ÓRME / tree

photo source: wikimedia

órme“, s. f., pronounced [ɔrm(ə)] 🔊, is the Sarkese word for “tree”, originating in the Latin word for “elm tree”, “órme” (masculine), with which it shares the form, but not the grammatical gender. In Sark Norman, “órme” (feminine), as the primary generic term for “tree”, fully replaced the original Gallo-Romance word for tree, “árbre“, which narrowed its meaning to a specific sub-category or rather two concepts, covering both the idea of “treelet” or “young tree”, but also “shrubby tree” no matter the size, and whose use is restricted to this sub-category only, and several fixed idioms.

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

“órme”, in the meaning of “tree”, is a countable invariable feminine noun (a she-word that does not change but may be counted). There is therefore no difference in pronunciation or writing between the singular and plural forms, “une órme”, a/one tree, “dz’órme”, (some) trees. As for the pronunciation, the ‘ó’ is stark and simple.

The word is directly related to the Insular Norman “orme”, the Continental Norman “orme” or the French “orme”, all issued from the Latin “ulmus”, elm tree. It shares similarities especially with the Guernsey Norman “orme”, which also has the double meaning of 1) “elm tree” and 2) “tree”.

une órme VS un órme

The original meaning of the word “órme” in Old Norman was “elm tree”, from the Latin “ulmus”, (also elm tree), which due to rhotacization (a shift from ‘l’ to ‘r’) gave our “órme” of today. This word, with its original meaning “elm tree”, is masculine (a he-word) in Sarkese, as it was in Gallo-Romance, but unlike in Latin (names of trees, despite the ending ‘-us’ were feminine for the Romans). Nonetheless, within the meaning of “tree”, the feminine gender is dominantly prefered in Sarkese. Thus we can easily distinguish, if necessary, between “tree”-she and “elm tree”-he by the grammatical gender of the form “órme”.

“órme”, f., “tree”, should not be confused with “órme” m., “elm tree”
photo source: wikimedia

Rather than some sub-intentional way of distinguishing between the two meanings (“tree” or “elm tree”), the gender-based distinction may be due to a known process through which invariable Romance words ending in ‘-e’ and with a vowel at their front may tend (if originally masculine in Norman) to switch to the female grammatical gender, such as “âne” or even the other word for tree, “árbre”. As specific names for trees are, however, masculine, it is possible that “órme” in the meaning of “elm tree” retained the original gender by analogy, whilst in the new meaning of “tree”, it switched to feminine. In the two youngest idiolects, however, this distinction seems to have weakened. On the other hand, the current situation may simply be a residual of general confusion of the genders, dating back to when “órme”, hadn’t switched to masculine yet, although only within the meaninig of “tree”.

Nevertheless, in Guernsey Norman, the word “orme”, meaning both “tree” and “elm tree”, apparently tends to “feminine” too. In Jèrriais, however, “orme” means only “elm tree”, never “tree” in general, but interestingly, both genders are common like in Sark (although within the meaning of “elm tree” which is unacceptable for the oldest Sarkese speakers). Thus in the three Norman languages of the Channel Islands, the word “órme” simultaneously embraced, or actually readopted, to some extent, the feminine gender.

une órme VS une árbre

The original word for tree in Latin was “arbor”, which survived in most of the Romance languages, in its original meaning, either as “arbor”, or in different forms, such as “arbul”, “arvol”, “arvore”, “arbre”, “abre”, “árbre” etc. In the Channel Islands though, as well as in the city of Créances in Mainland Normandy, but also in Brittany and even the far Romania, the respective successor forms weakened for some reason and got generally replaced by other words.

In several Gallo-Romance varieties spoken around the Gulf of Saint Malo, the word for ‘tree’, “arbre”, was replaced by a) ‘elm tree’ or b) ‘wood’.
photo source: wikimedia

In Jersey, the word for “wood”, “bouais”, prevailed, as in at least two Gallo-speaking locations in Upper Brittany, while in the Norman languages of Guernsey and Sark, but also in the Norman variety spoken around Créances, a coastal Norman city facing the Channel Islands, the local “arbre” and “árbre” were replaced by the name for elm tree, which, in Créances and Guernsey, had taken the form of “ǔ̥rme” and “orme”, and “órme” in Sarkese.

