ÁRBRE / tree-like shrub, treelet, sapling

photo source: wikimedia

árbre“, s.f., pronounced [är.br̥(ə)] 🔊, is a Sarkese word without an exact equivalent in English, defined usually as “tree-like shrub” or “shrubbery tree”, locally translated into Channel Island English as “bush” or “bush tree”, no matter size or age, as well as “treelet” and “young tree” in some contexts. The Sarkese “árbre” and the Gallo-Romance “arbre” thus do not correspond, since the primary generic term for “tree” in Sarkese is strictly “órme“, while “árbre” constitutes its own distinctive category, different from “órme”, as well as from “bůṡon“, bush, or “chróbe“, shrub. Nonetheless, the word “árbre”, in its former meaning “tree”, is fixed in several idioms such as “young tree”, “jóne árbre“, or “Christmas tree”, “árbre d’Nůė“. It should also be noted that the meaning of the English words “bush” and “shrub” differ in the Channel Islands and Britain, with the British English “shrub” being in meaning very close to the Sarkese “árbre”.

origin: Gallo-Romance / first recorded for Sarkese: 2016 (MN) / current status in the 21st century: preserved, in use

“árbre” is a feminine invariable countable noun (a she-word that may be counted and does not change in plural). It is important to remember that unlike in most Modern Northern Gallo-Romance languages, for most Sarkese native speakers the grammatical gender of the word “árbre” is feminine, not masculine. Since the word is invariable (it never changes), there is no difference in pronunciation or writing between “one treelet”, “une árbre”, and “two treelets”, “deuz’árbre”, etc. The pronunciation is regular.

photo source: wikimedia

The Sarkese word “árbre” is directly related to the Jersey Norman, Guernsey Norman and French “arbre” as well as to any other word from Latin word for tree, “arbor”. As for the meaning, however, due to a shift typical for the Channel Islands (as well as Romania), the Sarkese “árbre” narrowed its meaning to “tree-like shrub”, having been replaced by “órme” as the primary generic term for tree.

The Sarkese “árbre” constitutes a distinctive category of plants, based on the concept of “tree-like shrub”. In some contexts, however, it may also stand for “small tree” or “treelet” in general, as a hyponym to “órme”, while it still remains fixed as “tree” in some idioms. Apart from these secondary meanings and uses, as for today’s primary meaning of the word, “shrubbery tree”, the typical representatives of “árbre” in Sark’s conditions are medlars, apricots, bay laurel trees, ornamental shrubs etc., i.e. plants which are usually shrubs, but may grow into trees.

It should also be noted, that despite one claim that the word “buè“, “wood”, may be used in the meaning of “tree” in Sarkese as in Jèrriais, it has never been confirmed in any of the studied idiolects, and the use of “buè” in such meaning is inacceptable for all of the last native speakers.

On the origin and the meaning – árbre VS órme, chróbe and bůṡon

In Latin, the primary generic word for tree was “arbor”, which evolved in most Northern Gallo-Romance languages into “arbre”. Interestingly though, in six known languagues and varieties spoken around the Gulf of Saint-Malo, between Brittany and Normandy, including Insular Norman, as well as in Romanian spoken on the other end of Europe, its descendant forms (which gave “arbre” in Jèrriais and Guernsey Norman and “árbre” in Sarkese), were generally replaced, in the primary meaning of “tree”, by different words.

In Jersey Norman (and at least two varieties of the Gallo language spoken in Upper Brittany), it was by the word “bouais”, wood, corresponding in form to “buè” in Sarkese, replaced “arbre”, while in Guernsey and Sark by the Gallo-Romance word for “elm tree”, “orme” and “órme” respectively. The exact shift with the same result (which may not be final in Guernsey though) is also documented for one more, and the only Norman variety spoken outside of the Channel Islands, that of Créances, a coastal Norman city conveniently facing the Channel Islands.

In several Gallo-Romance varieties spoken around the Gulf of Saint-Malo, the word for ‘tree’, “arbre”, was replaced by a) ‘elm tree’ or b) ‘wood’.
photo source: wikimedia

The reason why the original Romance word for tree weakened in the old tongues spoken around the Gulf of Saint-Malo, is so far unclear, but at least for Guernsey and Sark it has been traditionally claimed, that it was due to the number of elm trees on these two islands, being, prior to the outbreak of the elm tree plague (Dutch elm disease), the most common tree locally. That could, perhaps, explain the choice of the replacement word, but not the overall weakening of “árbre” and the resulting shift in the meaning iself, given that the same process occurred also in Jersey Norman, but with a different result.

