Speech like birds chirping

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When human beings hear others speaking but are unable to comprehend what is being said, to what do they compare such speech?  We will gain one common characterization from this article about a prematurely dying Iraqi dialect:

"Iraqis amid Mosul's silent ruins fear the loss of a dialect", by Sam Kimball, SFGate (2/1/19)

It begins thus:

For centuries, residents of Mosul have spoken a unique form of Arabic enriched by the Iraqi city's long history as a crossroads of civilization, a singsong dialect that many now fear will die out after years of war and displacement.

Much of Mosul's Old City, where speakers of the dialect are concentrated, was completely destroyed in the war against the Islamic State group. Thousands of residents were killed in months of heavy fighting, and tens of thousands fled, taking with them the city's local patois and memories of its more cosmopolitan past.

Written Arabic is the same from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, but local dialects vary widely from country to country, and sometimes even from one town to the next. The differences can extend far beyond pronunciation, to basic vocabulary and verb forms. Some dialects differ so much that native speakers resort to English or French to communicate with one another.

The Maslawi dialect borrows words from Turkish, Persian and Kurdish, reflecting the tumultuous history of Mosul and the surrounding plains of Ninevah. It includes the classical "q" sound, pronounced like the English "k" but emanating from deep in the throat. Instead of rolling the "r" sound, Maslawis pronounce it as "gh," similar to Hebrew or French.

In the Mosul dialect, an arched gateway is a "qantagha," a minaret is a "mnagha," a narrow ally is an "awji" and a soccer ball is a "tappi" — words that would seem strange even to someone from Baghdad.

Iraqis from elsewhere in the country have long mocked the dialect as sounding effeminate. Walid says young men in Mosul often switch to another dialect when outsiders pass by so they won't be teased.

One young man who is from Mosul's Old City, but who cannot speak Maslawi because his ancestors came from the rural hinterlands, characterizes the dialect thus:

"When our Maslawi friend speaks quickly, and we can't understand him, we say he's talking like a chicken," he said. "They speak like chickens, or the chirping of birds. It sounds light and soft. Some people say it sounds like women's talk."

This reminds me of Mencius (372-289 BC) when he referred in ch. 3A4 of the book named after him to the "shrike-tongued southern barbarian" and of Zhuang Zi (370-287 BC), another ancient Chinese thinker, when in ch. 2 of the book named after him, he contrasted human speech with "the chirps of hatchlings".

It's remarkable that people who are allegedly speaking dialects of the same language (in this case Arabic) would refer to each other's speech as sounding like birds chirping.  On the other hand, we often quite naturally compare other types of human behavior to that of various animals, e.g., "she eats like a bird / pig".

Recommended reading

"Bird language" (6/15/17)

"Whistled language" (5/26/17)

"Transcendent Tonality" (11/5/15)

[H.t. Charles Belov]


  1. Thaomas said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 10:36 am

    Shold not the various "dialects" of Arabic in fact be called "languages?" Spanish and Romanian are not "dialects" of Latin.

  2. chakri said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 10:59 am

    yes why Should not the various "dialects" of Arabic, in fact, be called "languages?" Spanish and Romanian are not "dialects" of Latin

  3. Gruen said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 11:39 am

    @Thaomas True that Moslawi could be rightly termed a distinct language from, say, the Arabic spoken in the Maghreb, but you could hardly speak of the varieties within Iraq as constituting several different languages. Language continuums do not lend themselves to being classified readily into a simplistic language-dialect framework, and this is particularly so with Arabic, where there was not such a preoccupation with "national languages" as with the Latinate languages that any regional varieties that would bridge them have been suppressed.

  4. John Lavagnino said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 1:50 pm

    In The Tale of Genji, the action moves to a remote area for awhile, and Genji's friend To no Chujo has something of the same reaction to the way the locals talk, though he tries to think well of them. "Their speech was as incomprehensible as the chirping of birds, but no doubt their feelings were like his own. He brightened their lives with clothes and other gifts." Or at least that's how Edward Seidensticker translates it. Not quite the same as saying their speech actually sounds like chirping: it's only that it seems that far from something To no Chujo can understand.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    February 4, 2019 @ 11:36 pm

    Thank you as always for enlightening what I pass along to you.

  6. R. Fenwick said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 3:45 am

    @Victor Mair: "When human beings hear others speaking but are unable to comprehend what is being said, to what do they compare such speech?"

    Along a similar vein is an old story about the languages of the Caucasus, which I understand to be probably Turkish or Persian in origin, but in the early 20th century was adapted and told to the German linguist Adolf Dirr specifically about (and in) Ubykh. I translate moderately freely here from the Ubykh text, narrated by an unknown speaker:

    There once was a country in the east, and in that country there was a great ruler, a man of great intelligence and good heart, who had by his side a very well-read scribe. One day the sheikh said to his scribe: "You have learned much, even though you are still young; I will give you whatever money you need to travel around all the countries of this world, and learn the languages of all the people in them. Travel for five years, and then return to tell me about the languages you have learned."
    That scribe got on his way, and went to each country, staying in those countries for five years altogether. At last he returned, adorned gorgeously in silks and velvets, carrying a sack on his back. He came up to the sheikh and bowed, and said, "I have learned all the languages of the world."
    "Show me what you have learned!" replied the sheikh. And the scribe began to speak to him in Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Greek, and all the other languages he had learned. Then the sheikh said, "That is wonderful, but what is inside the sack on your back?"
    "Well," replied the scribe, "if I said I had spoken to you in all the languages there are, I would be deceiving you; there is still one more." And he took the sack from off his back, opened it, and poured out a stream of pebbles onto the floor.
    "What is this?" asked the sheikh.
    And the scribe replied, "This is the Ubykh language!"

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 8:30 am

    @R. Fenwick:

    Lovely story! A thousand thanks for sharing it.

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