SNGO: lz’Otlê

The four Otlê from the North

lz’Otlê“, pronounced [l(ə/ɛ:)z ɔʊ̯tlɑ:ɪ̯] 🔊 in FSP, lit. “the Little Altars” in Old Norman, is the Sarkese name of one of the island’s most iconic symbols – four mighty solitary rocks on its north-western coast within la Bê dê Bančê, known in Anglo-French as “the Autelets“. Each of these magnificent rocks, which form the extended border between the sub-bays of l’Pǒṙ du Můlin and la Saňŷ, has its own name in Sark Norman: l’Grant Otlét, lit. “the Greater Little Altar”, the main rock, pierced by a prominent slit, known as l’Párleuř, lit. “the Sitting Room”, with l’Ptit Otlét, lit. “the Lesser Little Altar”, the proper Otlê in fishermen’s jargon, and l’Błȧn Otlét, lit. “the White Lesser Altar”, with l’Êpile, lit. “the Pin”, the former named for its colour and the latter for its shape, which are closer to la Puènte du Můlin, the neighbouring headland.

origin: Gallo-Romance / nature: four coastal rocks / first known mention: 1816 / Anglo-French name: the Autelets
for the relevant SNGO interactive map location link, click here

The name “lz’Otlê” literarly means “the Little Altars” in Old Norman. It is therefore the plural form of the noun “otlét” or “autelet”, “little altar”, with the definite article in plural. Its singular form “otlét”, is found in the names of three of the four Otlê: l’Grant Otlét, l’Ptit Otlét and l’Błȧn Otlét, except for l’Êpile. It should be noted though, that the Old Norman word “otlét”-“autelet”, little altar, as well as the primary Norman word for “altar”, “otél“-“autel”, from which the diminutive “otlét” is derived, were not preserved into Modern Sarkese except for these toponyms, as they have been completely replaced, in normal speech, by the protestant term for altar, “tabłe d’la cómuňon”, lit. “communion table”, which is most probably due to the spefific local religious reality and history (the dominating Reformed and Methodist traditions prior to 1922).

The pronunciation is regular, meaning that the final ‘-ê’ in the plural form regularly changes its pronunciation depedning on stress and contact, from [ɑ:ɪ̯] in open stressed position, to [ɛ:] in non-stressed position. The ‘o’, originating in the rare Late Gallo-Romance contraction of ‘al’, is pronounced as a regular ‘o’, [ɔʊ̯]. The non-standard form “Otłê”, with a soft ‘ł’, has been recorded, but is considered a mispronunciation, being perhaps caused by an erouneous analogy to forms such as “chapłê“.

On the geomorphology

The formation of lz’Otlê, called “the Autelets” in Anglo-French, consists of four massive coastal rocks within la Bê dê Bančê, the sea quadrant off the north-western coast of the island. The rocks may have been part of once a greater headland, swallowed by the sea long time ago, whose remaining part is today called la Puènte du Můlin, lit. “the Headland of the Mill”, which makes the Otlê an extended border betwen the two neighbouring sub-bays of l’Pǒṙ du Můlin, which used to be one of the island’s main anchoring bay, and la Saňŷ. The four rocks may be divided into two pairs separated by a gap of sea and shore – the two proper Otlê and l’Błȧn Otlét with l’Êpile closer to the mainland.

The Otlê from top of l’Châtě d’la Prinze d’Bércâł

The two core rocks are l’Grant Otlét, “the Greater Little Altar”, which is, as the name idicates, the largest of the four, and l’Ptit Otlét, “the Lesser Little Altar”, which is the shortest and directly adjacent to the former. Being the most prominent rock of the group, l’Grân Otlét, is very often called simply l’Otlét, “the Little Altar”. It is also an imporant fishining mark (alignment orientation point) for localizing fishing spots in the area of la Bê dê Bančê. Moreover, it is slit thought by a covered crevice, called l’Párleuř, lit. “the Sitting Room”, which the skilled Sarkese fishermen use as a fishining mark for spots north of Bréko. On the other hand, l’Ptit Otlét wasn’t ever used as a mark – it should be noted though, that some have claimed that the name “l’Ptit Otlét” was once used as another name for l’Błȧn Otlét, which would, however, make the former rock nameless. Nevertheless, in its narrower meaning, “lz’Otlê” may denote l’Grân Otlét with l’Ptit Otlét only, without l’Błȧn Otlét and l’Êpile, which may indicate that attributing the name l’Ptit Otlét to l’Błȧn Otlét could be a later confusion among non-fishermen folk.

The other pair of the group, consists of two more column-like rocks, l’Błȧn Otlét, which got its name for shining whiter than the other three Otlê, when viewed from South and West in the right daylight, and finally l’Êpile, the only “altar” that does not have the word “otlét”, in its name, having been christened “the Pin” for its pointy shape, distinctive from the rest of the formation. l’Błȧn Otlét is also used as a fishing mark for the less known spots west of Bréko.

