PYEUVRE / octopus

photo source: wikimedia

pyeuvre“, pronounced [pjœøv̥r̥] 🔊, is the Sarkese word for “octopus” or “devilfish”, which Victor Hugo or Victẏ Ẏù̥go, one of the greatest writters in the history of French literature, learned in Sark during his visit in 1859, after an incident with one of the larger local specimens in the caves of lê Bůtike, and subsequently used in his famous novel The Toilers of the Sea, through which, thanks to the book’s unprecedented success, the Sarkese word entered the French language as ‘pieuvre’ and generally replaced the original French name for octopus, ‘poulpe’. Thus today, up to more than 300 milion people around the globe know, though uncounciously, via French, at least one word in Sarkese, and that is our “pyeuvre”, octopus – thanks to Victor Hugo, his book and one single truculent devilfish from Sark.

For centuries, the Sarkese octopuses were well known for being exceptionally enormous and unusually territorial, which according to local legends and written claims, in cases of direct contact, occasionally resulted in open attacks on humans, as in 1859 in lê Bůtike, with at least one alleged casualty by drowning in Bréko.

Nevertheless, the original population of the Sarkese giant octopuses was practically wiped out in the winter of 1962/63, known as the Big Freeze, during which the sea around Sark froze, killing hundreds of local specimens. Due to uncontrolled overfishing in the Channel in the 20th century, weakened octopuses subsequently disappeared from local waters with only one reported catch prior to 2015. Only recently, with the Great Return of the Fish to the Channel Islands, octopuses, together with more fish, sharks and marine mammals, finally returned to to their former home in Sark – and hopefully for good.

origin: Gallo-Romance / first recorded for Sarkese: 1859 (VH) / current status in the 21st century: preserved, in use

“pyeuvre” is a feminine countable invariable noun (a she-word that does not change in plural). We say “une pyeuvre”, a/one octopus, “dê pyeuvre”, some octopuses, with no change in how we write or pronounce the word. When refering to the meat of an octopus, the so-called partitive is standardly necessary, so “d’la pyeuvre”, some octopus.

The pronunciation is regular, although it should be noted that the combination of a yod, [j]-y, with a vowel ‘eu’, prevents the ‘-vre’ cluster to lengthen the vowel, meaning the ‘eu’ in “pyeuvre” is always pronounced short, never long. Moreover, the ‘eu’-[œ] within the ‘yeuv’ combination may be very closed, pronounced as [ø] in some idiolects. In this regard, the “pyeuvre” belongs to a small group of monosyllabic words, in which an enclosed Norman ‘e’ in contact with a ‘v’ shifted to ‘euv’, the euv-forms, such as “fyeuvre“, fever, for which it stands as a model.

On the origin – octopuses, lips, fever and beans 🙂

The origin of the Sarkese name for octopus, “pyeuvre”, which gave not only the modern French “pieuvre” with the same meaning, but by later adoption via French even the Italian “piovra”, is, indeed, most intriguing. There is no doubt that the Sarkese “pyeuvre” comes directly from the Latin name for octopus, “polypus” (through the hypothetical Late Latin “polpa”), as most names for octopus in other Romance languages, but clearly, a series of shifts and changes must have been behind such a striking transformation of “polypu(s)” into our “pyeuvre” which we will explore on the following lines – as briefly as possible 😉

In codified national Romance languages, some of which, in the past, tended to artificially relatinize, the names for octopus often retain the Latin ‘l’ (take the French “poulpe”, the Italian “polpo”, the Spanish “pulpo”, the Portuguese “polvo” etc.). In many non-dominant or regional Romance languages of France and Italy, however, a natural consonantic shift from ‘l’ to ‘r’ occurred in the respective forms, via a typical process of the so-called rhotacisation. This evolution resulted in today’s Sicilian “purpu”, the Modern Neapolitan “purpo”, the Sardinian “pruppu”, the Ligurian “porpo”, the Occitan “pofre” or even the original Old French “poupre” and “pourpre” – in the Norman languages, this shift was, however, only a beginning.

