Bird language

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From an anonymous correspondent:

I had wanted to ask you about niǎoyǔ 鸟语 (“bird language”) after listening to an interview with Garry Kasparov. During the interview, he and the interviewer, the economist Tyler Cowen, get into a fairly abtruse discussion of chess. I’ll paste the most relevant part of the transcript:

KASPAROV: Now you move back to these things, chess computers, and there’s certain things that people should realize. I hate talking about these things. We say in Russia it’s using a “bird language,” because you’re asking me questions and I’m not sure that — 99 percent of our listeners — they understand exactly what we are talking about.

What he calls “bird language” seems very like how niǎoyǔ 鸟语 (“bird language”) was used when I encountered it in China. Do you know if there was something like a calque made from Russian or Chinese made into the other or if it is just coincidence?

So, the first question we have to ask Language Log readers is which Russian term Kasparov was thinking of when he said “bird language” in English and what it signifies in Russian.  The second question is how long this term has been used in Russian.

The expression “niǎoyǔ 鸟语” has been in Chinese since at least the 5th century.  It occurs in the Book of the Later Han which was compiled at that time. In the 86th scroll of that work, the speech of southern and southwestern non-Sinitic peoples is said to resemble the language of birds (“niǎoyǔ 鸟语”).

Hòu Hànshū 後漢書, Nán Mán xīnán Yí zhuàn 南蠻西南夷傳

Among the Dunhuang documents, there is an elaborate text (ca. 9th c.) that describes a society made up of birds who hold meetings and talk to each other, for which see Lewis Mayo, “The Order of Birds in Guiyi Jun Dunhuang,” East Asian History, 20 (2000:  12): 45-48.

It’s not only in Chinese, and apparently also in Russian, that human speech which is difficult to comprehend may be compared to the language of birds.

In mythology, medieval literature and occultism, the language of the birds is postulated as a mystical, perfect divine language, green language, adamic language, Enochian, angelic language or a mythical or magical language used by birds to communicate with the initiated.

Sources:  English Wikipedia; Chinese Wikipedia

Another text that I have had the pleasure of studying is The Conference of the Birds or Speech of the Birds (Persian: منطق الطیر‎‎, Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr, also known as مقامات الطیور Maqāmāt-uṭ-Ṭuyūr; 1177).  This is a celebrated literary masterpiece of Persian literature by the poet Farid ud-Din Attar, commonly known as Attar of Nishapur.

Source

There is also a Tibetan poem entitled “Buddha’s Law Among the Birds” (Bya chos rin chen ‘phreng ba), which similarly presumes avian power of speech.  Translated into English by my teacher, Edward Conze, it is attributed to the 10th karmapa Chos dbyings rdo rje (Chöying Dorjé [1604-1674]).

Notes by Lauran Hartley:

Virtanen translates the title “The Dharma among the Birds, a Precious Garland” — which I prefer and describes the premise:  “a special cuckoo has the main role: the bird is a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who teaches dharma to the other birds.”

In college I greatly enjoyed reading Chaucer‘s (1343?–1400) Parlement of Foules (also known as the Parliament of Foules, Parlement of Briddes, Assembly of Fowls, Assemble of Foules, or The Parliament of Birds).

Source

Thus the conceit of birds having language is old and widespread, but this is very different from the “Whistled language ” (5/26/17) that may sound like birdsong but is actually based on one or another variety of human speech.  The legendary and imaginative types of “bird language” described above are also far removed from the crude assumptions about bird linguistics that underlie countless sensational headlines.  And they have nothing to do with paririe dogs talking (5/16/17) to each other.

[Thanks to Dan Boucher, Chris Beckwith, Lauran Hartley, Juha Janhunen, Matthew Kapstein, Johan Elverskog, Gray Tuttle, and Robbie Barnett]



22 Comments »

  1. Joyce Melton said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 1:06 am

    “The twittering of birds” is an English expression for incomprehensible speech or nonsense. And of course, there’s Twitter itself.

  2. DG said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 1:31 am

    For what it’s worth, here’s a Russian Wikipedia article for this:
    https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9F%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%87%D0%B8%D0%B9_%D1%8F%D0%B7%D1%8B%D0%BA

    The first sentence says something like, “Bird language – an idiom for a type of speech overloaded by jargon and phrasing that obscures meaning, understandable only to a few, or generally poorly understandable”.

    They refer to a 19th century Russian astronomer Perevoschikov who supposedly invented the expression with this meaning. (https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9F%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B2%D0%BE%D1%89%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%B2,_%D0%94%D0%BC%D0%B8%D1%82%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%B9_%D0%9C%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%B2%D0%B5%D0%B5%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%87), no English article for him as he is not sufficiently famous.

  3. Pewi said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 2:19 am

    ‘Bird language’ in Russian is «птичий язык» (ptitɕij jazɨk). Here’s an article in Russian Wikipedia about it: https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Птичий_язык

    Essentially it’s a kind of (quasi-)scientific language flooded with obscure terms that few could understand.

  4. Pewi said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 2:27 am

    Oops, sent it too early. The aforementioned article contains some etymological information about it, stating that there was a system of birdlike cryptolingo. Spies and watchmen would imitate birds’ chirping to stay out of the enemy’s attention — I assume that sounded close to whistled languages.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 5:47 am

    I love all the comments, starting with the first, which tickled my fancy.

    Late last night when I wrote the o.p., I had intended to mention that birds do have a system of communication that can rigorously and scientifically be studied on its own terms (see, e.g., “Bird syntax again” [3/9/16]), but was distracted by a midnight Poeish phrase that kept running through my mind: “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore'”.

  6. David L said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 7:55 am

    Sounds like “gobbledygook,’ which of course comes from the ‘gobble gobble’ sound of turkeys.

