Bête de Somme.

At the start of 1830, the Pushkin-Delvig camp began a new periodical, «Литературная газета» [The Literary Gazette], to counteract the malign influence of Bulgarin and Grech (the editors of the reactionary Northern Bee); Delvig was editor-in-chief, with Orest Somov as the main critic and assistant. It was not expected to last long (such ventures have always tended to be ephemeral), and in fact was shut down after a year and a half; on April 26 Vyazemsky wrote to Pushkin: “Дельвиг — ленив и ничего не пишет, а выезжает только sur sa bête de somme ou de Somoff” [Delvig is lazy and writes nothing, and he relies exclusively sur sa bête de somme ou de Somoff]. That little pun makes use of the French idiom bête de somme ‘beast of burden,’ which is an interesting relic.

In French, un somme is a nap and une somme is a sum, but this is neither; it’s used only in this phrase, which goes back to the 12th century, and it’s from Late Latin sauma/salma/soma ‘packsaddle,’ derived from Latin sagma, a straight borrowing of Greek σάγμα. It’s allegedly a feminine noun, but how can you tell when it’s only used in this phrase? My question to French speakers is: do you have any sense of this somme as a word in its own right, or is it just an unanalyzable (and presumably mysterious) part of the phrase bête de somme?


  1. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    Not the language you were inquiring about, but in Italian the corresponding noun soma is certainly a word in its own right. You talk about a bestia da soma both literally and figuratively as in your Franco-Russian example. If you’re talking about a literal pack animal—which I never have occasion to: I’m wondering if I’ve ever seen a live mule—then its soma is the burden it’s carrying. In fact, the most natural translation of “packing a mule” that I can think of is mettere la soma al mulo.

    By the way, I doubt that in Italian soma can mean “packsaddle.” That is a basto, while the soma is what you have the animal carry on its basto (or otherwise).

    Poetically, soma can also mean “burden” in the figurative sense, but while this is immediately understood (at least by educated speakers) I cannot imagine ever using it this way myself, so literary and archaic it sounds.

  2. Interesting! I wonder if other Romance languages have it?

  3. “bête de somme ” has always been an unbreakable unit to me. I’d never had the curiosity to look up its etymology.

    Thinking back on it, it’s really weird for what is, alone, two very common words (although somme for sleep is disappearing.) Adding to the confusion is the existence of the Somme river, which crosses the Somme “Département”. The abundance of riches may have just anesthetized me.

    Another interesting tidbit: “bât”, the saddlepack, is used in an equivalent and synonymous construct: “animal de bât” . But you would never say “animal de somme” or “bête de bât”. And “animal de bât” is usually opposed to “animal de trait” – used for pulling ploughs.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Grazie, Giacomo.

    Your explanations for Italian could be translated literally for French. Une bête de somme is indeed a “beast of burden” (usually a mule or a donkey) and if pressed to define la somme (a word only used in this phrase) I would interpret it as an equivalent of le fardeau or la charge ‘burden’. The packsaddle (meant to carry a burden of things, not people) is le bât, the equivalent of Italian il basto, both words being descended from Latin bastum (TLFI dixit).

    But I don’t think that the French word can carry the figurative, poetic meaning sometimes attributed to the Italian word.

    LH, I don’t know why somme in this phrase seems to a native speaker to be feminine rather than masculine, since there is nothing in the phrase to indicate its (grammatical) gender. Perhaps it is because the masculine word is known to everyone, and its meaning ‘nap, siesta’ is totally inacceptable in the context of an animal’s pack, while the meaning ‘burden’ is more compatible with that of ‘sum total’ if the burden consists of several different things. But this explanation is ‘after the fact’. More likely, the reason is that words ending in a (pronounced) consonant (as in somme) are more likely to be feminine than masculine (like bât, which ends in a (pronounced) vowel). (“Likely” does not mean ‘inevitably’, since there are numerous exceptions).

  5. Just for the record, Greek σάγμα (gen. σάγματος) was neuter, not feminine (though it had a feminine near-synonym, σαγή). It was dem ignerant Romans made it feminine. Somewhat curiously, it is derived from PIE *twenk- ‘press, cram, pack’ (cf. Att. σάττω, Ion. σάσσω ‘pack full’ < *twn̥k-je/o-) and related to German zwingen ‘force, compel’ and Zwang ‘coercion’, as in zugzwang.

  6. In Norman we have the expression, porter à soume or porter à somme = to carry on horseback/donkey back etc. Faithe eune somme in Jèrriais means, according to the dictionary, to make up a cartload for the mill. With the disappearance of mills and beasts of burden, I’d assume that this is now interpreted as eune soumme = a sum, a total – rather than anything derived from loads (and which is how I’d have interpreted it myself).

  7. P.S. And “of course” to English thong (OE þwang)

  8. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    According to the dictionaries, French once had somme as a free-standing noun as in Italian, but it no longer does. The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 8th edition (1932-35) says:

    somme, n. f. Charge, fardeau que peut porter un cheval, un mulet, un âne, etc. Il ne s’emploie plus que dans ces expressions : Bête de somme. Cheval de somme.