“The” octopus drawn by Victor Hugo
photo source: wikimedia

Firstly, in Norman, as for example in Portugues (take “polvo”), the second ‘p’ (polpa) shifted to ‘v’ or ‘f’, which resulted in forms like “purve” and “perve”, which are still conserved in some Norman varieties spoken in Mainland Normandy. Additionally, another standard process occurred – a consonantic shuffle, in which the adjacent transformed consonants ‘r’ and ‘v’ switched their positions, resulting in forms such as “pevre”/”peuvre” (similarly to the Occitan “pofre”). Moreover, in some Norman languages, the core vowel in its enclosed position yotizised and gave “pyevre”/”pievre” (see below as for its original nature), but due to the unfavourable position of the weakened ‘(y)e’, now in contact with a ‘v’, the ‘e’ in some varities shifted (or reshifted, see below) to ‘eu’ – which is a standard process in Old Sarkese (see “fyeuvre“, fever, “łeuvre“, lip, or “feuve“, bean), and thus the Late Latin “polpa” embraced its current Sarkese form, “pyeuvre”.

One important question remains though, as for the evolution of the form, and that is at which stage the ancient ‘o’ or its later forms actually yotizised and gave ‘ye’ or our ‘yeu’, i.e. whether as an early diphthongized ‘o’, whether from a later non-standard process or first via a later Norman ‘e’, which by reanalysis could have easily become ‘ye’, which in contact with a ‘v’ does give ‘yeu’ in Sarkese.

The first option (u-eue-yeu) which was proposed already by the great authors of the FEW, would be convenient, however, we unfortunatelly lack examples of “pyeuv-” forms in Old Norman. Most importantly, yotizased “ueu” is found in Sarkese only in open frontal positions (as in “yeu”, had, “yò”, water etc.), never after a consonant. If our “pyeuvre” were an exemple of a “ueu”-yotization, it would be a unique exemple of a transition from ‘C-ueu-‘ into “C-ieu-“/”C-yeu-“. On the contrary, in Norman, Old and Modern, we know practically only non-yotizised forms of the word for octopus (perve, peve etc.), which indiate that our “pyeuvre” is a standard result of a transition of ‘pev’ into “pyeuv-“. In such case, the Latin “o” and later “ueu”, would have had to transition into an “e” quite early on. A convergent evolution and fusion of forms, as well as analogy, are, however, always an option too.

The Sarkese word, known by more than 300 milion people worldwide

Prior to our research and analysis conducted in 2016, it was generally believed that the French word “pieuvre”, which was also adopted in Italian as “pieuvre” and French based creole languages, was probably a neologism created by Victor Hugo, based on the names for octopus in Guernsey Norman, for his novel set in the Channel Islands, the Toilers of the Sea, in whose text he used the word instead of the back-then Standard French word for octopus, ‘poulpe’, to make the text more exotic to a French reader.

Victẏ Ẏù̥go, Victor Hugo in 1861
photo source: wikimedia

Even though some dictionaries (wrongly) claimed “pieuvre” being originally a Guernsey Norman word from the beginning, specialists were well aware of the fact, that such a form, ‘pieuvre’, was not common in Guernsey and actually did not correspond to any locally known or historically documented forms used in Guernsey Norman. That is why it was assumed by some that the word “pieuvre” was an artificial construct, Hugo’s modification of one of the many other known Guernsey Norman forms of the name of the animal (peuvre, pievre, perve, peuvre etc.) or their intentional fusion.

Surprisingly though, most of these assumptions weren’t based on practical research and, until 2016, no systematical analysis of existing linguistic materials (mainly M. de Garis, P. Brasseur or F. le Maistre) was concluded – which would have confirmed that such form does exist in Norman, within the Insular Sarco-Jersey branch, with Sarkese and its ‘pyeuvre’, which (from the evolutionary perspective) is a form one would actually expect to evolve from the Latin polypus in Sark Norman. Moreover, with regard to the origins of the famous novel, the Toilers of the Sea, which introduced the word under the form ‘pieuvre’ into French, the very good starting point would have been to simply open the book itself and look for the hints in there, since the author’s remarks, pointing towards Sark and Sarkese, are all in the very text.

In the Toilers of the Sea, not only Sark, but even the Norman language of the island are both specifically mentioned by Victor Hugo in his side commentaries and references. In the text, the great French author actually declares the language of the Sarkese “the language of Louis XIV”, which, in the first place, not only demonstrates that V. Hugo was in direct contact with the language, but with regard to such a strong statement, also clearly shows that he was intriegued by it for its archaicity. Moreover, the island of Sark is also explicitly mentioned when Victor Hugo introduces his monstruous octopus to the French audience, as he claims that the largest octopuses in the Channel Islands live in the waters around Sark, and that he himself saw one of these creatures when on the island.

Victor Hugo indeed came to Sark and did get into direct contact with one of the local octopuses. The reason for his two week long visit, which took place in 1859, was simple and clear – to absorb the atmosphere, learn about the locals, especially the fishermen, and get inspiration from the island, which he called the most beautiful place of the Channel Islands, for his new novel, he was working on, the Toilers of the Sea – and Sark indeed gave him all he needed.

