven native fluent speakers – that was in 2016. Now there are just four left.
And a lot of people who have a passive knowledge?
“I think there might be say thirty, forty people who have some knowledge. I met many who when they listen to us speaking in Norman, they understand what we’re talking about. That’s mostly the closest relatives of my consultants. And there people who remember just a few words.
“When I was at the school, I was amazed that there a girl who knew three or four phrases in Sarkese that she had learned from her grandpa. Most people know swear words – that’s the most shared knowledge of Sarkese.” (laughs).
How would you describe the differences between Sarkese as it is spoken today and how you believe it was spoke centuries ago?
“It’s a good question. I don’t dare to say how it sounded in the 18th century, but Sarkese is, let’s say, very archaic. For example, when Victor Hugo visited Sark in the 1850s, he believed that the Sarkese were speaking the language of Louis XIV (who died in 1715). So, it has this archaic sound.
“The problem we face today is the Anglicisation of the language. The grammar is changing, and English words were adopted by the Sarkese in the 19th century, and there are many English [loan] words that gradually changed into something that sounds more like Sarkese. That’s the usual evolution.
“But the problem is the Anglicisation of the grammar – that has changed – but it depends… When the last speakers are with others who speak Sarkese and they’re not tired, they don’t have to concentrate too much, they speak let’s say ‘proper Sarkese’. But when they are tired –like me, now, because of the heat! – we can’t say that they are ‘making mistakes’; that the evolution, the adoption of the English grammar. That’s quite common for any language in contact with English”
So, as I understand it, now your goal is to codify the language and you’re looking to strike a balance between how it is spoken by these last remaining speakers and the archival sound footage of the BBC and other sources from the 1930s and 1950s. And it strikes me there may be some parallels to Czech history, when Jungmann and others set out to codify the Czech language…
“Well, it’s not the same, really, because in the time of Jungmann there were thousands of people who were speaking [colloquial] Czech – let’s say the real, original Czech language – but the purists created a language that still even today causes us many problems.
“That’s why if there is a student interested in the Czech language, when he arrives in Prague, he learns that there are actually two languages: spoken Czech and the official, codified version. I don’t think that will be the case of Sarkese because we have only four native speakers left, and it will depend on how the children will learn the language. So, if we create even a completely different version, it will become the only one spoken – if it ever will be spoken.”
The children who you have taught the basics of Sarkese to – are most direct descendants of the people you’re corresponding with now?
Maybe you could give us a few examples and contrast them with French – something that would be easily understandable to those who remember their high school French…
“Well… it doesn’t sound like French at all. [Speaks in Sarkese] That means, ‘I can’t speak it like the old folks’ – like my consultants – ‘But I’m going to learn it.’ I can teach you some phrases. [Speaks in Sarkese and then in French]. That means, ‘How are you?’ Bonjour – ‘Good day’ – sound quite close.”
Back to the Channel Islands – Guernsey, Alderney, Jersey and Sark – what is the situation on the other three in terms of the dialects spoke there? I understand it has died out completely in Alderney, right?
“Yes. I think it was in the ‘70s that the last speaker died. The problem with Alderney was that most of the population was evacuated before the Nazi invasion, and over those five, six years most people embraced the English culture and language and forgot their mother tongue.”
Have there been efforts similar to yours and that of Dr Axton on the other Channel Islands?
“Yes, well, the official data state that the Jersey Norman language is somehow conserved. Of course, if you have only a thousand speakers, it’s still too little. In Guernsey the situation is quite severe. When I was travelling there, I met one gentleman in a shop who spoke Guernsey Norman, so we were talking together – I was speaking Sarkese, he was speaking Guernsey Norman, and it was lovely. But that was by chance. In Guernsey, I think we might lose the native language in 10 or 20 years. It’s as severe as it is in Sark right now.”
In 2009, La Société Sercquaise compiled a CD of recordings of Sarkese made throughout the 20th Century. They include BBC recordings of people speaking and singing recorded in the 1930s and 1950s. I asked Martin Neudörfl what is was like to hear that sound archive for the first time.
“It was amazing! No one knew outside of the island that there were these recordings – of course Richard Axton knew about them – and I wouldn’t have dared to imagine that there would be such a huge amount of data. “So now not only can we compare the current status of the language with the status from the ‘30s and the ‘50s, we have a huge amount of data to create a dictionary, to actually create a corpus. That’s one of the most important things to have when you are codifying language, or recreating a codified version of a language.
