BIRE / beer

photo source: wikimedia

bire“, s.f., pronounced [bɪ:(ə̯)r̥] 🔊, is the Sarkese word for “beer”, possibly originating in the Guernsey Norman “bire” or directly from the English “beer”. Being a popular drink in Sark since time immemorial, beer surpassed whisky, “whiský“, and cider, “sidre“, as the favourite alcoholic beverage on the island already by the 20th century. The famous Sarkese phrase “avě une fê”, or “alě avě une fê”, “to go for one (drink)”, therefore automaticaly means “to go for one beer”, although we also automatically understand that the declared number, one beer, is very often a lie 😉

origin: uncertain (poss. English) / first recorded for Sarkese: 1960s (PA) / current status in the 21st century: preserved, in use

“bire” is a feminine invariable noun (a she-word that does not change in plural). We say “une bire”, one (glass of) beer, “deù bire”, two beers, etc. When we do not refer to a glass of beer or one specific beer, but to beer in general, we are, however, obliged to use the so-called partitive, so “d’la bire”, “some beer”, as in “J’bět d’la bire.“, “I drink beer.” etc.

The pronunciation of the word is regular, though it should be remembered, that the vowel [ɪ:(ə̯)] is always long, despite lacking any diacritic, since it is followed by the ‘-re’-cluster. In SOP, we prefer [ɪ:ə̯], while in NOP we make it sound as a simple long [ɪ:].

On the origin – A guernseyism, an anglicism or an ancient germanism?

The Sarkese “bire” is most probably directly related to the Guernsey Norman “bire”, meaning “beer” too. The exact origin, however, especially with regard to the Guernsey Norman form, which our “bire” unusually agrees with, and to the rather complex history of beer consumption in the region, is fairly difficult to determine, with several options worth of exploring.

There is no doubt that the word is descended from the same Germanic ancestor word for “beer”, “beur”, as the English “beer”, the French “bière” or the German “Bier”. Nevertheless, it is unclear from which mediator word our “bire” actually comes from, i.e. whether the Sarkese term is a) a guernseyism, b) a form directly descended from the late Northern Galo-Romance “b(i)ere”, beer, which is said to originate in the Old Dutch “bier” or c) an anglicism, either ancient or recent, or d) a fusion of multiple forms. And all these four options are linguistically defensible.

The main problem we face if we want to determine the origin of the Sarkese “bire”, as well as of the Guernsey Norman “bire”, is that the word for beer itself was, according to some experts on Old Northern France Romance languages, introduced to Mainland Normandy fairly late in the medieval times. If we knew that the word was introduced to the Old Northern Gallo-Romance languages, let’s say already by the Franks, then our “bire” could easily be in fact “bẏre” – pronounced the same, but by its orthography implying that the long [ɪ:ə̯]-sound is actually a result of a reduction of the old diphthongized ‘ie’, which is typical for Sarkese. This hypothetical “bẏre” would indeed work perfectly if compared to the French “bière” or the Jersey Norman “biéthe”, but unfortunately, not as much when compared to the Guernsey Norman “bire”.

Sark’s old brewery at la Siňeurrî
with Dr. Richard Axton

If the precursor word had indeed been at some point “biere”, like in the case of the French “bière” and the Jèrriais “biéthe”, we would actually expect to have “bière” in Guernsey Norman too and not “bire” that we share with Guernsey in Sark. This fact is very important, since in Guernsey Norman, we do not find cases of the merger of ‘ie’, which gave the characteristic ‘ẏ’ in Sarkese in most positions (compare the Sarkese “gárdinre” vs the Guernsey Norman “jardinre”, female gardener, or “pům” vs “poummier“, apple tree, “chímre” vs “chaemtière”, cemetery, etc.). For this reason, we need to be wary – especially, since beer, despite its popularity has always been mainly imported goods in Sark, usually comming from Guernsey or Britain, and naturally, if the goods wasn’t produced locally, non-native English terms used on the market by sellers in Guernsey were easily adopted, even though very often adapted, looking in the end like authentic Norman words.

These very old English loan words in Sarkese, such as “činisteuŕ“-canister, “čhèni“-china, “injène“-engine etc., but also “chěde“-shed, “jóbe“-job, are fully modified to comply with the Sark Norman phonology – and “bire”-beer may have been just another case among many, although it is impossible to tell from which century.

