Bie(f), Ble(f).

I was investigating the odd-looking Russian word бьеф ‘reach, level, pond’ (верхний бьеф ‘upper pond, head water’) and discovered it was borrowed from French bief, which made sense… but where was that from? TLFi tells the tale:

Prononc. : [bjεf]. Antérieurement à Passy 1914 on indique également des prononc. sans f (Gattel 1841, Nod. 1844, Fél. 1851, Littré, DG). Sous la forme biez le mot est transcrit par Land. 1834 : bi-èze. Pour Mart. Comment prononce 1913, p. 350, au contraire on ne prononce pas de -z dans biez. Étymol. et Hist. 1. Ca 1135 bied « lit d’un cours d’eau » (Pelerinage Charlemagne, éd. E. Koschwitz et G. Thurau, 775 dans T.-L.) − xivᵉs., B. de Sebourg, ibid.; 2. 1248 bié « canal qui amène l’eau à la roue d’un moulin » (Ch. des D. de Bret. fᵈˢBiz., Bibl. Nant. dans Gdf. Compl.); la forme bief est donnée en 1635 par Monet, Invantaire des deus langues françoise et latine, mais elle ne s’est imposée qu’au xxᵉs.; 3. 1834 (Land. : Biez. Dans un canal à écluses, intervalle compris entre deux écluses). Très prob., et de même que les corresp. de l’Italie du Nord (REW³), d’un gaul. *bedum « canal, fosse » (gallois bedd, breton bez « tombe », Dottin, p. 232) en rapport avec le lat. fodere « creuser » (cf. Ern.-Meillet, s.v. fodire); le f final représente le traitement de -d- intervocalique (devenu ensuite final) dans un certain nombre de mots anc. d’orig. germ. ou celt. (cf. *bladu > *blavu [v. emblaver] > a. fr. blef, fr. mod. blé; germ. -bodu dans Elbeuf).

In other words, the final -f didn’t use to be pronounced, and the word was variously written bief, biez, bié, or bied; the suggested etymology is from a Gaulish bedum ‘canal, ditch,’ and the development of d to f is compared to that in blé ‘wheat’ < blef < *bladu. One wonders why blef lost its final f, while that in bief remained.


  1. One wonders why blef lost its final f, while that in bief remained.

    According to TLFi text you quote, there was no original “final f” in antecedents of today’s bief. It popped up once in 1635, then disappeared again. A final “f” became common only in the 20C. It didn’t “remain”, it was pasted on late in the losing game against French Konsonantenschwund. That’s all I can extract from the quote.

    1135 bied
    1248 bié
    1635 la forme bief est donnée en 1635 par Monet, … mais elle ne s’est imposée qu’au xxᵉs.
    1834 Biez

  2. This may be a quantum phoneme that can manifest as “d”, zero, “f” or “z”, depending on when it is observed. A phontum of linguistic opera.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    GPC agrees (reasonably enough) that the Welsh bedd “grave”, mentioned there, is cognate to Latin fodere “dig” (and hence to fossa), so “canal” is probably no great stretch despite first appearances.

    (Re phonta: though this is quite irrelevant as far as the developments in French go, Welsh final -dd /ð/ often alternates with -f /v/: the “Cardiff” phenomenon, where modern Welsh has innovated Caerdydd, though the place is naturally Fort Taff etymologically, not Fort Day.)

  4. Widening my horizons, I found this:

    GPC is the only standard historical dictionary of the Welsh language. It is broadly comparable in method and scope to the Oxford English Dictionary.

    “Broadly comparable” is rather mousey. What do they mean, do you think ? Would not “comparable” toot court have served ? Perhaps it is only a shamefaced way of admitting that theirs is bigger than ours.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    I think “aspires to be comparable” would be rather more realistic.

  6. Perhaps hindered by a dearth of demand and thus of supply, or vice versa:

    The Dictionary can be contacted but there may be no-one in the office to answer the phone every day.

    Is it not technically possible in Wales to forward calls to a home office ?

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, if you can afford to have an electric telephone at home, like some sort of Englishman

  8. It sounds deliciously rural. Do retirement homes there vet foreigners ?

  9. Well. One point is that the OED omits words (except in etymologies) that became obsolete before 1150; this policy has been in place since serious work began in 1879. The GPC records everything back to the oldest Old Welsh from 800 or so, and in principle would list even older material if any were found.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    It would be a pity not to, given that what we have of Old Welsh as such is very scanty indeed; moreover, the division between Old and Middle Welsh is much less clear than between Old and Middle English, because there was no break in the literary tradition, and a fair number of works which only exist in Middle Welsh recensions must clearly have been actually composed in the Old Welsh period, but have got gradually updated by successive copyists. You could make an argument, even, that the Old/Middle division was primarily a change of orthographic conventions (Ifor Williams exhibited some actual cases where Middle Welsh scribes have evidently mistranscribed a manuscript which was originally in the old orthography.)

  11. Bof!

    (Dramatic shrug.)

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