MÁRĖSUEN / dolphin

photo source: wikimedia

márėsuen“, s.m., pronounced [märɐswɛ̃] 🔊 is the Sarkese word for “dolphin” and a generic term for any dolphin-like animal. In the Sarkese waters, the most common representative of the proper dolphin family today is now “bottlenose dolphin” (Tursiops truncatus), then occasionally “common dolphin” (Delphinus delphis), also known as “tǎmine“, which swims to Sark from the coasts of Normandy, and finally their distant cousin, harbour porpoise, “půrpét“. Dolphins, unlike porpoises, used to be actually quite rare in Sark for the past few decades, but since the “Big Return” their visits are on the rise, from bottlenose dolphins, “grôse tǎmine“, to “ňér márėsuên“, pilot whales. The word “márėsuen” was recorded and preserved thanks to Bas Adams, who was the very last native speaker to actively use it. It should be noted, that marine mammals, dolphins, porpoises or whales, used to be considered fish, “pêsôn“, in Sark.

origin: Germanic (poss. Old Norse) / first recorded for Sarkese: 2018 (MN) / current status in the 21st century: preserved, in use

“márėsuen” is a masculine variable countable noun (a he-word that changes in plural). We say “un márėsuen”, a/one dolphin, but “dê márėsuên”, (some) dolphins, adding a diacritic over the final ‘-ên’ pronouncing it longer as [märɐswɛ̃:] in plural. The pronunciation is regular, but it should be noted, that as indicated by the diacritic, the ‘ė’, is not a standard week ‘e’, as it has to be pronounced fully as [ɐ], sometimes even as [ä], as if written ‘á’, as in “pérchėpyere“. This is typical for nouns, containing ‘-re-‘, which were originally compound words in ancient times, but have since then lost the capacity to be segmented (redivided into functional constituent words). Although “márėsuen” was once indeed (in Norse) segmentable, it is no longer in Sarkese, which is why it is variable in plural (proper compound words are invariable, see “potátê“).

On the meaning – márėsuen vs tǎmine

The primary meaning of the Sarkese word “márėsuen” is simply “dolphin”. The limits of this concept, if there have ever been any commonly accepted, are, however, unclear. For example the question is whether the word “márėsuen” in its broadest meaning of a dolphin-like animal could actually include any cetacean, especially smaller species, such porpoises, “půrpê“. The last speaker to actively distinguish marine mammals, Bas Adams, used, nevertheless, the term “márėsuen” as oposed to “půrpét“. At the same time, however, he did not recall the Old Sarkese name for “beaked dolphins”, “tǎmine“, which thanks to John Hamon’s description we may easily attribute to “common dolphin” (Delphinus delphis), but not so automatically to “lesser beaked” “bottlenose dolphin” (Tursiops truncatus), which has, however, in the past years surpassed “common dolphin” as the truly most common dolphin in the local waters and which the last Sarkese speaking fisherman would call “márėsuen”.

photo source: wikimedia

It has thus been proposed to follow the lead and use the term “márėsuen” as the most generic term for a dolphin-like mammal, with “bottlenose dolphin”, now the most common dolphin in Sark, being its archetype within the concept. At the same time, however, as we cannot eliminate possibility that the term “tǎmine“, once included not only the sharp-beaked “common dolphin”, but actually both our “beaked” dolphins that appear today around the island, so not only “common dolphin”, but also “bottlenose dolphin”, an optional name for “bottlenose dolphin”, apart from the generic “márėsuen” has been proposed, “grôse tǎmine“.

As for the other members of the dolphin family, especially large ones, and with less prominent or no beaks, however, only “márėsuen” is recommended to be used, such as “něr márėsuen“, pilot whale..

On the origin – the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and their sea pigs

Since there isn’t one common word for dolphin in the Norman languages of the Channel Islands, the Sarkese “márėsuen” does not have direct counterparts in Guernsey Norman and Jersey Norman, in which “dolphin” is “bounnie” and “dauphîn” respectively, terms unknown in Sarkese in the given meaning.

The Vikings may not have known pigs in a blanket,
but they did know sea pigs!
/ photo source: wikimedia

On the other hand, our “márėsuen” is related to the English and Scottish “mereswine”, meaning both dolphin or porpoise, and the French “marsouin”, meaning porpoise only, as well as to the German “Meerschwein”, meaning dolphin, porpoise and guinea pig, and partially to the “marsvin” in the Nordic languages, meaning guinea pig only, although in Old Norse, it meant “dolphin”, like in today’s Sarkese.

