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New research suggests that Victor Hugo's octopus originates from Sark

New research suggests that Victor Hugo's octopus originates from Sark

Friday 23 July 2021

New research suggests that Victor Hugo's octopus originates from Sark


Victor Hugo’s love letter to Guernsey can also be read as a love letter to Sark, with the Toilers of the Sea influenced not only by the smaller island, but by its language too.

If you open the front page of Toilers of the Sea you’ll find a dedication to the ‘rock of hospitality’ and the ‘noble little nation of the sea’, referring to the island he spent 15 years exiled on, Guernsey.

The book tells the story of Gilliat, brought to Guernsey by his mother. He undertakes a mission to retrieve a sunken ship engine, ultimately wanting to win the heart of Mess Lethierry.

Hugo paints Gilliat as a poet-turned-hero, who battles an octopus near the fictional Douvres Reef. It’s here, during Gilliat’s adventures at sea, that Hugo weaves in his love for Sark. 

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Pictured: Hugo dedicated the book to Guernsey and its people in 1866.

A common and popular claim is that Hugo introduced the Guernesiais word for octopus into the French language, however it has since been discovered that this is a misconception, and it was actually Hugo’s interest in Sarkese and the island’s octopus infested waters that led him to both include the octopus and name it ‘pieuvre’.

Express recently spoke to a linguist from the Czech Republic, who continues to teach Sercquiais to children in Sark remotely; Martin Neudorfl has been working with the last four speakers of the ancient language.

During his time researching and documenting Sercquiais for a PHD thesis Mr Neudorfl learned of Hugo’s use of the word ‘pieuvre’ and how this is actually a Sercquiais word.

“[In his notes] Hugo explains that during his stay in Sark he became intrigued with the Norman language spoken by the Sarkese for its archaicity,” said Mr Neudorfl.

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Pictured: “Sark was also where the idea of an antagonist octopus for his book was born,” said Mr Neudorfl, citing an octopus attack on Hugo’s son.

The assumption has always been that the Guernesiais word for octopus ‘peuvre’ was changed to ‘pieuvre’ by Hugo to make it sound more terrifying.

“The word ‘pieuvre’ corresponds exactly with how the word octopus is pronounced in Sercquiais. Therefore, Victor didn't modify any Norman word, he simply used and transcribed a word he had learned from the Sarkese and their stories about local octopuses,” asserts Mr Neudorfl.

Express corroborated this idea with the Chair of the Victor Hugo in Guernsey Society, Dinah Bott.

“It’s an easy assumption to make,” said Ms Bott, suggesting that unless you knew what you were looking at, it would be easy to say its Guernsey French.

Express then spoke to Guernsey Language Consultant, Yan Marquis, about the claim that Serquiese made it into Toilers and not Guernesiais.

"All I can say with certainty is that the Guernsey word is peuvre, which is not pieuvre, which I believe is the word used in Sark and Jersey.

"I can go with the Sark influence - the word I've heard [for octopus] is not the word Victor Hugo used," he said.

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Pictured: Fishermen in Sark used to hate octopus in their waters because they ate all the lobster; "there was a plague in 1868, just after Toilers, the Sarkese weren't very keen," said Ms Bott. [Credit - Smash Fishing]

Beyond inclusions of Sercquiais, Ms Bott explained the parallels between locations in the book and Sark itself.

“In my opinion it’s a book split into two – when Gilliat leaves Guernsey and ‘crosses the water’ he becomes a hero, and the Douvres Reef is clearly Sark,” she said.

The fictional Douvres Reef doesn’t exist, but Les Autelets does. It’s a rock formation around the coast of Sark and researchers have found that Hugo modelled the Douvre ‘double-rock’ on this outcrop.

Meanwhile, it won't be too long before Guernsey, its waters, and potentially Sark, will be heading to the big screen. A film production is set to begin filming next year.

Sure to be included is the iconic octopus attack; Hugo's monster from Sark.

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