PEMFÊ / hemlock

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pemfê“, s. m., pronounced [pɛ̃fɑ:ɪ̯] 🔊, is the Sarkese name of Old Celtic origin for “hemlock” (Conium maculatum), an extremely toxic wild flower, growing in Sark, which is dangerous both to humans and animals if consumed. It is also a common name for “hemlock water-dropwort” (Oenanthe crocata), another highly poisonous flower prefering more humid enviroment, such as streams, known as “pemfê d’yò“.

The word “pemfê” may be, in Sarkese, as in some other languages in which the word exists, used as a generic name for any plant from the Apiaceae family (Umbelliferae), in the specific meaning of “tall hemlock-like weeds” with pentamerous flowers (five petals and five stems), such as “bènárde“, “aléxandre“, “fanůł“, “cârote sòvaje” etc.

origin: Old Celtic (prob. Gaulish) / first recorded for Sarkese: 1970s (PB) / current status in the 21st century: preserved, in use

“pemfê” is an uncountable invariable masculine noun (a he-word that does not change and cannot be counted). We are therefore don’t usualy say “a/one hemlock” or “two hemlocks” etc., but preferebly “du pemfê”, with the so-called partitive. If necessary, we may specify a number of plants by literarly saying “one flower of hemlock” or “one piece of hemlock”, etc. f.e. “une fłeǔr d’pemfê”, “deù fłeur d’pemfê”, so “one flower of hemlock”, “two flowers of hemlock”, or with the word “mórsě”, piece, f.e. “trê mórsyò d’pemfê”, lit. three pieces of hemlock, etc.

The pronunciation of “pemfê” is regular – the ‘m’ in ’em’ is silent and the preceeding ‘e’ is nasal. The ‘ê’-ending is pronounced almost as the ‘y’ in the English “my” or the ‘ie’ in “tie”, but it is more open and it has to be long, [ɑ:ɪ̯], so [pɛ̃fɑ:ɪ̯] in FSP. If a word follows immediately within a syntagme, however it hanges regularly to [pɛ̃fwɛ:], as in “chu’pemfê-lá”. Nevertheless, since “pemfê” is a noun, this regular change occures less frequently than with verbal forms.

On the meaning

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In today’s Sarkese, “pemfꔑs primary meaning is “hemlock”, but it is also the name of “hemlock water-dropwort”, another very toxic and genetically close plant that grows along streams in Sark. To distinguish the two plants, we simply add “d’yò” for water-dropwort, i.e. “pemfê d’yò“, reflecting its different preference in environment. The word “pemfê” may, nonethless, be applied to any similarly looking plant of the Apiaceae family, such as “bènárde” or “aléxandre“, although not when refering to these plants specifically, but when refering to some tall “hemlock-like weeds” in general, with “weeds” being otherwise called “sércłe“.

Our “pemfê” is directly related to the Jersey Norman “penfaîs”, meaning hemlock too, to the Guernsey Norman “pôin-faie”, meaning hogweed and hemlock water-dropwort, to the Galo “pemfé”, “penfé”, “pimpin” etc., designating several similar plants, hemlock included, and most importantly to the Breton “pempiz”.

On the origin – the Gauls again!

In Sarkese, a number of flowers are known to bear names of Old Celtic origin. In Sark Norman and, several other Galo-Romance languages, we conserve (though very often under alternated forms, due to linguistic changes over past centuries) ancient names that the Old Gauls, a Celtic people that inhabited today’s France, gave to the respective flowers. The Sarkese “pemfê” is one of these Gaulish words that keep the memory of a Celtic tongue which became extinct hundreds of years ago.

‘pempes’ recorded in 1499 in the Catholicon

The original meaning of the word was “five fingers”, probably something like “pempe bissis” in Old Celtic, clearly refering to the five stems of the plant. The only language in which the meaning is still clear today is the Celtic language of Lower Brittany, Breton, in which the local “pempiz”, recorded already in the 15th century, by Jehan Lagadeuc, as ‘pempes’, is still quite easily dechiffrable, as in Modern Breton “pemp” means five and “biz” finger, which together give “pemp’piz”, if contracted, “pempiz”.

Given that in Breton “pempiz”, also “pempez” (historically ‘pempes’), is the name for both “hemlock water-dropwort” and “hemlock”, as in Sarkese, two questions arise: 1) what was the original flower behind the word in Gaulish and 2) is the word originally truly Gaulish, or actually Breton?

To our first question, we can be sure that the original meaning of the word was one or more plants of the Apiceae family. If not all (without any distinction simply refering to five stems and with no negative connotations), then given that English may be conserving an old Brythonic variant of the name in one of the folk names of hemlock water-dropwort, sometimes called “deadman’s fingers“, we may assume that the name was of negative character, from the very beginning, in relation to the toxic members of the given plant family. Only later on, in such a case, the name would have included even non-toxic plants as the Insular varieties of the Norman language and the Gallo language show today. Moreover, with regard to Breton (the primary meaning is “water-dropwort“) and English (the only meaning), it is also possible that the original meaning was “water-dropwort” only and even in Sarkese, but due to a later development, the main meaning changed in Sark to common hemlock, with “hemlock water-dropwort” reclassified as “pemfê d’yò“. However, it could be, that in Upper Brittany and in the Channel Islands, the name may have been fluid, regarding its meaning ever since, as it used to be in Breton.

“Dead man’s fingers”
photo source: wikimedia

To our second question, there are three possibilities regarding its origin – either the name is a) originally Pan-Celtic, b) Gaulish (Continental), or c) Insular (Brythonic, including Welsh, Cornish and Breton). In the first case, “pemfê”-“pempiz” would be “original” in both Breton (via its Brythonic heritage) and Insular Norman (via the Gaulish substrate). The second option would be based on the assumption that the Old Breton language adopted the name only after the invasion of Brittons to Armorica. The third option, the least probable, postulates that the term was introduced into the local pre-Norman Romance language somehow only after the invasion of the Brittons.

Given that the Welsh language nor the Cornish language don’t know the name at all, we could incline to the option number 2, but then again, there is the English folk name “dead man’s finger” which could show some pre-Anglo-Saxon Celtic remnant. It thus could be that the term was indeed Pan-Celtic, but only thanks the Gaulish substrate, it got conserved in the languages of Normandy and Brittany, while it disappeared from the Celtic languages of Britain.


Citation: NEUDÖRFL, Martin. pemfê/hemlock. In: Sark Norman Dictionary Online [on-line].

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