The precursor word for the Sarkese “márėsuen” is thus clearly of Germanic origin and based on the idea of “sea pig”, with ‘mere/mar/Meer’ meaning “sea” and ‘swine/svin/schwein’ meaning “pig”, or “sow”. Coincidentally, a similar idea is behind today’s Sarkese word for “porpoise”, “purpét“, which is, however, of Romance origin, issued from the Late Latin “porcopiscis”, lit. pig fish. Interestingly tough, in some languages, the concept of “sea pig” was later attributed to guinea pigs, “little pigs which came from across the Sea”. Nonetheless, the original meaning of “sea pigs”, mammals that resemble pigs and live in the sea, was originally “dolphin” or “porpoise”.

The question that arises is from which language this precursor word was adopted and at which point of the history of the Sarkese language “continuum”, whether 1) already at the Gallo-Romance stage (unlikely), 2) in Old Norman, 3) during the vague Anglo-Norman era, or much later 4) in Jersey Norman or 5) even in Old Sarkese (again unlikely). The same question has been actually asked in the case of the origin of the French “marsouin”, porpoise, and the other similar Gallo-Romance forms, but no definitive resolution has been achieved.

Dolphins from aboard ‘Non Pareil’
photo source: Sark Boat Trips

One of the possible origins of these forms preserved in the languages of Northern France is seen in the Norse “marsvin”, dolphin, with the theory postulating that it was the Vikings who had brought the word to France in the 9th century. Another option would be an even older Germanic substrate, such as Old Frankish, which could have been later reinforced perhaps by the Norse word “marsvin”, or perhaps via Anglo-Norman, etc.

It has also been speculated that since the word appears for the first time (for Gallo-Romance languages) in a Latin text of Anglo-Norman origin (from Britain), as ‘marsuins’, it may have been an Anglo-Saxon loan word, meaning that the French “marsouin” and the Sarkese “márėsuen”, would actually originate in the Old Anglo-Saxon “mereswin” for dolphin, that the Normans learned in England after the conquest of 1066.

While the Norse “marsvin” clearly corresponds to the Modern French “marsouin”, it could, at least at first look, seem that the Anglo-Saxon “mereswin” would actually be a more suitable precursor word for our “márėsuen” rather than the Norse “marsvin”, with regard to its segmentation, but the transition from “mere” to “mare” would be somehow complicated – nevertheless, we may actually “get” the three-syllabic “márėsuen” of ours form the Norse bisyllabic “marsvin”.

In Sarkese, the form is strictly trisyllabic (three syllables), “má.rė.suen”, with the ‘ė’ always fully vocalized as [ɐ]. This ‘ė’, if it symbolizes originally silent ‘e’ which became [ɐ], appears always after a ‘r’ within words which are (or at least used to be) compound nouns, i.e. multiple words merged into one. “marėsuen” is no longer formally a proper compound noun, since we can’t actually separate its original constituent words anymore, “mare” and “suen”. We still do have the word “máre” today in Sarkese, originating from the Norse “marr”, “sea”, which narrowed its meaning to “puddle” or “pool”, but the “suen” part, issued from the Norse word “svin” (pig, swine, sow), is not a word in Sarkese (we say “trî” for “sow”).

A local bottlenose dolphin from aboard ‘Non Pareil’
photo source: Sark Boat Trips

This, nevertheless, does not complicate our search for the origin of this ancient compound, as it only affects its plural form, since proper compound nouns are invariable in Sarkese, while “marėsuen”, not being a formally proper compound noun anymore, is variable – we therefore say “un marėsuen”, a/one dolphin, in singular, and “dê marėsuên”, (some) dolphins, in plural.

The key to our primary question, whether we could get “marėsuen” form the Old Norse “marsvin” is actually the Sarkese word already mentioned above – “máre”, pool, puddle. As said, it originates, without any doubt, in the Norse word for sea, “marr”, the same “mar-” which we find in “marsvin”. Given that the Norse “marr”, on its own, eventually resulted in “máre” in Sarkese, a possible later reanalysis (a very common phenomenon in languages) may have occured, with the form “máre” influencing a hypothetical older form “mársuen”, making it shift to presumably more “regular” “marėsuen”, as if the original Gallo-Romance form had already been “maresuin”, not “marsuin”.

We believe, this is most probably why the ancient Anglo-Norman form “marsuin”, gave the Sarkese “marėsuen”. Nonetheless, to exhaust all possibilities, the shift from the hypothetical “mársuen” to “már-E-suen” could have been of course also intiated due to a hypothetical influence of the English obsolete form “mereswine”, but as such cases are practically unknown for Sarkese (English influencing the Sarkese pronunciation), we consider this option as highly unlikely.

Be it the victorious Norman lords returning from conquered England or their Viking ancestors, who brought the word for dolphin to Normandy, one thousand years later, it is still conserved in the Norman language of the island of Sark.


Citation: NEUDÖRFL, Martin. marėsuen/dolphin. In: Sark Norman Dictionary Online [on-line]. https://www.bonjhur.net/sndo-vocab-fauna-maresuen

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