The cause for the replacement of “árbre” by “órme”, which is first documented at the end of the 19th century for Créances, the only other place in Normandy, except for the Channel Islands where such shift is reported to have occurred, and only later on in the 20th century for Guernsey and Sark, is practically unknown. Intriguingly, even George Métivier does not report on any discrepancies in Insular Norman when compared to French, regarding “árbre” and “órme”.

In the Norman speaking communities of Guernsey and Sark, it has been traditionally claimed that it was due to elm tree once being the most common tree on the two islands, until Dutch Elm Disease decimated the local elm population. On the other hand, since the same process occurred in Jersey, but with a different result (not to mention Brittany or Romania), there must have been another reason or at least multiple factors enforcing this intriguing shift and especially the weaking of the word “arbre”-“árbre” itself.

In case of Sarkese, a simultaneous merger of “árbre” with the Old Norman “arbreisel” and “arbustre”, both meaning “shrub” and “bush”, may have occurred, since no descendent forms exist in Sark Norman. Nevertheless, for an unusual lack of historic data and reports on this matter from the whole of the Channel Islands, we may not answer the crucial question why and when any time soon, although comparative research focused on the similarities with the other concerned Romance varieties spoken around the Gulf of Saint Malo may shed more light on this problem in the future.

“árbre” narrowed its meaning in Sarkese to “shrubby tree” or “treelet”
photo source: wikimedia

Whatever the actual historic reason, in Sarkese, the word “árbre” narrowed its meaning to a specific concept and idea, covering 1) “treelet” and “young tree” as well as 2) “shrubby tree” or “ornamental shrub” size and age immaterial, similar to “stromek” in Czech, while “órme” was adopted as the primary generic name for tree in Sark Norman (as in Guernsey Norman), retaining the meaning of elm tree when masculine. Thus, even though the generic “órme”-tree is often understood as a superordinate hypernym to “árbre”, which is its subordinate hyponym in some contexts, in general, in most situations, we understand “órme” and “árbre” as mutually exclusive categories, as in “órme á frit“, fruit trees, “árbre á frit“, fruit tree-like shrubs, no matter the actual size.

In this respect, it should be noted that even though “árbre” is often translated as “small tree” in English, “small tree” may actually be translated into Sarkese both as “ptite órme” and “ptite árbre”, depending on the nature of the tree. A distinction between “órme” and “árbre” based on the size of the tree, therefore isn’t always functional (as with the Czech “stromek”). Moreover, even though we hesitate to say “grant’árbre” on its own, a tree categorized as “árbre” may actually grow as tall as a regular tree, such as bay laurel tree or elder tree.

photo source: wikimedia

Finally, the English word “shrub”, in the meaning known and used in Channel Island English, known in Sarkese as “chróbe, does not correspond with the Sarkese “árbre”, although for British English speakers, the Sarkese “árbre” and the English “shrub” may actually be equivalent in some contexts. Nevertheless, “chróbe is reserved for little or no-value shrubbery.

To conclude, some tree-like plants which may grow in the form of a tree and a shrub are usually considered “árbre”, rather than “órme”, no matter the size and as a distinctive category of tree-like plant, for example bay laurel tree, “lorẏ“, apricot “apricotẏ or “mêłẏ“. Finally, the word “órme” is, no matter the size of the tree, not used for “árbre d’Nůė“, Christmas tree, and “jòne árbre“, young tree, no matter its nature in its maturity


As Élŷ Brévîn, a 17th century minister of Sark, reports, in his days, according to the old Norman customs, if a widow had cut down a larger tree of any kind (apple tree, chestnut tree etc.) on the farm or a property to be inherited by the heirs without their permission, she forfeited her right to the dower.


Citation: NEUDÖRFL, Martin. órme/tree. In: Sark Norman Dictionary Online [on-line]. https://www.bonjhur.net/sndo-vocab-orme

Relevant SNDO Entries:

→ back to the WILD FLORA OF SARK section