Norman Bocage Patois
& Other Local Observations! 18-02-2002
By Christopher Long
and other contributors
As soon as we settled in the Bocage region of Normandy, in France, we were immediately struck by the fact that most of our neighbours spoke to each other in an evolved form of the ancient local patois.
At first some tried to talk to us in the sort of 'Parisian' French we know and use, but we felt that we had been truly accepted when these friends mostly farmers eventually made no concessions, speaking to us as they speak to each other.
The patois here seems to consist of two broad elements: 'Parisian' French words that are pronounced in an almost unrecognisable Norman fashion and other words that do not exist at all in standard French.
For us, the most interesting aspect of this patois is that there are so many obvious similarities with the English language. Many French words when pronounced in Norman fashion become instantly recognisable. Words that are unique to patois often exist in English too.
The Normans (northmen) of the C10th and C11th were, of course, Vikings who had only recently settled on the northern coast of what is now France. Their nordic language was similar to that used by their contemporaries who had simultaneously invaded and settled in northern and eastern England (norsemen). Naturally the northmen of northern 'France' and their 'cousins' in northern England each adopted much of the indigenous vocabulary they found there.
Consequently the vocabulary the Normans brought with them when they invaded and occupied England in 1066 was already a rich mixture of sources. The 'conquered' Anglo-Saxons soon found themselves living with two languages and two parallel sets of vocabulary much of which remains in common usage today. The result in England (with the addition of many later influences) is a language of unique subtlety and extraordinary richness which in part explains why it has become useful as a world-wide lingua franca!
It should be noted too that standard French, as we know it today, is merely the Parisian patois which happened to prevail and was then rigourously imposed by state education throughout France in the late 19th century. Until then, every region in France spoke its own dialect or patois and some had quite distinct languages. Even as late as the First World War the French army experienced great difficulty in communicating with many of its soldiers who were not accustomed to the 'Parisian language' (see: 'Le Faucheur d'Ombres' by Jean Anglade).
What may be less well known is that long before the Norman invasion of England in the C11th there had been a two-way 'trade' in language and vocabulary across the Channel. For centuries there had been close contact between England's south coast populations and the coastal populations of Normandy and Brittany probably far more so than today.
Above right: On the 6th April 2002, the author gave a short talk on the subject of Norman patois as part of the Equinox Anglo-Norman Festival in Avranches, Manche (see above right). At this talk Pierre Boissel of Caen University gave an excellent academic account of the 'dialect' while Christopher Long's contribution was restricted to observations on the continuing use of this patois among the elderly in more isolated rural areas such as Pont-Farcy.
This came about through the import and export of minerals (e.g. gold, silver, tin and lead from England), products (e.g. fish, salt, wool and hides), finished goods (from all over Europe) and shared interests in shipping, fishing and trade (see: Tonsures, Tin, Bronze & Bells) This in turn led to widespread emigration and inter-marriage across the Channel. So, the invasion of England in 1066 was made by Norman neighbours who already had close ties and some shared vocabulary with the Anglo-Saxons. We should not be surprised that Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was born in France and spoke French. Some measure of the close links between Normandy and England before the Conquest can be gained from the number of shared names and toponyms that had existed long before the Domesday Book was compiled.
Indeed, many coastal populations in England might have been more familiar with the Normans, their language and their customs than they were with most of their fellow Anglo-Saxons further afield in England.
There are interesting and obvious results from the parallel Norman French and Old English languages in Britain. For example, when a Norman lord ordered boeuf for supper a Saxon servant would have killed a live English 'bullock' and served it up as 'beef' to his master.
The same applied to porc which involved killing a live English 'pig' which became 'pork' when cooked, or a poulet which involved killing an English chicken or hen (note the word 'pullet' in English).
There are numerous similar examples and one can imagine that an educated Saxon steward would have had two sets of vocabulary: one in order to communicate with his Norman lord and another to communicate with Saxon servants and peasants. To a large extent these parallel vocabularies still exist in the English "language" and/or "tongue"!
Put simply, since the Normans administered England in the middle ages, Norman French dominates English vocabulary to this day in areas such as the law and constitution, while the Old English vocabulary prevails in everyday rural life and agriculture.
