What Is Birdsong?

Das Vogelkonzert (The Bird Concert) by Jan Brueghel the Younger, c. 1640-1645 via Wikimedia Commons

If you have been educated to carry out academic research, JSTOR is familiar to you. And if not, but you have the sort of curiosity demonstrated in our pages, then JSTOR daily might be a good companion, as demonstrated here:

Every Good Bird Does Fine

Is birdsong music, speech, or something else altogether? The question has raged for millennia, drawing in everyone from St. Augustine to Virginia Woolf.

To some extent, we all know music when we hear it: a melody, a rhythm, a progression of individual notes that, taken together, elevates the whole into the realm of auditory art. Continue reading

The Tangled Tree, Noodling With Lucidity & Grace


Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Thanks to the New York Times for Parul Sehgal’s review of the new book by one of science writing‘s greats, reminding us that we have not featured Quammen enough:

David Quammen Turns Tough Science Into Page-Turning Pleasure


David QuammenCreditLynn Donaldson

Love a writer — read him carefully and closely — and you’ll pick up on his pet words, the ones he reaches for repeatedly, like a baseball player with a trusted bat.

Nabokov famously had “mauve.” Elizabeth Hardwick had “motive.” Edward St. Aubyn has “gasp.” The statistician Ben Blatt has called these “cinnamon words” (after Ray Bradbury’s fondness for the names of spices), and they’re often hilariously telling, revealing the essence of a writer, something idiosyncratic in his perception of the world and himself. Is it any wonder that Dickens, that cash-strapped father of 10, was so crazy about “pinch” as noun, verb — even name?

For the science writer David Quammen that word is — sublimely — “noodle.” The verb pops up all over his work — and could any word suit him better? He is our greatest living chronicler of the natural world yet was never formally trained in the sciences. He started out as a novelist, a protégé of Robert Penn Warren, and stumbled into nonfiction, his boyhood passion for rooting around in forests now taking him to the canopies of the Amazon and the cliff lines of Komodo island. (The root of “amateur,” remember, is Latin for “lover.”) Continue reading

Poisson d’Avril Redux Two

It’s a rare occasion that we republish one of our posts on this site – but April 1st is a special day, is it not? And as the weather warms, a little bit of lighthearted Spring frolicking won’t go amiss.

It was unlike me to have missed acknowledging the Vernal Equinox last week but please note that it wasn’t forgotten. In much of the northern hemisphere spring began sprouting all over the place, sometimes unseasonably early, and the first day of spring was observed in all its glory in Crist’s Holi series.

So I’m being careful not to miss April 1st and in the spirit of that celebration am sharing some of artist Ken Brown‘s collection of turn of the century (the 19th to the 20th that is!) French fantasy postcards that celebrate “Poisson d’Avril”, the French equivalent of April 1st or April Fools’ Day. Continue reading

The Etymology of Tea/Chai

Image © Quartz, qz.com

Most of us have either ordered a chai latte at a café before, or at least a cup of tea. I, for one, always assumed that chai was just the Hindi word for tea, and that in the US this always meant tea with certain spices, versus “normal” tea being plain old green or black tea leaves. But instead of getting into semantics, I want to share some of the etymology behind the two words, tea and chai, that I learned from an article in Quartz by Nikhil Sonnad:

“With a few minor exceptions, there are really only two ways to say ‘tea’ in the world. One is like the English term— in Spanish and tee in Afrikaans are two examples. The other is some variation of cha, like chay in Hindi.

Both versions come from China. How they spread around the world offers a clear picture of how globalization worked before ‘globalization’ was a term anybody used. The words that sound like ‘cha’ spread across land, along the Silk Road. The ‘tea’-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders bringing the novel leaves back to Europe.”

Continue reading

Bats & Social Mechanisms Of Learning


The social and vocal interactions of a colony of fruit bats competing for position in a sleeping cluster. By LEE HARTEN on Publish DateOctober 31, 2017. Photo by Mickey Samuni-Blank.

Yesterday’s topic touched on a taboo of sorts, but in the interest of furthering our understanding of one of the most remarkable organisms on the planet; today, likewise, thanks to Steph Yin for her note on creatures sometimes considered creepy but whose environmental services are remarkably valuable:

Teaching Bats to Say ‘Move Out of My Way’ in Many Dialects

I was raised by grandparents who spoke only Mandarin, so I did not speak English until I went to preschool in Philadelphia. There, guided by English-speaking teachers and surrounded by toddlers babbling in loose English, I adopted the new language quickly.