“It’s very interesting how Sarkese is still preserved. You can’t notice any great changes in the pronunciation [since the ‘30s or’50s]. Sarkese changed a lot during the 19th century because the French rediscovered Sark and invested a lot of money into the educational system. That had a huge influence on Sarkese – the presence of Francophone teachers.
“Sark also maintained contact with the Francophone world through ministers –the Sarkese pastors were always from France or Switzerland. So, they were influencing the language as well. One of the most interesting pastors was the author of the very first dictionary in Sarkese in the 19th century.
“He was very objective, very sensitive in treating or studying Sarkese. Thanks to him, we know there were some gradual changes in the pronunciation during his time. Sarkese changed a lot in the second half of the 19th century, but since then I think has remained much the same.”
“There are some. But right now, I can study more than forty idiolects – it means people speaking Sarkese – thanks to the recordings, and my consultants. But the problem is we can’t really say, for example, ‘This is how we should pronounce the diphthongs in Sarkese.’
“Diphthongs are one of the most amazing things about Sarkese. [Diphthongs are sounds formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, in which the sound begins as one vowel and moves towards another; also known as gliding vowels.] One word may be pronounced several ways depending on where it is in the phrase.
“I think we will have to codify how to pronounce several words because even the last native speakers don’t obey the rules! (laughs) And they are trying to teach me. So, that’s something we will have to decide – whether to preserve diphthongs in these words or just let it be and believe that the children will learn how to pronounce it properly.”
“It has happened once or twice. The thing is Sarkese is rich enough to become a codified, functional language and survive in the 21st century, but I don’t think it will ever become a language – if we preserve it, save it from extinction – of the radio or TV, or used in the history or chemistry classes in the Sark secondary school.
“At this point, I can think in Sarkese only about some simple stuff. When you speak Sarkese, you speak about your day, your field, about traditions, you don’t speak Sarkese about politics. I would be very glad if Sarkese would become the second language of the children and preserved – you know, used as a mysterious language used in front of the tourists that they wouldn’t understand. (laughs) That would be nice.”
Let’s turn to Šumava Bavarian. You’re from the town of Český Krumlov in southern Bohemia, and apart from studying Sark Norman, you’re also looking into Šumava Bavarian – what’s that all about?
“Well, that’s my goal. I know three people living in Krumlov that can still speak the local variety of Bavarian. And this language was spoken in Krumlov until 1945, 1946 with the expulsion of the Germans – well, ‘the Germans’; they were speaking Bavarian not German.
“My family was trilingual – they spoke German, Bavarian and Czech. My goal is to realise this documentation. The problem is I’m not a Germanist – I’m not specialised in German languages – so I’m trying to find someone who would do that instead of me. But if I don’t find someone, I’ll do it myself, though I’d prefer a professional. (laughs)
“But it came about during my first stay in Sark. We were leaving one of my consultants and I was talking with Richard Axton about how every Channel Island has nicknames for its inhabitants, and the one always mentioned in the literature for Sark was ‘corbin’ – which means ‘raven’. And when I arrived in Sark and was calling them ‘ravens’, they said they were ‘rabbits’.
“The reason this changed is Sark used to be known for surplus harvests, and not there are just a few fields that are productive and the birds left the island – so there are no ravens but there are rabbits everywhere. So maybe that’s the reason it changed.
“So, going through a field I realised it was the same thing for Krumlov. And I had to go to Sark to realise that there is another language dying right and that was my – I can’t say ‘mother tongue’ because I never spoke it, but it was spoken by my family.”
Another thing closer to home is the revival of the Schwarzenberg guard – or how do you call them, actually?
And you are the official archivist of the guard now?
“I’m the captain – that’s the highest rank, which is ‘hejtman’, that’s the original title.”
And what does that entail? It’s a ceremonial guard that patrols the castle walls?
“That’s our goal. This week, actually, we started a renovation so hopefully in a few months we will finally have our place in the castle premises. Our goal is to, through the guard, somehow enrich the local cultural life – and preserve it.
“After the expulsion of the Germans, we lost touch with many of the traditions of our hometown and region. So, my goal is to revive it.”