D'it don, bouon gens, qu'e j'vouau dise,
Dis donc, bons gens, que je vous dise,
Listen here, good people, while I tell you
les gaes d'cheu nous
les gars de chez nous
the chaps round here
o zon vu eune ch'erette rouoge et bianche bi charg'ie
ils ont vu une voiture rouge et blanche bien chargée
they saw a well-loaded red and white car
d'ceind l'eus bazar dans eune p'tite ferme qui on d'u ach'teu.
descend leurs affaires dans une petite ferme qu'ils ont du acheté.
unloading their things at a little farm they must have bought.
Ma belseu m'dit:
Ma belle soeur me dit:
My sister-in-law said:
"Tu d'e bi con'aite cha te, Georges,
"Tu dois bien connaître cela toi, Georges,
"You know George, you ought to know about this,
ses marq'uie octch'u GB".
c'est marquée au derrière GB".
it's marked GB on the back".
J'iai respondu ch'a veu d'ir bi bes chose;
Je lui ai répondu que cela veut dire bien des choses;
I told her that could mean all sorts of things;
[The nicest of French people like to believe GB means Grosse Bête i.e. fat fool!]
"T'as q'ua leu d'mandé te, ma belseu.
"Tu n'as qu'a leurs demander toi, ma belle soeur.
"All you have to do, sister-in-law, is ask them yourself.
Mes, m'fité y son pus instructioné qu'é nous.
Mais, méfies toi, ils sont plus instruits que nous.
But be careful, they're better educated than us.
Y cose bi l'français et s'népouause itout."
Il parle bien le français et son épouse aussi."
He speaks good French and his wife does too."
Y'es m'en n'veu fu les vaie
Mais mon neuveu alla les voir
But my nephew got to see them
en alant soigni ses viaos.
en allant soigner ses veaux.
when going to feed his calves.
Bi c'hurieu y l'eus dit:
Bien curieux, il leurs dit:
Very curious, he says to them:
"N'osais au fin.
"Nous sommes au foin.
V'oulous nous ingu'i a d'echargi eune ch'ertée d'e f'in plin d'bouotte?"
Voulez-vous nous aider à décharger une charrette de foin plein de bottes?"
Would you help us unload a cartload of hay bales?"
Y en on boué.
Ils en ont bavés.
They sweated away at it.
Eun'fai qu'itte, les deux compères, Bernard et Roger, l'eu die:
Une fois quittés, les deux compères, Bernard et Roger, leurs disent:
When they'd finished, the two pals, Bernard and Roger, told them:
"No va bi bere eune moquue d'gros bère
"Nous allons bien boire un verre de gros cidre
"We're going for a good drink of rough cider
ses tou aussi bouon qu in Visqui a vec d'e l'iau".
c'est tout aussi bon qu'un whisky avec de l'eau".
it's just as good as a whisky and water".
Pouaur s'ur i sont bi g'enti, nos Britanic,
Pour sûr ils sont très gentils, nos anglais,
For sure they're very nice, our English,
et bi habit'ue a vec nouau ote.
et bien habitués avec nous autres.
and get on well with the rest of us.
Right: Bernard Barbier, a farmer in Ste-Marie-Outre-l'Eau,
on his first visit to neighbours Sarah and Christopher.
Story by Georges Duval Ste-Marie-Outre-l'Eau, February 2002
Experts in the study of Norman patois have noted a sharp distinction between the northern and southern halves of Basse-Normandie and thus a notional east-west language divide, the (ligne Jurot). This happens to pass virtually through Pont-Farcy itself.
This is to say that the patois you would have heard in the market at Tessy-sur-Vire would have been markedly different from that heard in the market at Landelles-et-Coupigny, just 10 kms to the south. Elderly people here say that when they were children they found people in Saint-Lô (25 kms away) almost unintelligible. These differences are still discernible at the time of writing (2002).
One defining characteristic deliniated by the ligne Jurot is in the way the letter 'c' is pronounced in a word like chat (= cat) north and south of this line. To the north, the sound of 'ch...' becomes simply a hard 'c', almost identical to the 'c' in the English word 'cat'. South of the line the 'ch...' is again hard but is closer to the 'ch' in 'church'.
