19 August, 2007

For the Birds

Today, a fun spin through the history of listening to birds.

Fulcanelli concludes this opening section of Le Mystère des Cathédrales:
Finally I would add that argot is one of the forms derived from the Language of the Birds, parent and doyen of all other languages—the one spoken by philosophers and diplomats.
In Les Demeures des Philosophes, Fulcanelli elaborates:
The language of the birds is a phonetic idiom solely based on assonance. Therefore, spelling, whose very rigour serves as a check for curious minds and which renders unacceptable any speculation realized outside the rules of grammar, is not taken into account.
(The latter statement closely resembles what I described as Walter Whiter's 'ghoti' reasoning.) Now, what is this 'language of the birds' all about? There is, of course, a Wiki article on it, though the page is rather haphazard and unreliable. Similarly, the internet is full of newage mama-djambo on the subject, much of it in French. We can do better.

The trope is found throughout classical literature, associated often but not always with the great Roman institution of augury, divination by birds. Thus the hopelessly unsceptical Aelian, On Animals I.48:
The Raven, they say, is a sacred bird and attends upon Apollo: that is why men agree that it is also of use in divination, and those who understand the positions of the birds, their cries [klaggas], and their flight whether on the left or on the right hand, are able to divine by its croaking.
Herodotus on the priestesses at Dodona:
I expect that these women were called 'doves' [peleiades] by the people of Dodona because they spoke a strange language, and the people thought it like the cries of birds.
The oaks at Dodona, and Apollo's laurels at Delphi, have symbolic links to augury. Before the development of sibyls, priests interpreted oracles from the rustling of leaves—a rarefied aerial music, like birdsong. Mediaeval scholia on the twin doves at Aeneid 6.190 make reference to the Dodonean peleiades, and Fulcanelli also raises the oaks in the context of his 'diplomatic language', which has 'a double meaning corresponding to a double science'. Meanwhile, Apollonius of Rhodes, from the Argonautica:
And above the golden head of Aeson's son there hovered a halcyon prophesying with shrill voice the ceasing of the stormy winds; and Mopsus [the sage] heard and understood the cry of the bird of the shore, fraught with good omen.
The Roman poet Pacuvius (whom we last met here), quoted in Cicero's sceptical dialogue On Divination, and again by Montaigne in his essay on prognostications (Essais I.9), here Englished wittily by Charles Cotton:
Who the Birds Language understand, and who
More from Brutes Livers than their own do know,
Are rather to be heard than hearkned to.
In Plutarch's dialogue De Sollertia Animalium, Aristotemus argues:
But as for starlings, magpies, and parrots, that learn to talk, and afford their teachers such a spirit of voice, so well tempered and so adapted for imitation, they seem to me to be patrons and advocates in behalf of other creatures, by their talent of learning what they are taught; and in some measure to teach us that those creatures also, as well as we, partake of vocal expression and articulate sound.
And then there are the sages, to whom the faculty for understanding the birds (and often the beasts) is ascribed. Apollodorus, The Library, 3.6.7, on Tiresias:
And when Chariclo asked her to restore his sight, she could not do so, but by cleansing his ears she caused him to understand every note of birds.
Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 1.20:
I must perforce dwell upon. . . the cleverness with which after the manner of the Arabs he managed to understand the language of the animals. For he learnt this on his way through these Arab tribes, who best understand and practice it. For it is quite common for the Arabs to listen to the birds prophesying like any oracles, but they acquire this faculty of understanding them by feeding themselves, so they say, either on the heart or liver of serpents.
An instance of Apollonius using this power is related in Life 4.3. Meanwhile this on Melampus, from Pliny's Natural History, 10.137, and quoted again in Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 10.12:
The person, however, who may think fit to believe in these tales, may probably not refuse to believe also that dragons licked the ears of Melampus, and bestowed upon him the power of understanding the language of birds [avium sermonis]; as also what Democritus says, when he gives the names of certain birds, by the mixture of whose blood a serpent is produced, the person who eats of which will be able to understand the language of birds.
Porphyry, in his pro-vegetarian treatise De Abstinentia 3.3, also mentions both Apollonius and Melampus in the course of his assertion that animals have reason and speech:
If, however, it is requisite to believe in the ancients, and also in those who have lived in our times, and the times of our fathers, there are some among these who are said to have heard and to have understood the speech of animals. Thus, for instance, this is narrated of Melampus and Tiresias, and others of the like kind; and the same thing, not much prior to our time, is related of Apollonius Tyanaeus.
Porphyry claims further that: 'an associate of mine informed me that he once had a boy for a servant, who understood the meaning of all the sounds of birds, and who said that all of them were prophetic, and declarative of what would shortly happen', and adds that 'perhaps, all men would understand the language of all animals, if a dragon were to lick their ears'.