    The 7th edition (1878) still had:

    somme, s. f. Charge, fardeau que peut porter un cheval, un mulet, un âne, etc. Somme de blé. Somme de vendange. Bête de somme. Cheval de somme.

    Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan all seem to have only a less specific word that includes this specific meaning: animal de carga in the first two and likewise animal de càrrega in the last.

  9. It was also borrowed into Middle English as summe ~ somme, a measure of quantity for grain, onions, nails, etc. Spelt sum, it was still in use in the 17th century. Nails continued to be sold and bought “by the sum” (= 10,000 nails).

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Paul A, merci à vous aussi.

    somme for sleep is disappearing

    Un somme is not just any kind of sleep, it is a short, often unplanned sleep: a nap or siesta. I think I associate it with older people, the kind of thing a grandfather (or perhaps even older person) might say: Je vais faire un petit somme ‘I am going to have a nap’.

    une bête de somme vs un animal de bât, de trait

    The first phrase is much the older one. La bête is descended from the Latin noun bestia, and (la) somme, an othewise obsolete word is also from Latin, both have gone through normal Latin-to-French changes, and both have always been used in concrete contexts (the same is true of the Italian counterparts). Animal started as learned word borrowed with minimal adaptation as an adjective (Lat animale) and later became used as a noun, both words at first in scientific, philosophical etc contexts. The two words have never been exact synonyms in their usage: une bête still has a much more affective meaning than un animal. An insect, for instance, is much more likely to be described familiarly as une petite bête than un petit animal. A person might say to a pet or a rescued animal Viens, ma petite bête but not Viens, mon petit animal. There is a conventional phrase nos amies les bêtes ‘our animal friends’, not (to my knowledge) nos amis les animaux. And la bête does not often have the pejorative meaning of English “beast”: I don’t think anybody would say in English “our beast friends”, let alone “our beastly friends” (unless the intended meaning was something quite different from that of the French phrase!).

    Among other phrases with bête is les bêtes à cornes ‘horned cattle’, the familiar animals raised on farms and ranches. Les animaux à cornes would bring to my mind wild animals such as deer, bison, elk, impala and others, rather than (or in addition to) cows.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    borrowed with minimal adaptation as an adjective (Lat animale)

    Though clearly derived from an adjective, Latin animal (without e) was already a noun.

  12. Also Scots dwang ‘short piece of timber employed in strutting a floor’. These words in dw- are interesting, as David M pointed out some time back: they appear to have gone through the Second Consonant Shift twice: dwang > twang Zwang. First part; second part.

  13. ‘Beast’ is not inevitably pejorative. In a grazing context, it’s possible (in my experience) to ask how many ‘beasts per acre’ you can run on a particular property.

  14. ‘Beast’ is not inevitably pejorative. In a grazing context, it’s possible (in my experience) to ask how many ‘beasts per acre’ you can run on a particular property.

    Packing houses, at least in Canada, use the term cattle beast(s).

  15. marie-lucie says:

    ‘Beast’ is not inevitably pejorative

    I did not say it was “inevitably” pejorative, but it often is, especially when NOT referring to animals.

  16. they appear to have gone through the Second Consonant Shift twice

    They shifted, and shifted again, and then shifted some more. OHG still had the expected reflexes of initial *t: dwengen < *þwanɣ-ī/ija-, dwingan < *þwinɣ-i/a- (with a generalised Vernerian variant instead of *þwinx-i/a-, corresponding regularly to OSax. thwingan etc.), -dūhen < *þ(w)unx-ī/ija-; and note that the Second Shift proper happened earlier than the voicing and hardening of *þ (which is sometimes regarded as its final phase). It was only then that the /dw/ cluster started spinning out of control. In MHG it merged with earlier /tw/, and finally the two of them together joined the much larger lexical set of /ʦw/. So you could say that PGmc. *t shifted only once, *ð twice, and *þ even thrice!

  17. Although выезжает means “relies on (something/someone for help)”, it is literally “to ride out of/into” someplace so Delwig was riding Somoff like a donkey or a mule. But the pun only works OK if Somoff is pronounced the Russian way, with the stress on the first syllable.

  18. I did not say it was “inevitably” pejorative, but it often is, especially when NOT referring to animals.

    That’s why I misread the title the first time I saw it. I had to look again to see that it was BÊTE DE SOMME and not BÊTE DE LA SOMME. My first reaction was, “What? Another French cryptid?” — you know, like la Bête du Gévaudan, and most recently la Bête de Disneyland Paris.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    the voicing and hardening of

    I’m not actually sure voicing was involved… although some kind of lenition clearly was, because the Early OHG reflex of had two allophones that were sometimes spelled th and dh.

