CHÉRKE / shark

photo source: wikimedia

chérke“, pronounced [ʃɛrk(ə)] 🔊, is the Sarkese word for “shark” and “dogfish”, which (together with its equivalents in the other two Insular Norman languages of Guernsey and Jersey) may be the missing “Gallo-Romance link” and a lead to the precursor word, that linguists have searched for in many languages around the world for over three centuries, to explain the origin of the English word “shark”. There are several kinds of sharks living in the waters of the island of Sark, such as ““, taupe or school shark, “błu chérke“, blue shark, “broču“, spiny dogfish, and especially the little “čhanrůsėt“, spotted dogfish, one of the most popular fishes on the plates of the Old Sarkese fishermen. While in Sark English “dogfish” was once preferred over the word “shark”, a hypothetical form “čhǎn d’měr”, typical for Mainland Normandy, is never used in Sarkese, with “chérke” being the sole generic term for “shark”-“dogfish”.

origin: Gallo-Romance (multiple options) / first recorded for Sarkese: 1970s (PB) / current status in the 21st century: preserved, in use

“chérke” is a masculine countable invariable noun (a he-word that doesn’t change in plural). We say “un chérke”, a/one shark, “dê chérke”, some sharks, with no change in how we write or pronounce the word. The pronunciation is regular, with ‘ch’ being pronounced as the English ‘sh’ and the ‘r’ fully “rolled”. It should be noted though, that the silent final ‘e’ reestablishes itself as a fully pronounced [ə], standardly according to the rules of the Sarkese phonology, in most positions, since it follows one of the so-called strong consonantic clusters, ‘-rk-‘.

The Sarkese “chérke” is directly related to the older Jersey Norman “cherque” and the now more common “cheurque”, as well as the Guernsey Norman “charque” and “cherque”. The form “cheurke”, which would correspond to the form “cheurque” in Jersey Norman, has been recorded in the past for Sarkese too, and even though it was intended to be included into the standard by the adoption of the inclusive form “cherke”, since it has been assessed as mispronunciation by the last speakers, only the form “chérke” is considered acceptable today.

On the English ‘shark’: from Yucatan, or the Channel Islands?

It may be a surprise to many, but the English word “shark” has long presented an absolute etymological mystery. Despite several theories proposed over the past two hundred years, linguists haven’t been able to conclusively determine the origin of the word (i.e. in what older form the word itself may have originated and especially from which language), which is something rather unusual for English, a well-studied language, spoken today by more than a billion people around the world – and especially in the case of such a relatively commonly used and well known word.

photo source: wikimedia

Since it is generally accepted, that the word “shark” cannot be of Anglo-Saxon origin, as there is, to our knowledge, no way how such a word could have evolved within the system from some older indigenous form, we assume it is actually a loanword from some other language. A great number of linguists and experts specialized in the English etymology have therefore tried to identify its possible precursor in languages once or still spoken in Europe and beyond, but with no definite success so far.

One of the oldest theories, proposed already in the 19th century, and to this point the most popular one, sugests that the original word behind the English “shark” could have been the Latin form “carcharus”, in the meaning of “shark”. Nevertheless, to support this, linguists would first need a necessary link between the Latin precursor form and the English one, so a mediatory word between “carcharus” and “shark”. Ideally, this would be a Gallo-Romance word, either still conserved in the languages of France or at least attested in some Old Norman or Old French texts, on the hypothesis that such a word would have been introduced by the Norman conquerors to England, and adopted as “shark” in Old English.

Nevertheless, it has been traditionally claimed (and erroneously as we will demonstrate further) that no such suitable word exists or existed in the Northern Gallo-Romance languages, and since no other suitable candidate hasn’t been found even in Old Norse and Old Brythonic, the two other systems, which enriched and formed Anglo-Saxon into English after Gallo-Romance, linguists have been forced to look outside of the standard linguistic area and dive into languages that did not have a direct influence on the evolution of English, as Norman or French for example, but were in at least minimal contact with the English language. Some have therefore pointed to the Old Cornish form “skarkeas”, meaning “shark”, some to the Dutch “schurk”, meaning “scoundrel”, and some have even looked for “shark”‘s precursor as far as over the ocean to the Americas, having claimed that the word “shark” could actually originate in the Yucatec Mayan name for shark, “xoc”.