Young bats may not be so different. Continue reading

Investing In Cultural Heritage


The Cultural Heritage Center is an $8 million investment in the community. Elissa Nadworny/NPR

It is not a question I have had to ponder (the opening line of the story below) for myself, but I get it. Losing the land, through battle, through treaties that are not honored, or otherwise, is an obvious existential threat for any community, and has been since the dawn of civilization. Invisible assets such as language, like any cultural heritage, also called intangible patrimony, are less obviously existentially important. But anyone who ponders it realizes that the loss of a language or another intangible component of cultural heritage matters to all of us, not only those who are at immediate and direct risk of its extinction. In the same way biodiversity matters, so does this.

And it is an underlying logic and motivator of our initiative with Ramon tree and its role in Mayan foodways. In earlier posts on the subject that I emphasized the environmental wonder of Ramon, but it is really a cultural heritage story, still to be told at Chan Chich Lodge. Meanwhile thanks to Melissa Block at National Public Radio (USA) for this story about one communities efforts along a related path:

A Native Village In Alaska Where The Past Is Key To The Future

What does it mean to lose your land, your language, and your heritage?

For Alaska Natives, these are existential threats.

On a trip to Southeast Alaska, I traveled to one village that is finding new ways to survive: Klukwan, ancestral home of the Tlingit tribe. Continue reading

For The Wordies In Our Midst


A galley proof shows some of the work that went into adding “ginormous” to Merriam-Webster’s 2007 collegiate dictionary. Charles Krupa/AP

We care about the meaning and use of words about as much as we care about the specific themes words are used in these pages to evoke in all manner of variation: conservation, community, collaboration, food, etc. Among us are perhaps some repentant grammar scolds, so thanks to the Atlantic’s Megan Garber for this review, which I was led to read after listening to an interview with Kory Stamper (click the image above to go to that podcast):

The Case Against the Grammar Scolds

The lexicographer Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, is an eloquent defense of a “live and let live” approach to English.

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Louis du Mont / Getty

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Keeping Shakespeare in Mind

Illustration by Mathew McFarren

Illustration by Mathew McFarren

Quite a few of our team can attest to the power of a liberal arts education, especially when put in such a joyful context.

Scott L. Newstok’s convocation speech to the Rhodes College class of 2020 embraces this joy, adding the cheeky tweak of asking the incoming class to approach their college experience in the “spirit of the 16th century”.

Building a bridge to the 16th century must seem like a perverse prescription for today’s ills. I’m the first to admit that English Renaissance pedagogy was rigid and rightly mocked for its domineering pedants. Few of you would be eager to wake up before 6 a.m. to say mandatory prayers, or to be lashed for tardiness, much less translate Latin for hours on end every day of the week. Could there be a system more antithetical to our own contemporary ideals of student-centered, present-focused, and career-oriented education?

Yet this system somehow managed to nurture world-shifting thinkers, including those who launched the Scientific Revolution. This education fostered some of the very habits of mind endorsed by both the National Education Association and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning: critical thinking; clear communication; collaboration; and creativity. (To these “4Cs,” I would add “curiosity.”) Given that your own education has fallen far short of those laudable goals, I urge you to reconsider Shakespeare’s intellectual formation: that is, not what he purportedly thought — about law or love or leadership — but how he thought. An apparently rigid educational system could, paradoxically, induce liberated thinking.

“Take advantage of the autonomy and opportunities that college permits by approaching it in the spirit of the 16th century. You’ll become capable of a level of precision, inventiveness, and empathy worthy to be called Shakespearean.”
So how can you think like Shakespeare?

Continue reading

The Essayist Essay


A student at the University of Chicago, which recently declared itself a space safe from safe spaces. PHOTOGRAPH BY B. O’KANE / ALAMY

I have just read the most remarkable short essay (or is it a blog post?), the best in a very long time because it is eloquent, wrestles with important ideas, and is very timely. Although the title of the essay has a reference to a divisive character who I do not look forward to reading more about, I nonetheless waded in because the writer has written some of my favorite reported pieces in the last couple years.