The Sarkese “pyeuvre”, here as ‘pieuvre’,
with the English meaning ‘devilfish’,
personally written down by Victor Hugo
on the cover of his notebook from Sark (1859)

source: BNF

While exploring local caves, Victor Hugo, accompanied by his son Charles Hugo and some locals ventured one day into the caves of “lê Bůtike”. In there, a large octopus allegedly “attacked” and chased his son Charles, who was swimming through (possible during high tide). In the end, this emotional and vivid experience, which Victor Hugo later on confirmed as true on more occasions, served as one of the central motives of the plot of the Toilers of the Sea, when Gilliatt has to fight a giant octopus. Finally, however, with regard to the whole incident, its place of taking, Victor Hugo’s actual documented interest both in the Sarkese language and Sarkese octopuses, his own multiple statements and, most importantly, the very fact, that the word for “octopus” in Sarkese is “pyeuvre”, which into French would be transcribed as ‘pieuvre’, we may confirm and declare without any doubt that the word for octopus used in Hugo’s novel and which was adopted into French as ‘pieuvre’, is indeed the Sarkese word that Hugo learned in Sark in 1859 (among other words) after the incident in “lê Bůtike”.

It should also be noted, that while octopus is masculine in most Romance languages, Victor Hugo correctly noticed, that in Sarkese, as well as in other Norman varieties, in which similar forms exist, “pieuvre” is feminine.

Moreover, the very first known case of the word ever written down comes from Victor Hugo’s notebook that he took with himself to Sark in 1859. Surprisingly, in the given notebook, despite Hugo having adamantly claimed the story being true, there seems to be no mention of the whole incident from lê Bůtike at all (although one longer entry is completely illegible for us), – it’s on its cover, however, where we find two simple words written by the great author: ‘pieuvre’, which is our “pyeuvre”, but written á la française, and beneath it the word’s meaning, ‘devilfish’, intriguingly written in English.

Since in the same notebook, Hugo describes closely, how he learned the Sarkese word “pŷrot” for goose from his Sarkese hostess, la Měre Vòdin, whom we may consider to be Hugo’s sort of unofficial Sarkese teacher, but then writtes only “pieuvre, devilfish”, regarding the most powerful experience from his visit to Sark through wichi later on the French language becomes enriched with a Sarkese word, at least two questions arise – why is there no mention of the attack in lê Bůtike, and why did Hugo use the English meaning of the Sarkese word for octopus, instead of the French one, ‘pouple’.

As for the first question, it is possible that the whole octopus incident was so powerful, that Hugo knew he wouldn’t have forgotten it, perhaps even having already started including it within the plot of the novel, he was working on, or perhaps, there may have been another notebook, now lost, since some notebooks form Hugo’s exile in the Channel Islands are indeed in private propery. As for why Hugo used the English meaning – it almost seems, especially with Hugo’s interest in the octopuses, that he did not know the animal well (or perhaps at all) prior to his exile in the Channel Islands. Imagine, you haven’t ever seen an octopus before, and suddenly one of these bizarre alien-like animals grasps you by your leg in a dark cave in Sark 🙂 Even though, it may seem suprising that a well educated person wouldn’t have heard of octopus, we must understand that we live in a very different era – and we know very well that many Hugo’s contemporaries learned about the existence of octopuses (or at least who one looks like) actually through his book. This could be an additional reason, why Hugo used in his novel the Sarkese “pyeuvre”, and not the French ‘pouple’, since he wasn’t used to it.

Finally, since there are about 310 milion French speakers today, there is up to more than a quarter bilion people around the globe, who know via the French adopted form (pieuvre), which is practically identical to the original Sarkese form (pyeuvre), at least one word in Sarkese. Nonetheless, there are other languages which adopted the word, though under modified form via French, into their vocabulary, such as Italian (piovra) with more than 60 milion speakers, as well as French based creole languages, such as Haiti Creole (pyèv) with more than 12 milion speakers. The Sarkese word is thus in its original or modified forms present in languages spoken by almost 400 milion people, and with the rise of French in Africa, it will in no that far future, reach half a bilion.