The crew of the ship “Jesus of Lübeck”
was known to use the word “sharke”

The “Mayan origin” theory, which has been very popular to some extent on the internet, postulates, that the word could have been introduced to English after John Hawkins, an expeditioner and slave trader under the English flag, returned with his crew to Britain from the New World in 1568 and allegedly spread a mispronounced Yucatec word for shark, “xoc”, as “shark”, that he may have learned from some Mayans – an assumption which is based on the fact that Hawkin’s crew was actually known (as late as 1569) to use the word “sharke” in the meaning of “shark” – which was previously believed to be the first documented case of the use of the word in English.

This theory is, nevertheless, easily refutable, since, the word “shark”, in the meaning of “shark”, appears in English sources prior to Hawkin’s expedition and the reported use by his crewmen in 1569, by more than one hundred years.

In 1442, Thomas Beckington, bishop of Wells, wrote down in one of his notes (incidentally accessible since 1828 in a printed form), that on one quiet night out on the sea on his way from Britain to Aquitania in France, his boat encountered an aggressive “fish called shark”, “piscis vocatus le Shark”, which pursued the boat persistently. Beckington’s story clearly confirms that the use of the word “shark” as a name for a fish, most probably a large shark, predates one important event in the history of the human kind with regard to the possibility of “shark” being originally a Mayan word, and that is, of course, the discovery of the New World by the Europeans in 1492, meaning the English couldn’t have learned the word “shark” from the Old Mayans, or any other New World nation, before they even knew the Americas existed.

In 1442, T. Beckington encountered a shark

Another often cited theory claims, that “shark” may have originated in the Duch word “schurk”, meaning “scoundrel”. Nevertheless, the Modern Duch form is most probably a German loanword, believed to be adopted by the Dutch quite late (in 1700s), which again does not convene with the very first known mention from 1442 in Beckington’s diary – although we do not dismiss the Germanic origin theory completely (see below), only the idea of a relatively late adoption of a Dutch word.

No matter the actual origin, it is, however, striking that even though linguists, in their quest to cast light on the origin of the English word “shark”, have searched all over the word, even as far as the jungles of the Yucatan, no one has simply looked just over the “corner”, or rather over the “pool”, to the Channel Islands, where they would find out that in the three Norman languages still spoken there, of which Sarkese is one of the most archaic variety within the Gallo-Romance language continuum, the respective names for “shark” are suspiciously close to the ideal precursor to the English “shark” that they all have been looking for for so long.

Although it has been, without any proof or data sugested that Insular Norman words for shark, may originate in English (which seems to be the case of the Irish ‘sciorc’ for example), we may without any hesitation challenge such idea, that three relatively isolated Norman varieties would, suddenly and for some unknown reason, have abolished the original local Norman names for “shark” (whatever they would have been) and uniformly adopted an English loan-word as a generic term for the animal, as such a linguistic devolopment would have been exceptional not only on the general linguistic level, but with regard to the marine vocabulary in the given languages too.

photo source: wikimedia

Firstly, there are, of course, many English loan-words, as well as French loan words, in the three languages – some very ancient, some adopted only recently, but we may hardly find a loanword adopted from one language by all the three Insular Norman languages in the same meaning and within the same form. If so, existing English loan words usually concern inventions or novelties, which were introduced to the Channel Islands from Britain in the past two hundred years – and sharks of course do not fall under this category.

Secondly, it is practically impossible to imagine that the Old Norman fishermen of the Channel islands, would have suddenly abolished, on all the three islands, the original Norman name for one of the fishes they used to encounter on regular basis, for an alien English term, which, moreover, wasn’t apparently much used in local English, as “‘dogfish” may have been actually preferred in the Channel Island English varieties, at least among the bilingual Sarkese fishermen.