And it was rewarded quickly, because as soon as the second paragraph he used a word that I did not know, a beautiful word. And followed that with a couple beautiful sentences opening the third paragraph. I was hooked. And in less than half an hour I was fully rewarded with inspiration and motivation.

Essays and the essayists have been the topic of numerous posts here over the years, because we have many language-lovers and word-players among our ranks. (For silly example, the first word in the title of this post is meant to convey “the most essay-ish of all” while using the word that normally just means someone who writes an essay.)  But also because, as we have tried to also communicate, words matter alot in translating ideas and ideals into actions. So, may I recommend: Continue reading

A Conversation of Whistles

Steep hills surround the village of Kuskoy, high in the mountains above Turkey's Black Sea coast. Some villagers here can still understand the old "bird language," a form of whistled Turkish used to communicate across these deep valleys. Peter Kenyon/NPR

Steep hills surround the village of Kuskoy. Some villagers here can still understand the old “bird language,” a form of whistled Turkish used to communicate across these deep valleys. PHOTO: Peter Kenyon/NPR

Is it always necessary to use words to communicate? Theoretically, there’s verbal communication and its non-verbal counterpart of body language, gestures, and the like. What if the communication is to pass over valleys and hills – spontaneously? Then, a whistled language – with its origin in bird calls – is the answer. Ask the “bird whistlers”.

In a remote mountain village high above Turkey’s Black Sea coast, there are villagers who still communicate across valleys by whistling. Not just whistling as in a non-verbal, “Hey, you!” But actually using what they call their “bird language,” Turkish words expressed as a series of piercing whistles.

The village is Kuskoy, and it’s inhabited by farmers who raise tea, corn, beets and other crops, and also keep livestock. The landscape is unusual by Turkish standards, and the residents are also considered a bit eccentric by other Turks.

Continue reading

More a Passion Than a Language – Catalan

The estelada, the flag of Catalan independence, during a demonstration in Barcelona. Photograph: Manu Fernandez/AP

The estelada, the flag of Catalan independence, during a demonstration in Barcelona. Photograph: Manu Fernandez/AP

Catalonia,the northeastern corner of Spain, is heading to polls. A move in which we could possibly see a new independent state. Amid the political predictions, the election narrative closely shadows what has held this population together. The Catalan language. One that finds its being in the fact that banning something could lead to its preservation.

This Catalan reaction is also expressed by a Catalan writer exiled in Mexico, Pere Calders, in his 1955 short story, “Catalans in the World”. A Catalan traveller in the Far East, at an evening party encounters a parrot which, to his surprise, utters Catalan phrases. He was overcome by emotion: “Many were the things which made us different but there was a language which made us one… Early that morning, when I left, I had a softer heart than the day I arrived.”

Continue reading

Mind Your Language

As global trade expanded through European conquests of the East Indies, the flow of Indian words into English gathered momentum. PHOTO: EDL

As global trade expanded through European conquests of the East Indies, the flow of Indian words into English gathered momentum. PHOTO: EDL

Recently, we discussed Indian classical music as a ground of collaborations and exchanges. Cultural hegemony aside, we’d rooted for the European violin which is a mainstay at temple concerts and for the clarinet and trombone, which we may be lucky to see in music arrangements. Today, it’s about language. About how India gave the world worlds including pundit, jungle, nirvana, and more.

“Ginger, pepper and indigo entered English via ancient routes: they reflect the early Greek and Roman trade with India and come through Greek and Latin into English,” says Kate Teltscher. “Ginger comes from Malayalam in Kerala, travels through Greek and Latin into Old French and Old English, and then the word and plant become a global commodity. In the 15th Century, it’s introduced into the Caribbean and Africa and it grows, so the word, the plant and the spice spread across the world.” “The Portuguese conquest of Goa dates back to the 16th Century, and mango, and curry, both come to us via Portuguese – mango began as ‘mangai’ in Malayalam and Tamil, entered Portuguese as ‘manga’ and then English with an ‘o’ ending,” she says.

Continue reading

What’s That You Hear on Uganda’s Streets?