If not a direct English loanword, our “bire” could be a guernseyism, simply adopted from the Guernsey Norman form “bire”, which itself most probably was an anglicism. And if not an anglicism, then the word may have been somehow introduced to Guernsey and Sark in a different Germanic form, perhaps from Old Dutch, which as “bire” may have, unlike in French, conserved the original quality of the vowel. Nevertheless, with practically no written sources, we cannot, as in several other similar cases, exclude a convergent evolution of different forms, mutually influencing each other.

For this reason, in order not to impose a presumed etymology with ‘bẏre’ (implying that the word evolved from ‘bere’-‘biere’ or even from ‘bîre’-‘biyére’-‘byére’ to ‘bẏre), a non-marked orthography ‘bire’ was chosen, especially with regard to the unusual Guernesey Norman ‘bire’, which also indicates a non-standard origin (being a loan-word).

Trivia: “avě une fê”, the famous Czecho-Sarkese euphemism 😉

Before the WW2, the Old Sarkees used to have liking mainly in five beverages to treat themselves – coffee, “cófì“, hot toddy, “vérecò“, whisky, “whiský“, cider, “sidre” and beer. Since then, Sark, having adopted lots of English customs, has changed beyond recognition, which also affected local cuisine and traditionally popular beverages – coffee was replaced with tea, ““, in most households, while cider was even stopped being produced for several decades – the love for beer prevailed tough – and the famous Sarkese phrase “avě une fê” is a proof of this liking even on a linguistic level.

photo source: wikimedia

When we say “avě une fê” or “alě avě une fê”, which is the Sarkese phrase for “to go for a glass/drink”, today we automatically mean for “a beer”. Moreover, even though we actually say that we go for “one beer” (in Sarkese we literally say “to have one time/once”), we somehow also understand by custom that the evening won’t stop with that one beer, but will most probably continue, which makes this phrase sort of a culturally established lie or at least a euphemism for “let’s go drinking” 🙂

Intriguingly, similar phrase is also known in the Czech Republic, the motherland of modern pilsner beer and a country with the highest consumption of beer in the world per capita. The phrase “jít na jedno”, “go for one (beer)”, which is considered a part of the Czech cultural heritage and beer culture, in its meaning and use (also meaning “let’s go drink”), directly corresponds to the Sarkese “alě avě une fê”. What a coincidence!

Trivia: Beer in Sark and Sark Beer

In the known history, there is probably no record of beer brewing in Sark before the 21st century, although it does not mean it wasn’t actually produced on the island. Since beer was a very common beverage among monks in the medieval times, we may assume that during the long existence of the monastery of Saint Magloire, Sên’Maguâře, beer may have been brewed in Sark at some point. After all, the island produces all the necessary ingredients for beer production by itself, including hops, “hópe“, which grow in the wild, and thanks to the surpluses of wheat and barley, for which Sark used to be famous in the past, malt could have easily been made too.

Though at the moment, we have no knowledge of beer production in Sark even after the recolonization, beer was a well known commodity. “Élŷ Brévîn“, a 17th century minister of Sark, reports on beer several times in his famous notes. Moreover, sailors used to be paid with beer, among other naturalia, and hops were being sold on markets, which indicates that beer may have been brewed at home, as it was common in the era elsewhere in Europe – though of course the back-then home-made beer looked and tasted very different from what we are used to today.

At one point, cider replaced beer as the number one alcoholic drink in the Channel Islands, but since the 2nd half of the 19th century, beer consumption was again on the rise and several breweries were in business in Guernsey and Jersey – and as for Sark, according to one report, excessive consumption of beer was one of the main causes for incarceration in those days.

In 2016, Sark started to produce its very own beer, perhaps for the very first time since the era of the monks of Saint Magloire. The brewery, which was situated at “la Siňeurrî“, however stopped its production in 2021. Let’s hope that the project comes back to life one day, like the ancient tradition of cider making which finally returned to Sark in 2023 after a several decades long break.


Citation: NEUDÖRFL, Martin. bire/beer. In: Sark Norman Dictionary Online [on-line]. Published: 18. 02. 2024.

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