A New (Ancient) French Verb: Dorveiller Posted by on Dec 14, 2017 in Vocabulary

Have you ever learned something that has completely changed the way you look at the world? I recently found out that, up until the Industrial Revolution, people around the world usually slept in segmented sleep. But what is segmented sleep, and what does it have to do with French and French verbs? Read on below!

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Before the advent of electricity (and even the gas lamp), people’s nighttime and sleeping habits were completely different than they are today. Obviously, that’s because there wasn’t light available to read or to socialize, or to do many other activities. But, back in the pre-industrial era, nighttime itself was perceived differently. Without the comfort of lights and the social life electric lighting has brought modern humans, the night was a dangerous and scary place. People didn’t venture out of their houses, and they couldn’t get much done inside their houses without light either (During medieval times, candles were also a benefit only the rich could afford). So, what did they do? They slept!

The historian Roger Ekrich discovered how this changed pre-Industrial people’s sleep habits in the early 2000s. What he found in various writing dating from ancient Greece until pre-industrial Britain was that there were many references across languages to “first sleep” and “second sleep.” He compiled lists of all this primary evidence and came to one obvious conclusion: In the pre-industrial age, people fell asleep after dusk, probably around 8 p.m. or so depending on the region and the season, slept for a period of about four hours, and then woke up for a period of one or two hours, before falling back to sleep again for another four hours or so. The first period of sleep was called, in English, “first sleep,” or, in French, “le premier sommeil,” and the second sleep, or “le deuxième sommeil.” During the period of time people were awake, they would spend time thinking, praying, reading, or even socializing if someone else in the house was up. Apparently, the period of time in between these two sleeps was categorized by a feeling of peace and relaxation because of the release of prolactin while we are sleeping. Interesting, right?

So…what does this have to do with French? It turns out that French actually has an ancient word for this practice: dorveiller. In modern French, dorveille refers to a dreamlike semi-conscious state in between sleeping. Dorveiller (the verb) and dorveille (the noun) actually come from a compound (concaténation) of two French verbs: dormir (to sleep) and veiller (to be awake or alert). In old French, dorveiller and dorveille seem to refer entirely to the period of time between these two normal periods of sleep during the night. In fact, dorveiller’s true meaning was largely lost until the twenty-first century. In modern French, to faire la dorveille means to try to force sleep during periods of insomnia.

Another interesting (non-French) tidbit? In English, this period of time between the two sleeps was known as “the Watch.”

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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!


  1. Victoria McSwain:

    I love this… As a student of the French language, having lived in Belgium for a few years and visiting France as much as possible during this time, this blog is interesting and quite useful to keep up with my language skills and everything Francophone! Thank you.

    Victoria McSwain
    Maryland, USA

  2. Jean Barrucand:

    just to prove that we still learn.
    I am French born citizen and I learn this new word from you.
    thank you.
    by the way, I use your notes to help my students.