Trivia – famous octopuses of Sark

The most famous Sarkese octopus in the history of the island, was, of course, the one which allegedly attacked Charles Hugo, Victor Hugo’s son, in the caves of lê Bůtike in 1859 and which was the very cause for the French adopting the Sarkese name for octopus later on through Hugo’s novel. According to V. Hugo himself, the octopus, la Pyeuvre dê Bůtike, which was killed in the incident, was about 1.2 m long (four feet) – it should be noted that Hugo says he counted 400 suckers – which clearly couldn’t have been the overall number of its suckers, since octopuses have, in general, about 200 suckers per arm.

one of the western entrances
to lê Bůtike, the Boutiques Caves

Another large specimen had, at an unknown time in the past, a lair somewhere around Bréko and it was said to have actually drowned or at least caused drowning of one fisherman, who was fishing for lobsters (probably surprising the fisherman, if true, while he was collecting lobster pots). Though it is uncertain today where and when the incident happened, the location of the lair of the said octopus was still remembered, when V. Hugo came to Sark in 1859 – and its thanks to V. Hugo again that we know today the story of la Pyeuvre d’Bréko and its victim, as thanks to his fascination in Sarkese octopuses, he did not fail to mention it in his book.

One of the last famous specimens before the total extinction of octopuses in Sark due to the Big Freeze, occupied in the late 40s of the 20th century the popular Venus Pool, l’Ben d’Venus, in Little Sark. In those days, daring children would goad each other to swim in the pool and make la Pyeuvre du Ben d’Venus leave its shelter by offering it limpets.

Trivia – the Sarkese technique

It is generally believed that octopuses were not actively eaten by the Sarkese in the past (if yes, probably in sea food stews with ormers and limpets, which are still popular today in old families) – nevertheless, Victor Hugo reported, that the Sarkese fishermen had developped an effective technique to kill an octopus. The fact that the Sarkese were reportedly famous for handling octopuses easily, makes us assume that octopuses must have been, if not eaten, at least commonly used as bait in the days when they were plenty in Sark.

As for the technique, Hugo explains it was similar to how porpoises were observed to kill octopuses, based on “decapitation”. Although now forgotten, the method of the Sarkese fishermen is without any doubt reflected by Hugo in the way how Gilliatt kills the octopus in his story – slicing one’s knife in the eye area (where the brain is) and making a circle to separate the head from the body – today, the most “humane” way of killing an octopus, and the only one, which can kill the animal immediately if performed correctly, is indeed believed to be a direct cut into the brain between the eyes (the sign of death is sudden disappearence of colour in the whole body, head and tentacles) – however, since tentacles may continue to move, porpoises tend to separate them, and that may be the point of the “decapitation” method the Sarkese developped, perhaps even by having observed porpoises first.

The Extinction and the Return

As said above, the once strong population of the Sarkese giant octopuses, together with any octopuses that lived in the local waters, was completely wiped out or at least radically hit in the winter of 1962/63, known as the Big Freeze, during which the sea around Sark froze, killing most of the local octopuses, size immaterial.

a new era octopus caught in Sark
photo source: Daniel Perrée

There are still a few Sarkese fishermen, for example George Guille, who recall vividly the terrible image of this ecological disaster when the sea finally refroze – pods, pools and caverns filled with hundreds of dead octopuses, all around the island, which must have somehow, in a desperate attempt seeking other octopuses, heat or shelter from the cold, gathered together in groups – a tragic prove of social behaviour of this highly intelligent species, which is still to be better understood by scientists.

It is traditionally held that all octopuses died out that winter – not only in Sark, but in Guernsey too. It is possible that some survived, although in the upcoming years, the waters of the Channel, already overfished, were subdued to more years of uncontrolled and intensive over-fishing, which led to a dramatic change in marine fauna with negative impacts, which most probably were the very last nail to the coffin of the original and famous octopus population which had once prospered in the Channel Islands and especially in Sark – most probably, for eons.

a new era octopus caught in Sark
photo source: Daniel Perrée

According to several local fishermen, to whom we thank for their insights, prior to 2015, there were actually a few occasional signs of the presence of octopuses (such as sucked out lobsters), although apparently just one reported catch which, of course, cannot be compared to the situation before the Big Freee.

Nevertheless, with the introduction of protection of local waters and international cooperation, as it seems, the Channel Islands have been witnessing a process, which could be called the Great Return of the fish, which has brought back to our waters sharks and more marine mammals, which weren’t seen in decades, but are now again settled or at least regularly visiting in the local waters – these were finally followed even by octopuses.

Finally, after an almost 60 year long break, several octopuses were started to be caught by local fisherman (first by Daniel Perrée in 2019 and 2020 and by Jordan de Carteret in 2021), and every since octopuses have been more and more common in Sark which hopefully will again become their home.


Citation: NEUDÖRFL, Martin. pyeuvre/octopus. In: Sark Norman Dictionary Online [on-line]. Published: 31. 01. 2024.

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