PŮRPÉT / porpoise

photo source: wikimedia

půrpét“, s.m., pronounced [pʊrpɛt] 🔊, historically perhaps “půrpé” too, is the Sarkese generic name for “porpoise“, which in the waters of Sark means mainly “harbour porpoise” (Phocoena phocoena), the smallest of the marine mammals that live in the Channel, after “márėsuên“, dolphins, including “tǎmine“, common dolphins, the smallest local subspecies of the proper dolphin family.

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

“půrpét” is a masculine variable countable noun (a he-word that changes in plural). We therefore say “un půrpét” in singular, a/one porpoise, and “dê půrpê” in plural, some porpoises. The once recorded form “půrpé”, singular, is not acceptable in the last known idiolects and would be considered a mistake today, though it may have been a form of an earlier evolutionary stage.

As for the pronunciation, it is regular, though if “půrpét” is followed immedietaly by another word, the fina ‘-t’ may drop off, but only in such an enviroment, never in open position. In plural, the form “půrpê” is pronounced standardly [pʊrpɑ:ɪ̯] in stressed open position, but if followed immediately by another word, the pronunciation may change into [pʊrpwɛ:], though rather rarely.

On the origin – one pig fish, two pig … fish or fishes?

The Sarkese “půrpét” directly corresponds to the Eastern Jersey Norman “půrpé”, and is also related to the Jèrriais “pourpais”, the Guernsey Norman “porpeis” and the English “porpoise”, all originating in the Northern Gallo-Romance “porpeis”, itself issued from the Late Latin “porcopiscis”, lit. pig fish. A very similar idea was actually behind the Old Norse “marsvin”, lit. sea pig, which was the name for dolphin, another marine mammal, which is conserved in the Sarkese “márėsuên“, dolphin. In today’s Sarkese we therefore call dolphins “sea pigs” in the language of the Vikings and at the same time porpoises “pig fishes” in the language of the Late Romans.

Both the Romans and Vikings saw pigs in marine mammals.
photo source: wikimedia

Nevertheless, as for the name for porpoise, surprisingly, both Sarkese and Eastern Jersey Norman differ from the rest of the known forms in the other Gallo-Romance languages in one important key feature – in these two varieties of the Norman language, the words for “porpoise” are variable, i.e. changing their forms in singular and plural.

In Sarkese, one of the most archaic Norman languages, we would understandably expect the invariable form “půrpê”, known from the other varieties, such as in Jèrriais, Guernsey Norman etc, for both singular and plural, given that the world without any doubt originates in the Old Norman and Gallo-Romance “porpeis” which was indeed invariable. In Sarkese though, the word is systematically pronounced as “půrpét”, rarely “půrpé” (as in Eastern Jersey Norman, which might have been an earlier evolutionary form, but was recorded probably only once in the 70s and is considered a mistake today) in singular, but never “půrpê”, with a long ‘ê’. This form is reserved strictly for plural only.

The reason for a shift from the once undoubtably invariable “půrpê” to the variable “půrpét”-“půrpê” seems to be analogy. Most probably, the word was simply reanalysed to be variable, as we have more variable ‘ét’/’ê’-nouns rather than invariable ‘ê’-nouns, especially for animals. Firstly, since we usually use the word ‘porpoise’ in plural, as porpoises usually appear in pods (schools), we don’t use the word in singular that often – have you ever seen just one porpoise? 🙂 Moreover, when we hear a noun form ending in ‘-ê’, especially if it is an animal, and if we have never heard its singular form (again, we don’t usually encounter just one porpoise out on the sea), we would automatically assume that such form is actually “půrpét” – and we believe that all this was coincidentally the cause, why the singular form “půrpét” in Sarkese and “pourpé” in Eastern Jersey Norman, perhaps already even in Old Jersey Norman, was established.

Later reanalysis of an originally invariable noun, which happened in the case of “půrpét”-“půrpê”, isn’t, however, something unusual – after all, even in English the originally invariable Anglo-Norman “porpois” for porpoise became variable to convene the nature of the language, so today we say “one porpoise” and “two porpoises” and not “two porpoise”, like in Sarkese.


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

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