Uganda has the world’s youngest population, with over 78% below 30 years of age. PHOTO: campustimesug.com

Uganda has the world’s youngest population, with over 78% below 30 years of age. PHOTO: campustimesug.com

Uganda is a ‘young’ country if the above numbers are anything go by. And that makes the nation’s present population one that is acclimatized to he ways of the English language. A consequence of it is the development of a new language  – Luyaaye. Designated an Urban Youth Language (informal varieties, the new variant is a combination of mostly English, Sheng (a Swahili-based cant, originating among the urban underclass of Nairobi, Kenya), and other Sudanese languages. Now, why should anybody pay attention to this nascent dialect, that is less rigid than traditional languages and mainly involves word play? And should its dark past be forgotten, the one about the language helping criminals do their business?

“Programmes have been carried out to spread information about AIDS but even with increased dissemination there was a decrease in the take-up of that information,” she said. “When asked what would help, people said ‘speak our language’.

Continue reading

Kathryn Schulz, Come To Kerala

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Past invitations have been sent to environmentally-oriented illustrators, to entrepreneurial conservation artists, to sandplay free spirits, to wildlife management scientists, and to food prodigies; but not enough attention has been paid, in our invitations, to word specialists. So, moving right along, Kathryn please be our guest. We would love to host you here and/or here and/or here.

We have not read the book in the link above, nor even a review of the book, but we are linking to its homepage because there you will find not only information about her book but also links to the two TED talks given by the author, whose profession is listed as Wrongologist. Catchy titles are not what catch us. Scintillating writing on the meaning of words does. For that, you could not do much better than starting here, which will also justify our invitation, as wordplay appreciators, to one of the best:

What Part of “No, Totally” Don’t You Understand?


Not long ago, I walked into a friend’s kitchen and found her opening one of those evil, impossible-to-breach plastic blister packages with a can opener. This worked, and struck me as brilliant, but I mention it only to illustrate a characteristic that I admire in our species: given almost any entity, we will find a way to use it for something other than its intended purpose. We commandeer cafeteria trays to go sledding, “The Power Broker” to prop open the door, the Internet to look at kittens. We do this with words as well—time was, spam was just Spam—but, lately, we have gone in for a particularly dramatic appropriation. In certain situations, it seems, we have started using “no” to mean “yes.”

Here’s Lena Dunham demonstrating this development, during a conversation with the comedian Marc Maron on his podcast “WTF.” The two are talking about people who reflexively disparage modern art: Continue reading

Language Spoken Is Knowledge Saved For A Rainy Day


The consequences of losing a language may not be understood until it is too late.

At first glance, or quick skim, this will inject a darting depression into your soul, because of the seeming hopelessness. But then the grace of the writing, and the beauty of the story, will wash away the darkness and, very possibly, inspire you. Read it, and if you have thoughts, or actions, to share with us on the entrepreneurial (or other) conservation of intangible patrimony please share a comment below:

It is a singular fate to be the last of one’s kind. That is the fate of the men and women, nearly all of them elderly, who are—like Marie Wilcox, of California; Gyani Maiya Sen, of Nepal; Verdena Parker, of Oregon; and Charlie Mungulda, of Australia—the last known speakers of a language: Wukchumni, Kusunda, Hupa, and Amurdag, respectively. But a few years ago, in Chile, I met Joubert Yanten Gomez, who told me he was “the world’s only speaker of Selk’nam.” He was twenty-one.

Yanten Gomez, who uses the tribal name Keyuk, grew up modestly, in Santiago. Continue reading

Words, Landscapes, And Pondering Ethiopia

The most illuminating 75 minutes with earbuds on, in a long time or possibly ever (since my history with earbuds is only a few years old), by far, were spent listening to this. If you are a combined “words person” and “nature person”–how else would you have found your way to this blog?–then you will understand.

Ethiopia, from the perspective of our recent expedition which I have barely begun to process with words, was illuminated for me just a bit hearing this man talk about how we describe places and the impact that ecosystems have on us. Ecosystems serve as metaphors, he says. And that prepositions matter a great deal to how we communicate the impact ecoystems have on us, literally and metaphorically.