In any case, whatever was the actual reason for this intriguing change, which has yet to be sufficiently explained by linguists, “árbre”/”arbre” concurrently narrowed its meaning in the three Insular Norman languages. In Modern Jèrriais for example, “arbre” stands today primarily for “orchard tree”, while it is also used in some fixed idioms – in Sarkese, however, the situation is much more complicated as the word covers two different concepts, 1) a distinctive category of a tree-like plant, in Channel Island English defined as “bush”, but much closer to the British English “shrub”, but different from “bůṡon“, bush, and “chróbe“, shrub, in Sarkese, and 2) “small tree” or “treelet”, while at the same also being fixed in a few remaining idioms in the original meaning of “tree”.

photo source: wikimedia

The closest term to the Sarkese “árbre” would be the British English “shrub”, which for most native English speakers represents sort of an intermediary stage between tree and bush. Such linking between the two terms (“árbre” and “shrub”) is, however, inacceptable to bilingual Sarkese native speakers, as “shrub”, “chróbe“, in Channel Island English, at least in Sark among the oldest generations, seems not to correspond with its equivalent in British English. Due to this confusion, some speakers define “árbre” in their own words as a special sort of “bush”, while some as “small tree”, which however “doesn’t always have to be small”. The closest to the idea of “árbre”, apart from the British English “shrub”, would therefore be terms such as “tree-like shrub” or “shrubbery tree” – a shrub which may grow as bush, but may also grow into a tree, such as “lorẏ“, bay laurel tree, which is locally the most typical representative of this group of tree-like plants, with several fruit trees or ornamental shrubs in the Seigneurial Gardens, lê Gárdîn d’la Siňeurrî.

In this regard, as for one of the possible reasons why “árbre” shifted in its meaning from “tree” to “tree-like shrub” or “shrubbery tree”, it is important to clarify that, unlike in most other Norman languages, there are no other authentic Romance words for “shrub” in Sarkese except for “árbre” and the English loanword “chróbe“, which however, as in local English, is much closer to “shrubbery” or “no-value bushes”, and used mainly in the plural, so “dê chróbe”, “some shrubs”. The extraordinary lack of forms descended from authentic Norman terms for “shrubs”, such as “arbuste”, “arbustre”, “arbustrel”, but even “arbrisssel”, and their replacement in meaning and use by “árbre”, may thus indicate that the weakened Gallo-Romance “arbre” may have, at least in Sarkese, actually merged with these historic Norman terms for “shrub”, while at the same time retaining some of the original attributes of the concept it once represented – tree.

photo source: wikimedia

In Sarkese, unlike in Jersey Norman and possibly Guernsey Norman too, “árbre” therefore constitutes a functional category, different in the primary meaning from “tree” and “bush”, with specific trees belonging to either the “órme”-group or “árbre”-group, meaning that most speakers do not automatically consider “órme” a superordinate hypernym to “árbre”. For example, a tree belonging to “árbre”-trees, such as “lorẏ“, bay laurel tree, is always considered “árbre” in Sarkese no matter the size of the particular plant, be it a small shrub, or a tall, full grown tree.

For this reason, we actively distinguish even between a) “órme á frit“, fruit trees or orchard trees, such as “půmẏ“, apple tree, “chérizẏ“, cherry tree, and b) “árbre á frit“, fruit shrubs or orchard bushes, such as “mêłẏ“, medlar tree, or “apricotẏ“, apricot tree etc. Interestingly, orchard tree-like shrubs, are, in common speech, very often called, unlike their “órme”-counterparts, not by their proper names, but simply “árbre”, plus the name of the fruit, so “árbre á mêle”, instead of “mêłẏ”, and “árbre á apricô”, instead of “apricotẏ”.

photo source: wikimedia

Nevertheless, despite the described restrictions, within the secondary meaning of “treelet” or “young tree”, the word “árbre” may indeed be used for very small trees, especially saplings or treelets, no matter the formal category a mature tree of the concerned kind belongs to. For this reason, when we mean “young tree” or “sapling”, we automatically say “jóne árbre” in Sarkese, again no matter the category of the tree, rather then “jóne órme”. Moreover, “árbre” is also conserved in another known fixed idiom, related to the general concept of “tree”, from which “órme”, the standard word for tree, is excluded, and that is “árbre d’Nůė“, Christmas tree.

To summarize, given that a tree-like plant formally belongs to either “órme”-group or “ábre”-group and with regard to the fixed idioms, the simplified categorisation of plants by size into órme-treeárbre-shrubbery treechróbe-shrubbůṡon-bush works only in the most generic contexts.

Finally, it should also be noted that no sign, description or report of the historic shift in meaning of the Gallo-Romance “arbre”, from “tree” to its current respective meanings in the three Insular Norman languages, has been found so far in historic materials. We find no diversion or hints in the notes of Élŷ Brévîn, a minister of Sark who lived in the 17th century, or in the Guernsey Norman dictionary by George Métivier and other Guernsey Norman glossaries from the late 19th and the early 20th century. Since it seems unlikely that the great G. Métivier would have overlooked such shift, while specifically citing “arbre” and “orme” in his dictionary, it is possible that the change may have been relatively recent, at least for Guernsey.