That said, in linguistics, we have learned to respect the rule “never say never” – after all, take the case of “pyeuvre“, a Sarkese word for “octopus”, which accidentally, because of one random incident in a cave, on which the plot of one influential novel was partially based, penetrated French and has become the actual standard word for octopus in Modern French, a language spoken by over a quarter billion people. However, the idea that the Insular Norman languages would have adopted the word “shark” from Modern English is, with no example, proof or data, especially with regard to the uncertainty around the origin of the English “shark”, not only hardly admittable, but simply indefensible.

Finally, the simple fact that no one has noticed or at least closely examined that three Norman languages, three isolated vestiges of the Old Norman language which one thousand years ago through a direct language contact initiated the historic transition from Old Anglo-Saxon to English, which are still spoken on the very border of the original evolutionary language area of the English language, have retained names for “shark”, which are clearly related (no matter the actual origin) to the English word for the same animal, is a striking oversight on the part of the linguistic community. The main question is now, however, whether this overlooked link may actually help us to resolve the mystery – well, let’s see.

On the origin of the Sarkese ‘chérke’

There is no doubt that the Sarkese “chérke”, the Jersey Norman “cherque”/”cheurque”, the Guernsey Norman “cherque”/”charque” and the English “shark” are all related. At the same time, it is practically impossible to claim that in the three Norman languages, the cited forms for “shark” could have been simultaneously adopted loanwords from Modern English, see above, especially since the word “shark” is believed not to be an indigenous Anglo-Saxon word in the first place.

Even though there are few English words that may have been, indeed, introduced to parts of Normandy during the Anglo-Norman era, or perhaps later on, under the Angevins, such as “charlock” in Eastern Normandy), “shark” does not seem to be the case – and if not Anglo-Saxon, in Norman, as well as in French and English, we usually face three options when searching for a word’s origin: Old Celtic, Gallo-Romance or Germanic.

Columella’s “carquarique”

As already mentioned above, the original theory on the origin of the word “shark”, discussed since the 19th century, pointed to the Latin “carcharus”, which of course is a potential candidate as a possible precursor to our “chérke” too. This particular word was preserved for our time thanks to one single person, a 1st century Roman scholar, Columella, who wrote a treatise on agriculture and nature, which was rediscovered in the 15th century and in which he mentions “sharks”.

In the text, the word appears as “carchari(que)”, literarly “(and) sharks” in Latin, so in its plural form, from which linguists later on deduced the singular form “carcharus”. Firstly, the word is clearly a Greek loanword, “kárkharos”, meaning “sharp (teethed)”. Secondly, what dictionaries often fail to point out is that Columella’s text represents the only known case of the use of the given word “carcharus” (and actually in the plural form “carchari-que”) in an authentic Latin source – ever – which is, of course, somehow problematic. It is simply too hard to claim, with regard to one sole documented use, moreover in a scholarly text, that the fishermen of the Roman Gaul, who most probably did not speak Greek like educated Columella (if at all), not only used actively the word “carcarus”, but even ever heard it, as Columella may have simple made it up for the purpose of his treatise.

Columella, a Roman scholar

Nevertheless, in case of the English “shark”, the Latin origin theory hasn’t been refuted for the extremely limited historical incidence of the word “carcarus”, but primarily due to the allegedly missing Gallo-Romance mediatory link, a word that the Old Anglo-Saxons would have had to first learn from their Norman overlords, speaking languages descended from Latin, and readapt as “shark” – a word such as, for example, “cerque”, “charque” or “cherque”, which could confirm a hypothetical evolution carcarus→?charque/cerque/cherque?→shark.

In French, we indeed, do not find such a word, as any original word for shark (if there ever was one known inlands) was replaced by the Mainland Norman word for “shark”, “requin”. Nevertheless, as said above many times, at least three Norman varieties, spoken on the Channel Islands, could easily provide this long searched missing link: Sarkese with its “chérke”, Guernsey Norman with “cherque” and “charque” and Jersey Norman with “cherque” and “cheurque”.