    OK, I made that last part up. Unless it’s true, in which case I take credit.

  7. Keith said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 8:53 am

    I encountered the term when studying in Moscow.

    Since I was also studying French, as well as Russian, at the time, one day the conversation with some locals naturally got around to comparing English, Russian and French.

    One of my interlocutors told me that Russians considered French to be “Птичий язык” (“bird language”) because it sounds to their ears like the singing of birds: pretty and pleasant but totally incomprehensible.

    The Wikipedia article cited by Pewi also has a link to an article (in Russian, link below along with a link to a much shorter English version) about a folk-tale (“сказка”, “skazka”)collected by Alexander Afanasyev, in which a boy interprets the singing of nightingales, who sing predictions of the next-days’s events.

    That Russian article has an illustration from the eleventh century of a Norse version of the tale, in which Siegfried [sic] (Sigurd) gains mastery of the language of birds by eating the “parts of the snake”. The norse version is usually Sigurd, who drinks the blood and eats the heart of the dragon Fafnir, thereby gaining both mastery of the language of birds and also the gift of prophecy.

    https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9F%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%87%D0%B8%D0%B9_%D1%8F%D0%B7%D1%8B%D0%BA_(%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B0%D0%B7%D0%BA%D0%B0)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Language_of_the_Birds

  8. languagehat said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 8:55 am

    There’s a great quote from Herzen at that Russian Wikipedia article:

    In 1844 I met Perevoshchik at Shchepkin’s and sat next to him at dinner. Finally he couldn’t stand it any longer and said “What a thing Hegel’s philosophy is to occupy yourself with, sir. I have read, sir, your articles; I couldn’t understand a thing, it’s bird language, sir.” For a long time I laughed at this verdict, which is to say that for a long time I didn’t understand that our language at that time was in fact awful, and if it was bird language, the bird was probably Minerva’s owl.

    (I threw in as many “sir”s as I dared, but there’s no way to reproduce in English the comic effect of the excessively piled-up Russian slovo-er-s.)

  9. ardj said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 10:45 am

    Unless the language of the birds is indeed angelic or Enochian or some such, I suppose it is mere coincidence that the OED online word of the day is “owlhoot”

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 11:08 am

    In the movie “Sneakers,” Robert Redford and his crew are trying to retrace the route taken by some bad guys who had earlier kidnapped Redford. He recalls hearing a “cocktail party” while he was blindfolded in the kidnap vehicle. It turns out that he actually heard geese chattering.
    Below is a link to the relevant clip. Unfortunately, it gets cut off rather abruptly.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuIheGaiFLM

  11. Thorin said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 11:27 am

    In Turkish, “kuş dili” (language of birds) is a term for argot.

  12. SO said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 9:02 pm

    Also cf. jueshe 鴃舌 ‘shrike tongue’ in Mengzi (http://ctext.org/mengzi/teng-wen-gong-i#n13264).

  13. Ken said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 9:46 pm

    Was the sense of “niǎoyǔ” more like “the beautiful sounds birds make” or “the bar-bar-bar sounds non-Greek speakers make”?

  14. Bloix said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 10:53 pm

    Perhaps someone who knows him could tell Geoffrey Pullum that a search for “how soon we forget” results in 7 million hits and “how soon they forget” results in 17 million hits.

  15. Markonsea said,

    June 17, 2017 @ 4:05 am

    David L (above) for Congress! The Online Etymology Dictionary says “gobbledygook” was “first used by U.S. Rep. Maury Maverick, D.-Texas, (1895-1954), a grandson of the original maverick and chairman of U.S. Smaller War Plants Corporation during World War II, in a memo dated March 30, 1944, banning ‘gobbledygook language’ and mock-threateaning, ‘anyone using the words activation or implementation will be shot’. Maverick said he made up the word in imitation of turkey noise. Another word for it, coined about the same time, was ‘bafflegab’ (1952).” The OED supplies supporting quotes.

  16. e2efour said,

    June 17, 2017 @ 4:57 am

    The Russian online dictionary (Multitran) gives for Птичий язык “gobbledegook” (mentioned above) and “gibberish”, among other words (http://www.multitran.ru/c/m.exe?CL=1&s=%CF%F2%E8%F7%E8%E9+%FF%E7%FB%EA&l1=1),

  17. Adam said,

    June 17, 2017 @ 6:05 am

    I’m surprised no-one’s mentioned ‘jargon’ which prior to the 16th century meant “The inarticulate utterance of birds, or a vocal sound resembling it; twittering, chattering” (OED), and our modern usage seems to have developed from there.

  18. Adam said,

    June 17, 2017 @ 6:07 am

    (Or rather, not explicitly – perhaps this what Victor was getting at with the reference to Chaucer, who uses the word in the original sense. Although perhaps not in the Parlement of Foules.)

  19. Boudica said,

    June 17, 2017 @ 7:35 pm

    The first thing that came to my mind was the Mary Poppins story about the baby twins John and Barbara who could talk to a starling until they grow a little older and forget the language. Of course Mary Poppins never forgot.

  20. Harold said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 2:30 am

    In Romanian, there’s the term, “păsărește”, which also fits the general theme of semantic (e.g. jargon, gobbledygook) or phonetic (e.g. gibberish) unintelligibility discussed here. It also refers to a language game that’s very much like ubbi dubbi, where you insert “pa”, “pe”, “pi” “pu,” or “po” between every letter.

  21. William said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 5:52 pm

    I was taught at school that barbarian comes from the Greek barbaros, meaning someone who speaks like a bird (ie unintelligible)

  22. Yuval said,

    June 21, 2017 @ 10:27 am

    Is this seriously an entire “bird language” post + discussion with not a single “Pigeon Language” pun?

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