Among several general characteristics of the patois immediately surrounding us at Pont-Farcy we have noted:
22 juillet 1911 Ch. LEMAITRE
|Word in French||Pronounced in Patois||English Meaning|
|Sceau||See-oh (as in trio)||Bucket|
|Eau||I-au (as in ee-oh)||Water|
|Gentil||G'enti (close to English 'gentle')||Kind|
|Blanche||Bianche (as in bee-onch) Spanish-influenced?||White|
|Marqué||Marq'uie (as in marquee)||Marked|
|Causer||Cosi||To speak, talk, chat|
|Nous autres||Nouau ote||We others, us|
|Nous sommes||N'osais equivalent of English 'we is'.||We are|
|Nous allons||No va equivalent of English 'we is going'.||We're going|
|Pour sure||Pou-aur s'ur||For sure, certainly|
|Boire||Bère (as in bear)||To drink|
|Voulez-vous||V'oulous corruption of 'voulez-vous'.||Would you|
|Charrette||Ch'ertée||Cart or even car!|
|Plein||Plin (as in 'splint')||Full|
|Aussi||Itout||Also, and all|
|Curieux||Churieu ('ch' like cheerio)||Curious|
|Acheter||Ach'teu (as in ash-teu)||Bought|
|Belle-soeur||Belseu (as in bel-se)||Sister-in-law|
|Bien||Bi (as in bee)||Good, well|
|Que||Qu'é (as in Kay)||Than, which, that|
|Cela||Cha (as in cha-cha)||That|
|Moi||Me (as in May)||Me|
|Toi||Te (as in Tay)||You|
|Ils ont||O zon||They have|
|Coeur||Chur (as in churn)||Heart|
|Blocquer||Blotch-i||To block (and blocked)|
|Veaux||Vee-oh (as in trio)||Calves|
|Chat||Ka (as in pah!)||Cat|
|Il, ils||Y (almost 'he' e.g. y est, y sont)||He, it or they|
|Still in Current Use 2002||Comment||English Equivalent|
|Franc (old)||Pre-1960 currency (100 francs = 1 new franc) e.g. a turkey chick costs 350 francs!||UK £0.001 in 2002 when 'un million' was about £10,000.|
Pre-1789 land area measurement = approximately a quarter-acre
Since the French revolution it has a new metric value.
|Y en on boué||Ils en ont bavés literally, they were sweating, slavering||They were knackered|
|Moqu'ue||Related to English 'mug'?||Glass or tankard|
|Bère||Bière in Calvados is cider grosse bière is rough cider||Cider|
|Charette||A two-wheeled cart, pronounced 'tcherette'||Light market cart or gig|
|Bouotte||A bale in French 'balle' or 'botte'||Bale (of hay)|
|Bazar||Derived from market stall/goods||Belongings, things, clutter|
|Place Name in France||Comment||Place Name in England|
|Finisterre||The Latin for 'Land's End'||Land's End|
|Douvres||French for Dover||Dover|
|Pontivy||Direct translation of Yve's Pont/Bridge||Ivy Bridge|
|Sangatte||Unproductive/useless sandy area||Sandgate|
|Arindell||Familiar to St Lô||Arundel|
|St Maur||St Maw|
|Le Mont-Saint-Michel||The priory of SMM was once a possession of MSM||St Michael's Mount|
|Le Lézard||Coastal peninsular||The Lizard|
|St Lô||Any connection with...?||Looe|
|Le Havre||Havre... haven... port||Havering/Havant|
|Ouistreham||Western hamlet or settlement||Westerham|
1. Elderly people seldom introduce themselves by name. Nearly everyone here was born and brought up in the locality and are often related by blood or marriage. Usually they also went to school together but, in any case, almost everyone knows everyone else: so introductions are seldom necessary. But this can make life quite awkward for new-arrivals.
2. Neighbours seldom use the words 'thank you'. Partly this is because there used to be so much mutual day-to-day co-operation (not to mention helping out at haymaking for example when group activities were known as corvées). Most favours are reciprocated, so gratitude comes in the form of eggs, milk, fruit or an inevitable drink around the kitchen table (full-scale supper after the haymaking, silage and harvest corvées). Cynics, however, say that no self-respecting peasant will ever acknowledge that he's indebted to anyone for anything!