From the “linguistic” perspective, these forms are indeed ideal, at least partially, as the Latin “(c)ar-C” does actually give “(ch)ér-” in Sarkese or Jersey Norman, and “(ch)ar-” in French. Take for example the Late Latin “carricare”, which resulted in “chérj-” and “charg-” forms in these languages, (similarly the Late Latin “(s)arc(ulare))” gave “sércłẏ” in Sarkese and “sarcler” in French). Conveniently, at the first look, later (re)deverbals are common with these forms, such as “chérje“, charge, or “sércłe“, weed, which would seem to correspond to “chérque”. Nevertheless, that is actually the crucial problem of the carcharus-origin theory, which linguists proposing it surprisingly overlooked. With the “-arus” part of the Greeco-Latin “carch-arus”, we would actually expect descendant words such as “chérčére” or “charc/chare” etc. and if we were to believe that “chérke” is a deverbal, then we would need a verb first. Nevertheless, for the specific consonantic cluster -rch-, an usual result is not impossible to imagine.

Unfortunately, even though it would be compelling to declare that despite this problematic bit, we have, after more than two hundred years, finally determined our mediatery link, we need to be wary – mainly, for the extraordinary lack of any historic data in general (not only in Latin, but even in Norman texts), and secondly, for consonantal and vocalic confusion or “shuffles” which used to occur in Old Norman and later in Insular Norman rather commonly.

photo source: wikimedia

Take the already mentioned word “pyeuvre“, octopus, as an example. Our “pyeuvre” is actually the Latin word “polypus”, in which the Latin ‘l’ became ‘r’ and the ‘p’ became ‘v’, while switching their position within the word. If the Latin “polypus”, which gave regularly the French “poulpe”, became “pyeuvre” in Norman, one can only imagine what could have actually been behind our “chérke”, if not the alleged Greco-Latin “carcharus”, whose only one known use comes from a text almost two thousand years old, written by an educated Roman. With enough imagination, we could easily come up with a few forms worth of investigation. Although another Latin word for shark, “squalus”, or even the Old Norse “Krake”, “kraken”, would be perhaps too long shots (though not absolutely impossible), hypothetical forms such as “skere”, “sherke”, “shreke” etc. come immediately to mind, leading us from the Romance linguistic domain towards Germanic origin theories.

The most commonly cited form is the the Dutch “schurk”, scoundrel, which some have speculated could have been the precursor word to the English “shark”. As it has been already proven though, the word is a late German loanword, from “Schurke”, with the same meaning, and it is relatively hard to imagine that a Medieval German or proto-Dutch variety word would have penetrated Medieval English as well as Insular Norman as a new name for such a common type of fish. Nevertheless, we believe that these Germanic “schurk/Schurke”- forms, though not the actual precursors to our “chérke”, may have been, at least, a very good guess for the right direction.

In Germanic languages, we have a wide range of historic forms and still used words, comprising the ideas of “steering”, “shearing”, “cutting”, as well as, by subsequent (mostly) negative associations, “fright”, “scare”, “pain”, “jumping”, “hurting” and also “scoundrel” as mentioned – concepts which fit in the human mind with sharks rather easily and which all most probably originate in one ancient Indo-European root – “(s)ker(an)-“, to cut – and even though the Norman languages are of course primarily Romance (descended from spoken Latin), they were in the past enriched with many Germanic inputs – in the Neustrian phase with Frankish words and during the Viking phase with Norse vocabulary.

photo source: wikimedia

In the 19th century, Louis du Bois, a French Norman scholar, recorded somewhere in Lower Normandy two mostly intriguing local Norman words: the verb “cheurquier”, which meant “to hurt”, and the noun “cheur”, meaning “shock”. Even though these two historic forms have been known to the great authors of the FEW, no sugestion on their origin has been proposed, but a highly possible relation between “cheurquier” with the mentioned Germanic words and forms in similar meanings is simply too hard for us not to acknowledge with regard to our “chérke” and “cheurque”. At the same time, although we cannot claim, for a lack of data, that “chérke” and “shark” originated directly in these two forms recorded by du Bois (as a deverbal for example), we do believe that they at least indicate that the old “sker-” root, with meanings of “cut”, “hurt”, “pain” etc. clearly penetrated, via a Germanic input, the Norman language – and that the Insular Norman forms “cheurque”, “charque” and “chérke” could thus be related.