  20. Stefan Holm says:

    m-l: somme … is known to everyone, and its meaning ‘nap, siesta’

    Just for the record: ‘Sleep’ (noun) in Swedish is sömn. ‘Sleep’ (verb) is sova, cognate to sanskrit svápiti according to the SAOB. Even ‘sofa’, Sw soffa, seems to belong here.Söva is ‘make (somebody) sleep’.‘

    Fall asleep’ is somna, but that looks like a regular inchoative in ‘-na’, like kallna, ‘cool down’, vitna, ‘turn white’, mörkna, ‘darken’, ‘get dark’ and numerous others.

    The last example shows, that the English inchoative marker (i.e. expressing a change of state) is ‘-en’ (strengthen, sharpen etc.). A verb like ‘warn’, Sw. varna thus means ‘make somebody aware’, i.e. you are not aware but in the very state of being so. So if a silly Swede were to say the completely ungrammatical sentence ‘he sleepened’, it would maybe intuitively be understood by native speakers as ‘he fell asleep’?

  21. Even ‘sofa’, Sw soffa, seems to belong here.

    It’s a Wanderwort < Turkish and ultimately < Arabic suffah ‘bench, couch’, so “seems” is the operative word.

    He sleepened

    Insofar as -en is a living ending, it attaches to adjectives to make verbs meaning ‘become more completely X’, like brighten, deepen, blacken. To my ear, then, sleepen sounds vaguely like ‘become more sleepy’ or ‘become more deeply asleep’ rather than ‘fall asleep’.

  22. Sorry I’m jumping in late, but I wanted to ask a few fellow native speakers of French what their intuitions were, since I was recently made aware that as a historical linguist my own intuitions are not the typical speaker’s. So, ze results (Hmm, I’m in Canada, so I imagine “de” would be more appropriate here): de results (Drumroll, please! A dramatic clash of cymbals and a bright flash of light too, if you can manage it):

    1-‘Somme’ in “bête de somme” appears to be a cranberry morph: no native speaker I asked (including a professor of literature) knew what the noun in isolation meant, although all knew “bête de somme”.

    2-‘bât’ shares that status: all the speakers I asked recognized the word solely because of the expression “Là où le bât blesse”, used figuratively to refer to the weak part of a claim/argument.

    3-“Somme”, the masculine noun meaning “nap”, is alive and kicking.

    4-Stefan Holm: I am not a native speaker of English, so do please take this CUM GRANO SALIS (and I would love to hear native anglophones’ reaction/impressions), but while “to sleepen” doesn’t make sense to me, “to ensleepen” sounds to my ear like a wonderful potential neologism meaning “to cause someone to fall asleep”. To my ear it should be transitive: “This professor is so boring that he ensleepened half his students in class the other day!”.

    I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if this word accidentally ‘slipped’ into my English: I will need to monitor myself carefully…

  23. Thanks, the poll results are extremely enlightening (and not at all ensleepening)!

  24. And then there is the Russian сума: http://ru.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/сума

  25. David Marjanović says:

    They embiggen the smallest mind. ^_^

  26. Piotr: Hmm. Was it indeed “dem ignerant Romans” who made “sagma” feminine from day 1? Here’s an alternate scenario: what if “sagma” was originally borrowed as a neuter plural/collective, and was much later re-analyzed as a feminine singular, like so many native Latin neuter plurals which in the transition to Romance were re-analyzed as feminine singular nouns (because of the common final /a/ in both instances).

    Thoughts, anyone?

  27. Stephen Bruce says:

    La bataille est finie, et les bêtes de somme,
    Tranquilles, semblent faire un somme dans la Somme.

  28. Etienne: Here’s an alternate scenario: what if “sagma” was originally borrowed as a neuter plural/collective, and was much later re-analyzed as a feminine singular, like so many native Latin neuter plurals which in the transition to Romance were re-analyzed as feminine singular nouns (because of the common final /a/ in both instances).

    But we have an old nasal stem here (formally, < *twn̥k-mn̥, though the zero-grade of the root can’t be original). In Greek, this type forms plurals in -mata (σάγματα). Therefore, a “cultivated” Latin adaptation should have been sagma, sagmatis, pl. sagmata (neuter, like stigma, stigmatis, stigmata), but in popular usage the nom.sg. was interpreted as a feminine on account of its final -a (reflecting a syllabic nasal), hence the “low” variant sagma, sagmae, pl. sagmae.

  29. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    Etienne: Lewis and Short have sagma, sagmae as the only entry for the word. I don’t have access to the OLD and anyway it may have no such entry since it seems the word is post-classical.

  30. I have the OLD (bought at a library sale for $20, w00t!), and you are correct, it has no entry for sagma. (It would be between sagittula ‘a little arrow’ and sagmen ‘a bundle of grain torn up by its earth, by which the Fetiales were rendered inviolate on foreign soil.’)

  31. Piotr: my scenario is still possible if we assume that the Greek loan was a popular rather than a learned borrowing: “sagma” could originally have been a neuter plural used in a collective sense (“cattle” or the like) and was only at a later date re-analyzed as a feminine singular. This is just a guess, and to be maximally fair here’s an argument against it: to my knowledge there is no trace of a singular neuter form *SAGMUM anywhere in Latin or Romance.

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