TRÊFŁE / clover

photo source: wikimedia

trêfłe“, pronounced [trɛ:fʎ(j)] 🔊, is the Sarkese generic name for “clover”, known in English also as “trefoil” or “shamrock”, covering up to 13 subspecies of the Trifolium family that grow in Sark, from fields and valleys, where we may easily encounter the common “red clover” (Trifolium pratense) or “white clover” (Trif. repens), to cliffs and beaches, where f.e. “subterreanean clover” (Trif. subterraneum) and several other trefoils grow in abundance. The island of Sark is the only place in the Channel Islands where “large trefoil” (Trif. aureum), also known as “golden clover”, is known to grow.

Although there are no specific names for particular clovers established in Sarkese, the main distinction, as in English, may be and generally is based on colour, i.e. “red”, “white”, “yellow” – no non-generic names have been recorded so far.

origin: Gallo-Romance (poss. Greek) / first recorded for Sarkese: 1889 (EE) / current status in the 21st century: preserved, in use
SNDO audio-archive ID: 20201204E, 20220805E etc.

trêfłe” is a masculine invariable uncountable noun (a he-that doesn’t change). This means that as with many other flowers in Sarkese, which are masculine, it is not prefered to say “a clover” or “(some) clovers”, but “du trêfłe“, lit. some clover, as in “I’y a du trêfłe dân l’gárdin.“, meaning “There are (some) clover(s) in the garden.” or “Lê vake sôn á manjẏ du trêfłe.“, “The cows are grazing on clover”, and never “dê trêfłe” or “ûn trêfłe” etc. If we want to give a specific number of clovers for some reason, it is necessary to say one/two/three etc. “flowers of clover” or “pieces of clover”, e.g. “une fłeur d’trêfłe”, lit. one flower of clover, or f.e. “trê mórsyò d’trêfłe”, lit. three pieces of clover, etc.

On the origin

photo source: wikimedia

If we now how to say “three leaves” in Sarkese, which is “trê fyełe”, it is quite natural to assume, that the word “trêfłe” is somehow related, given that clovers/trefoils are known for having usually only three leaves, and of course with regard to the overall similarity – nonetheless – “trêfłe” and “trê fyełe” are pronounced quite differently. And although we could also assume that it is simply a result of a later confusion or contraction, the Sarkese “trêfłe” is no Sark Norman invention, but a word of the same Gallo-Romance origin as of the identical Jersey Norman “trêf’lye”, the French “trèfle”, and other names for clover in many languages spoken today in the Old Gaul.

The shared ancestor word for the name for clover in these languages, Modern French included, is first attested in 1314 as “tresfle”. It appears in the famous work of an influential Norman surgeon, Henri de Mondeville from Western Normandy, La Chirurgie, in which de Mondeville recommends powdered clover with honey when treating ulcers.

photo source: wikimedia

The Sarkese “trêfłe” is an exemplary result of a regular linguistic evolution from the Old Norman “tresfle” within the known rules. Although the later transitions, such as “tresfle”-“trêfłe”, thus pose no problem, the origin of the ancient “tresfle” itself, on the other hand, has been a little bit of a mistery.

The popular theory states, that the Gallo-Romance ancestrial word, identical to the Old Norman “tresfle”, does not originate in the Latin name for clover, “trifolium”, which was formed after the Greek word “triphullon”, but that it actually comes directly from the said Greek word. The theory claims, the word “triphullon”, whose first known written mention comes from a Greek historian Herodotos, the Father of History, who mentions it in his “Historiai”, (although he might have been reffering to a different plant), entered the languages of Gaul somehow via the ancient Greek city of Massala, today’s Marseille in Southern France and later coexisted and prevailed over the Latin name, which is, nonetheless, conserved in some of the languages spoken in France.

For such a claim, that the peoples of Gaul adopted a Greek word for clover in place of local and Romance names for no known reason, there isn’t, however, enough evidence to erase all the doubt. We believe that a possible coexistence of several forms, with one of them perhaps even being the Greek “triphullon”, may have resulted in the obscure “tresfle”. It would also be unwise to exclude completely a logical assumption that unknown forms were simply influenced by the way how Gallo-Romans used to say “three leaves” which could have resulted in unusual alternations.


SNDO audio-archive IDs and historic references:
SNDO audio-archive ID: 20201204E, 20220805E etc. (multiple recordings)
ALEN XXXX (multiple recordings)

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

Relevant SNDO Entries:

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