3. An open front door, usually in the afternoon and before the evening milking, indicates that visitors are welcome and many front doors are open during the day. People turn up unannounced on chance, as they would have done before the arrival of the telephone. The ritual is the same everywhere: one walks into the kitchen/living-room (known as la maison and sits at a long table with benches down each side. One is then offered coffee, pastis, cider, a liquer such as pommeau, or calva (calvados).
4. A curious habit which lingers among the older generations is to arrive at a house and then stand around chatting in the courtyard for as much as five or ten minutes before they can be persuaded to enter. The reason was to give the wife time to tidy the single room that served the whole family for living, eating and sleeping. Until recently only the priest, doctor and local land-owner would have had more than one downstairs reception room and even the richest peasant farmers made do with a single room for living, eating and sleeping known as la maison... see next note...
5. La maison was the only domestic room in the house where a whole family lived, ate and slept. In many houses it remains the only reception room even if bedrooms have now been created above. We know a few people who still sleep, eat and live in this one room as their parents and grandparents did. Although many farmhouses appear long and large, most of the ground-floor space was given over to the grange, étable, cave and other store-rooms, barns, etc. All of the floor above was used for storing grain, hay and straw. However, this pattern of living began to change after World War ll and is now changing rapidly as home-improvement becomes widespread.
[See Farm Architecture in the Bocage Virois for a brief general description of how domestic and agricultural buildings were designed and have evolved over the centuries.]
6. Another curious habit is still slightly mysterious. You arrive at the house of an elderly person and sit chatting at the long kitchen table for a long time. Only when you say that you must get going does your host then sound shocked that you will not stay to bère un coup. Only at this point does a bottle appear, with little biscuits (gâteaux). And so you duly have to stay on...
6. The universal 'Opinel' pocket-knife is still used by most of us to castrate a piglet, cut open bales or kill and cut up a chicken for lunch, where it may also be used in place of a table knife & fork. It is then simply wiped clean on some bread.
7. A few elderly people still have the right to produce cider, pommeau and calvados for their own consumption though these rights to brew alcohol will die with them. Therefore, of course, absolutely no one else makes these drinks at home and the thousands of apple trees in every village are merely there for decoration. We cannot tell you where people buy their cider, pommeau and calva because, unfortunately, the labels on the bottles have usually fallen off...
8. The first questions we were asked by almost everyone when we first arrived were: (1) 'Why have you come to live here?' and (2) 'Are you here permanently?' The right answer to the first question is "We feel at home here". The right answer to the second is "Yes". People with holiday homes may find it hard to be accepted. Our neighbours were curious about why we were here but very seldom asked about our lives before we arrived. It may be that gossip had gone ahead of us but generally, among our country neighbours, there appears to be very little interest in anything other than our shared lives here and now. They were cautiously very welcoming at first and in due course most have become staunch friends. The key ingredients to successful integration in this community are: to speak French; to be permanent residents; to make the first moves, going out of one's way to meet people; and to be involved with all aspects of local life.
9. There are several universal replies to any suggestion. These include:
However, the guiding mantra for any self-respecting Norman is:
The everyday use (in 2001) by our neighbours of the archaic words vergée and jardin, to denote areas of land, intrigued us. Because there are so many similarities between Norman and English vocabulary, we began to wonder whether traditional pre-metric land measurements were equivalent on both sides of the Channel.
The results of our amateur research indicates that this is indeed the case and that lengths and areas are directly related to the way fields were ploughed and divided into convenient plough-working areas.
However, at first glance there appears to be little similarity between the English and Norman words for these lengths and areas, it seems unlikely that these measures were imported into England at the time of the 1066 conquest. Almost certainly, we think, both Normandy and England adopted earlier Saxon concepts of length and area and these had much to do with the working practice of men using fixed-share, ox-drawn ploughs. And this was particularly relevant in Basse-Normandie where arable farming was the norm until the agricultural revolution of the mid-C19th when, almost overnight, the arrival of cows and the dairy industry transformed the landscape and agricultural architecture, creating the bocage as we know it today.