Ethiopia was an enriching experience, in these senses.  I will write separately on that illumination. For now, a bit more from Robert Macfarlane, the illuminator on nature, through words. After listening to the podcast of his lecture, I had to know who this was, and it brought me here:

Làirig – ‘a pass in the mountains’ (Gaelic). Photograph: Rosamund Macfarlane

Làirig – ‘a pass in the mountains’ (Gaelic). Photograph: Rosamund Macfarlane

Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while afeadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”. Continue reading

Lighting Up Language

Malayalam Project at Kochi Biennale

Malayalam Project at Kochi Biennale

As a language, Malayalam is a perfect example of form as function: its “loopy” forms seem to roll off the speaker’s tongue. The word itself is even a palindrome, reading forward and backward in a never-ending loop. The high literacy rate in Kerala is evident in the newspapers found in tea stalls at every corner, not to mention the ubiquitous walls painted with verbal signage in both urban and rural settings, and those signs often feel more like murals due to the graphic nature of the language itself. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale ’14 is the perfect platform to express this concept:

Among the various internationally-acclaimed installations at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale ’14 is Malayalam Project that strives to draw the world’s attention towards the regional language and script.

A partner project at the Biennale, Malayalam Project is a collaborative forum that experiments with Malayalam letterform and typography. Kochi-based firms Thought Factory Design and Viakerala have put together this typography cum graphic design exhibition in collaboration with Riyas Komu, secretary of the Kochi Biennale.

“In the digital era, where imagery is used to communicate ideas, words become canvas of graphic. We are looking at how Malayalam, which is either a sound or a text enters the visual age we live in,” said the creative director Theresa Joseph George.

Pointing out that her firms have done lot of research into the field of Malayalam typography, Theresa, who is also a graphic designer, says, “Malayalam script with its loopy curves provides immense scope for experimentation.” Continue reading

Lady Mondegreen

Everyone has done it before, probably by accident or perhaps by malaprop. You’re singing along to a song you like, in the company of a friend, when suddenly they stop you and say, “Wait, what did you just say? You know that’s not the actual lyrics, right?” And you stare at them in disbelief and retort, “No, I think you’re wrong. Bob Marley clearly sings ‘three little birds sitting on my toaster.'”

“Not ‘toaster,'” your friend replies exasperatedly, “why would Bob be talking about a toaster? He says ‘doorstep.‘” And you think about it for a second and then sheepishly come to the realization that your friend must be correct. If you had been talking about Bob Dylan, there might be no guessing what the actual lyrics are without an authoritative reference, but Bob Marley is a lot more straightforward. It turns out that the misinterpretation of lyrics due to a failure to hear the words in a song correctly has a name, coined in the 1950s. One of our go-to contributors for the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova, writes this week about the phenomenon, and you can read some excerpts of her piece below. But before you do so, you might want to listen to pop/country singer/celebrity Taylor Swift, who has a song in her new album 1989 that has elicited many a case of mondegreen during one line in the chorus. It is called “Blank Space,” (you may have heard it on the radio a dozen times already) and to find the mondegreen, you simply have to be primed to hear the word “Starbucks.” Actually, the mondegreen potential is so severe that articles have been written online about it, indicating that you don’t really need to be primed at all.

Continue reading

What We Read, Why, And How

Chris Hughes, the thirty-one-year-old owner of The New Republic. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN WIGGS/THE BOSTON GLOBE VIA GETTY

Chris Hughes, the thirty-one-year-old owner of The New Republic. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN WIGGS/THE BOSTON GLOBE VIA GETTY

We care about books, and libraries, and languages, and long form journalism among other reasons to get perspective, to become informed beyond our local experience. When a century-old vital institution from any of these realms perishes, it is worth taking note, and mourning as George Packer does in a short punch of a post:

…As for the mass self-purge of editors and writers at The New Republic, it might be taken as part of the ongoing demise of old journalistic institutions in the face of new realities of technology and business. Or it might just be the story of one incompetent media mogul. Two years ago, with a lucky Facebook-based fortune and earnest talk about great journalism, Chris Hughes seduced a lot of hardened veterans of the New York-Washington news world who were desperate for a vision of the future.

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Preservation Of Language

We have posted on the topic of intangible patrimony and include it in our explanation of entrepreneurial conservation; the topic extends to our interest in reading and the liberal arts. Below is a link to an op-ed piece published today, penned by a savvy academic whose primary focus is language, that we consider worthy of the brief reading time, even if you are not a language fanatic:

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Why Save a Language?