Old Cornish “skarkeas” recorded by Lhuyn

Finally, if not descended from the Latino-Greek “carcarus”, shark, or the Old Germanic “sker-“, to cut, the Celtic languages remain as an option worthy of investigation. In this regard, the Irish “siorc”, shark, comes to mind, but this form is believed to be only a recent English loanword, and nothing so far indicates it would have been otherwise (although Irish Gaelic etymology studies still have a long way ahead). Nevertheless, another interesting form was documented in the past in another Celtic language, the Old Cornish “skarkeas” or “scarceas”, which the illustrious Edward Lhuyn, recorded as a Cornish term for “shark” in use as late as 1707.

Unfortunately, we know nothing about its etymology, and it seems that E. Lhuyn actually assumed it was an English loanword, i.e. as “siorc” in today’s Irish. Nevertheless, there is a considerable number of Celtic words conserved in Sarkese and other Norman languages in names for plants and animals, fish included, take “vrak” for example – so the idea of “shark”-“chérke” being one of them should not be automatically taken as preposterous.

photo source: wikimedia

The simple fact though, that the only other known documented pre-modern non-English form with the same meaning appears in Cornwall, naturally raises interest, especially, since the boat that the author of the very first known mention of the word “shark”, bishop Beckington, sailed on in 1442, used to anchor in Cornwall too. If only we knew today what language the sailors on aboard that ship spoke and in which they must have discussed the sight of the aggressive shark with Thomas Beckington. Moreover, coincidentally, to complicate the search for the precursor of our “chérke” and the English “shark” even more, aboard the ship of John Hawkins, whose crew was known to actively use the word “shark” in its primary meaning in the 16th century English, there was a Cornish sailor of (brace yourselves) Dutch origin … which means that perhaps Cornish, and even the previously dismissed Germano-Dutch words may have been spoken aboard that ship.

To summarize the presented options as for the origin of the Sarkese word “chérke”, there are four main posibilities: 1) the least probable Anglo-Saxon (or English) origin from some unknown word, 2) the popular Latin origin from the Greco-Latin “carcharus”, which is however known from one sole two thousand year old source only, 3) the Celtic origin, perhaps related to the mysterious Cornish “skarkeas” of uncertain origin and finally 4) the Germanic origin, which we favor the most, assuming the word descended from one of the forms based on the root “sker-” comprising the meanings of “cutting”, “hurting” and be extension “shock”, “fear”, “pain” and “scoundrel”, which may be indicated by historic forms documented for Norman in the past, such as “cheurquier”. To be exhaustive, we cannot exlude a possible fusion of multiple precursors, such as of a Gallo-Romance word (from carcharus?) with a later Germanic form (sker-?), or, naturally, some completely unknown input.

photo source: wikimedia

It is more than evident that in our search to determine the origin of the Sarkese word “chérke” and subsequently of the English “shark”, we have indeed been so far true to the three century long tradition – in being unsuccessful. Nonetheless, we believe that having confirmed that the authentic name for “shark” in one of the most archaic variety of the Gallo-Romance languages, the Norman language of the island of Sark, is actually “chérke”, which corresponds to the respective words for “shark” in the other two surviving Insular Norman languages, these forms, together with historic documented forms such as “cheurquier” may serve as a new starting point for future linguists who may embark on the same journey – and let us hope, that if they are lucky, some previously unknown forms in hidden ancient manuscripts or glossaries resurface one day to help us resolve this mystery for good.






un chérke = a shark, one shark

dê chérke = (some) sharks

Let’s practice:

Â-tu jhamê veu un chérke? / Have you ever seen a shark?

I’ẏ a-ti dê chérke dàn la měr d’Séṙ? / Are there any sharks in the Sarkese waters?

Â-tu peû dê chérke? / Are you afraid of sharks?

J’éme lê chérke. / I like sharks.

J’avon dê chérke an Séṙ. / We have sharks in Sark.


Citation: NEUDÖRFL, Martin. chérke/shark. In: Sark Norman Dictionary Online [on-line]. 21. 04. 2022.

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