It's important to understand that in order to plough a field with a fixed-share plough one sets out to create a first furrow about a yard wide. One then turns the plough at the far end and re-ploughs the same length in on itself to create a ridge. Thereafter one simply ploughs around this ridge turning the ox or horse at each end on what is known as the 'headland'.
[By circling the central ridge one ensures that the furrows all lie in the same direction, folded in towards the ridge which would not be the case if one ploughed back and forth. It would also be awkward to turn an ox and a plough 360 degrees at each end of every furrow.]
After one has 'circled' the ridge about 10 times one will have completed a ploughed 'strip' about 22 yards wide. At this stage one sets out to create a new ridge 22 yards from the previous ridge and one then ploughs around that.
And it so happens that an area of land that is 22 yards wide and 220 yards long = 1 acre.
Not surprisingly, land in mediaeval times (and before the arrival of the Normans in England) was allocated among tenants in strips that are multiples of 5.5 yards wide (i.e. 5.5 yards, 11 yards, 22 yards, etc).
In order to mark out a field for division into such strips it would have been practical to have used a measuring rod (sometimes known as a pole or a perch) which was 5.5 yards long. So, a peasant who was allocated a rood of land might have received a strip of land 220 yards long a furlong (from 'furrow') which was a rod wide. Four such areas constituted an acre (from the Latin 'ager' = field).
There are many places in England where the traces of mediaeval field 'strips' are still clearly visible. These areas may not always be in strips of course. It would be interesting to know how many ancient fields, often referred to as 'roods' (e.g. Church Rood or Manor Rood) conform to one of the dimensions shown below. There are cases in which the word 'rood' has become corrupted to become 'road'.
Interestingly, the English word 'perch' was used to describe an area 5.5 yds square as well as a length of 5.5 yds (see Middlemarch by George Eliot, ca.1870) the size of a small vegetable plot. The word 'perch' presumbaly derives from the Norman French 'perché' which means a rod or pole.
Another archaic English measure of length is explained by ploughing practices. Rather than measure out four Rods to mark the 22-yard ploughing strips one would link four rods together to make a Chain:
1 Chain = 4 Rods (22 yards)
10 Chains = 1 Furlong (220 yards)
220 yards x 8 = 8 Furlongs = 320 Rods = 1,760 yards = 1 Mile
Horse races are still measured in furlongs and these would have been easy to measure when races took place on fields that had once been ploughed. The ground would bear the traces of these strips and to cover a furlong you simply raced across the width of 10 strips.
... and 10 Chains x 1 Chain = I Acre
22 yards x 80 = 8 Furlongs = 320 Rods = 1,760 yards = 1 Mile
The length of a cricket pitch is 22 yards which would have been easily definable if the game were played on a field that had once been ploughed you played across the width of a single strip.
22 Yards = The traditional width of an ox or horse-drawn plough area
Presumably this was regarded as the optimum width before it became practical to create a new 'ridge' and to plough a new 22-yard wide area. Not surprisingly land measurements in mediaeval times were all based on fractions or multiples of 22 yards.
220 yards x 22 yards = 1 Furlong (220 yds) x 4 Rods (5.5 yds = 1 Rod, Perch or Pole) = 4 Roods = 1 Acre
220 yards x 5.5 yards = 1 Furlong x 1 Rod = 1 Rood = 0.25 Acre
110 yards x 11 yards = 0.5 Furlong x 2 Rods = 1 Rood = 0.25 Acre
55 yards x 22 yards = 0.25 Furlong x 4 Rods = 1 Rood = 0.25 Acre
[The metric equivalents in France, introduced after the Revolution, are: 220 yards x 5.5 yards = 10.12 Ares (1 Are = 100 Sq. Metres) = 0.1 Hectares approx.]
Did 1 English 'Rood' = 1 Norman 'Vergée'?
This seems very likely, though nowadays it seems that Norman farmers have adjusted the notion of a vergée to accommodate the new metric system. We hear them using the word to describe an area of 0.2 Hectare. In the same way, after the departure of the Romans, the English appear to have adjusted the notion of a Roman 'mile' (1,000 paces 1000 in Latin = 'mille') to accomodate the later Saxon land measurement where the word is used to denote 1,760 yards. These Saxons, coming from northern Europe would not have come under Roman influence.
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