On the origin of the name

The main rock of the formation, l’Grân Otlét
with the visible crack, known as l’Párleuř

The Old Norman word “otlét”, which is conserved in the name of “lz’Otlê” (in plural) and the names of the respective rocks (in singular), is a diminutive form derived from the Gallo-Romance word “otél”, “autel” etc., meaning “altar”, issued from the late alernation of the Latin “altare”, meaning “altar” too. The diminutive “otlét” therefore means, or at least used to mean “little altar” in Old Norman.

As for the English translation “little altar(s)”, the “little” part may be slightly confusing, since English has lost most of its functional diminutives. “otlét”=”little altar” does not have to apriori mean “little altar” in the physical sense, as compared to the idea of some “bigger altars”. The “little”, represented in the word “otlét” by the functional ending ‘-ét’ and ‘-ê’ in plural, thus doesn’t stand only for physical “smallness”, but for “familiarity”, “closeness” and “affection” too. In the name “lz’Otlê”, we shouldn’t therefore see automatically only “small altars”, but mainly an expression of some sort of “familiarty” that the Old Norman fishermen had built with the rocks over the centuries, fishing in their vicinity and using them as fishing marks.

It should also be noted, that both the Old Norman “otlét”, little altar, and “otél”, altar, which would be homonymic to the word “ôtél“, hotel, in Modern Sarkese, haven’t been preserved on Sark into the 21st century in normal speech. The original Old Norman word for “altar” has been actually completely replaced by the protestant term “tabłe d’la cómuňon“, lit. “communion table”, most probably due to the specific Methodist and Reformed heritage of the island, since before 1922 Sark was Anglican mainly in name, rather than in practice. If “otél” or “otlét” were to be used in the meaning of “altar” today, instead of the common “tabłe d’la cómuňon”, it would be considered historicisms.

This fact tells us on the history of the naming at least one important thing, that the name must have been given to the rocks before the word disappeared from the language. Nevertheless, as with most of the rocks, cliffs and bays around the coast of Sark, with a few exceptions, it is unknown who and when called our Otlê “lz’Otlê”, although as with any prominent rocks, we may assume, that the four “altars” were well known to the Norman fishermen under this name prior to the recolonisation of Sark in the 16th century. As for why were the rocks given such names, we do not grope in the dark so much.

lz’Otlê from la Saňŷ

The primary association is, of course, up to one’s imagination. Nevertheless, we may easily see “altars” in our four rocks – or at least, in the largest one, l’Grant Otlét, which is often called simply l’Otlét, “the Altar”. Moreover, some claim one is supposed to see a praying man in l’Ptit Otlét, kneeling in front of l’Grant Ôtlét, however it seems more probable, that l’Ptit Otlét was identified as a kneeling-bench in front the proper “altar”.

Despite this association being the most probable reason why these rocks were called “altars” in the first place, we should not forget that the whole area, which the rocks border, l’Pǒṙ du Můlin, “the Mill Bay”, has always, in the memory of the comunity and through its name, been associated with the ancient settlement of monks living on the island of Sark one thousand years ago.

Not only that the given sub-bay used to be used as one of the four primary anchoring spots in l’Grân Séṙ, Big Sark, but as the name of l’Pǒṙ du Můlin indicates, an ancient water mill, operated by the monks of the convent, founded in the 6th century by Sên’Maguâře, Saint Magloire, once stood on the stream over the bay.

Today, it is of course practically impossible to determine whether this could have played any role in the naming of the rocks, be it by local fishermen who could have related the rocks to the holy men or actually by the monks themselves – after all, according to some claim, a hermitage for the monks was allegedly built on top of the opposite Tintajeu with a view directly at the “altars”. Nevertheless, since l’Pǒṙ du Můlin represents not only one of the places occupied on the island since the ancient times, with a direct relation to the monk community, but also an area with the only two known place names in Sark, which are linguistically so obscure that may indeed indicate pre-modern colonization ancestry, la Pegaňe and the already mentioned Titanjeu, we cannot simply dismiss even such fanciful idea as an option.

Finally, there is also one more claim as for the origin of the name: that the Sarkese allegedly called the rocks “altars”, with regard to their popularity among birds for nesting, seeing them as some sort of altars for birds where they “get married”. So for we were able to identify these claims only in non-Sarkese sources, with one Anglo-French variation on the name, “les Autelets des Mauves”, which could be translated into Sarkese as “lz’Otlê è Mòve”, “the Sea-gulls’ Altars”. However, no such name have ever been recorded in the past decades in Sark and may simply be a romantic variation based on the analogy to the “Chapěle è Mòve”.


The Otlê were used as fishing marks by the Sarkese fishermen, mainly to localize fishing spots North and West of the isle of Bréko. When consulting books of marks, it should be remembered, that even though we usually call the fours rocks “lz’Otlê” as a whole, traditionally, in fishermen’s jargon, “lz’Otlê” often stands for l’Gran Otlét and l’Ptit Otlét only, while l’Błȧn Otlét and l’Êpile are named specifically if needed for a mark. This should be kept in mind, since a slight shift on the sea when aligning the Otlê may make a correct localization imposisble.


Citation: NEUDÖRFL, Martin. lz’Ôtlê. In: Sark Norman Gazetteer Online [on-line].

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