It is therefore surprising that the very first report on the word for tree having been replaced by the name for elm tree in a Norman variety comes from Créances, the only other place in Normandy outside of the Channel Islands, where the shift has been documented.

On the feminine gender – “tree” is a she! Mostly 🙂

Apart from shifting its meaning, the Sarkese “árbre” and the Guernsey Norman “arbre” are also interesting for their preferred grammatical gender, when compared to their counterparts in the other closely related languages of Northern France of today. While in Latin, “arbor” was feminine (a she-word), the later Gallo-Romance “arbre” took, over the centuries, the masculine gender, and thus in today’s French and modern Jèrriaias, a tree is a he (un arbre). In Sarkese, nonetheless, the word “árbre” is, in most idiolects, feminine (a she-word), so “une árbre”, as is the Guernsey Norman “arbre”.

Even though the dominant preference for the feminine gender makes the Norman tongues of Sark and Guernsey rather exceptional with regard to the current custom in Romance languages, it is evident that, at least in the past, “arbre” and its other forms (f.e. “âbre”) used to be feminine too in many historic Gallo-Romance varieties spoken from Normandy to Burgundy – practically in most of France until the 19th century. Moreover, thanks to the rich Medieval literature of France and Norman England, we know that the word used to be commonly gender-fluid (both masculine and feminine) in the tongues of a number of authors who lived on both sides of the Channel in the Middle Ages.

“arbre” in the feminine appears already in the oldest Norman texts from the 12th century, together with the same form in masculine, e.g. in the legend of Saint Brendan. The same applies for texts in the other languages of Northern France onwards, French included, so “arbre” f. appears regularly together with “arbre” m. even in the novels of the great French Medieval writer François Rabelais, the author of Gargantua and Pantagruel, who (in)famously mentioned the Island of Sark as the heaven of all the scoundrels and pirates in the Forth Book of his opus, published in 1552.

Is tree a she or a he? Don’t ask F. Rabelais 😉

This well documented fluidity between the two grammatical genders of the Gallo-Romance “arbre”, unfortunately, does not explain why the Sarkese “árbre” is feminine today in most idiolects, in the sense that we cannot tell whether Sarkese conserves the original feminine gender of the Latin “arbor” or represents a result of a later development, i.e. having switched from feminine to masculine, and then back to feminine.

Even though it would be tempting to claim the former, we cannot overlook a general tendency to gender-fluidity in words of Romance origin which start and end with a vowel, see f.e. “órme”, “âne”, “âje”, not only in Sarkese, but in other Gallo-Romance languages too, especially in their historical varieties.

This means that the Sarkese “árbre” may either 1) conserve the original gender of the Latin “arbor” untouched by the later switch to masculine in the languages under the influence of French, except for at least one known idiolect who may have actually been influenced by French, 2) with regard to this particular idiolect it may conserve the early stage of a common process, started in medieval times, but incomplete, in which a word starting and ending with a vowel became gender-fluid or 3) be a result of the same process, but complete, through which the word settled back on the feminine gender, if it had become dominantly masculine at some point in the past, with the mentioned idiolect being a deviation or a remnant.

For the first option, we lack any relevant data, since Élŷ Brévîn‘s notes, even though he always writes “arbre” as masculine, are written mainly in French, not Old Norman. Without sufficient data, even the second option is again difficult to prove. On the other hand the third option may be taken into consideration, given that in Jèrriais, “arbre” is dominantly masculine, and that at least one known Sarkese speaker prefers the masculine gender. We cannot however overlook the strong influence Modern French had on the Jersey Norman varieties and in forming Modern Jèrriais, which may have, besides other things, resulted in setting the gender of the Jersey Norman “arbre” to masculine “à la française”. Given the unusual archaicity of Sarkese on many levels and examples in the historic varieties of many other Gallo-Romance languages, the dominant preference of feminine may therefore be authentic, especially, since on Guernsey the feminine form is known to be the standard already in the 19th century – although, naturally, we cannot exclude the influence of Guernsey Norman on Sarkese in this matter either.

Finally, despite being unable to reply as to why, let us remember that a “tree” is, for most speakers, a she in Sarkese, unlike in many Gallo-Romance languages of today, but as in Guernsey Norman, be it a shrubbery “árbre”, or a tall “órme” 🙂


Citation: NEUDÖRFL, Martin. árbre/tree-like shrub. In: Sark Norman Dictionary Online [on-line]. https://www.bonjhur.net/sndo-vocab-arbre

Relevant SNDO Entries:

→ back to the WILD FLORA OF SARK section