In the utopian past or afterlife, the language of the birds need not be decoded by sage or augur, but can be understood by all. Thus this tale, related by a woman returning from the underworld, in Pherecrates, The Miners, quoted by Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae, 6.269) in the context of cockaignish paradises—
Roast thrushes, dressed for a rechauffé, flew round our mouths entreating us to swallow them as we lay stretched among the myrtles and anemones.
To comprehend the language of birds is to transcend the realm of culture for that of nature. The language of culture uses clumsy, confusible words; the language of nature moves with the rhythms of the world—it is beyond words, and more like music—birdsong. It is also, like everything natural, an expression of divine will; thus augury and prophecy. This yearning for the pre-cultural and the pre-verbal represents a sort of Rousseauvian streak in the classical world. It is related, I think, to this passage in Plutarch's De Signo Socratis:
Our recognition of one another's thoughts through the medium of the spoken word is like groping in the dark; whereas the thoughts of daemons are luminous and shed their light on the daemonic man. Their thoughts have no need of verbs or nouns, which men use as symbols in their intercourse, and thereby behold mere counterfeits and likenesses of what is present in thought, but are unaware of the originals except for those persons who are illuminated by some special and daemonic radiance.
In the Middle Ages came the 'parliament of fowls' genre, owing everything to Platonic mysticism and nothing to Aristophanes, and surfacing simultaneously in the Persian Mantiq at-Tayr (1177) and the Latin Speculum Stultorum of Nigellus Wireker (c. 1180). Biblical manuscripts, meanwhile, commonly portrayed doves twittering the Word of God into the ears of the evangelists. The loci classici on the sages quoted above were collected by the great arcanist Agrippa of Nettesheim in his 1531 De Occulta Philosophia, I.55—I quote from the 1651 translation, by one 'J. F.':
Most wonderful is that kind of Auguring of theirs, who hear, & understand the speeches of Animals, in which as amongst the Ancients, Melampus, and Tiresias, and Thales, and Apollonius the Tyanean, who as we read, excelled, and whom they report had excellent skill in the language of birds.

But Democritus himself declared this art, as saith Pliny, by naming the birds, of whose blood mixed together was produced a Serpent, of which whosoever did eat, should understand the voices of birds.
I do not know where 'Thales' comes from—not Diogenes Laertius, at any rate. Agrippa and his sources were well-known among European intellectuals of the later Renaissance, and Samuel Butler could count on his literate readers getting the joke when in Hudibras (1663) he describes the hero's squire Ralpho as:
As learn’d as the wild Irish are,
Or Sir AGRIPPA; for profound
And solid lying much renown’d. . .

He understood the speech of birds
As well as they themselves do words;
Cou’d tell what subtlest parrots mean,
That speak, and think contrary clean.
Fulcanelli evidently knew Agrippa, or at least one of his French plagiarists, for the list of sages in Mystère precisely parallels that found in the Occult Philosophy:
Mythology would have it that the famous soothsayer Tiresias had perfect knowledge of the Language of the Birds, which Minerva, goddess of Wisdom, revealed to him. He shared it, they say, with Thales of Miletus, Melampus and Appolonius [sic] of Tyana. . .
Grasset d'Orcet, according to Raminagrobis, had already used the expression in his esoteric analysis of Rabelais; I don't know if he was the first to talk in these terms. But his conceit, followed by Fulcanelli, is clear: by unlocking the mystical potential of the words with which they play, they are tapping into a deeper current than that of human language and grammar—they are, in other words, listening to the music of the birds, of the gods—listening to nature.


But wait—there's more! What about those who really did take bird-language seriously, not just as a myth or metaphor, but as something susceptible to rational analysis? Athanasius Kircher discusses birdsong in Book I of his 1650 Musurgia Universalis (some pictures here), transcribing a few melodies with notes and staves. He recounts various anecdotes, for instance about
Damian of Fonseca, Portugal, a man of great learning and authority, who has in his Museum a little caged bird, of the species Alauda, which they call 'Gallandra', trained by the said friar on his right hand, not only to pronounce the Holy Liturgy as if in a human voice, but also to chatter many other things, which can hardly be witnessed without admiration.
In his 'Appendix de Phonognomia', Canon 3, Kircher goes on to discuss the causes of animal language, concluding that 'from this a refined knowledge can be formed, by which we can understand the voice and language of the animals, as is written of Apollonius Thyaneus', before referring the reader to his own forthcoming Turris Babel (1679), in which 'we explain at greater length the language of these animals'. That work is online here, but sadly I cannot find the relevant passage, if indeed it exists.

Following on from the arguments of Plutarch and Porphyry about animal reason, the French Jesuit Guillaume-Hyacinthe Bougeant claimed (contra Descartes) that animals had a (limited) rationality; this is the subtext of his delightful book, A Philosophical Amusement upon the Language of Beasts and Birds (1739), which was translated anonymously the following year. The text is online (of course), thanks to Animal Rights History—hurrah for political correctness!
Birds do not Sing but speak. What we take for Singing is no more than their natural Language. Do the Magpy, the Jay, the Raven, the Owl, and the Duck Sing? What makes us believe that they Sing is their tuneful Voice. Thus the Hottentots in Africa seem to cluck like Turkey-cocks tho’ it be the natural Accent of their Language, and thus several Nations seem to us to sing, when they indeed speak. . .But in short, what do these Birds say? The Question should be proposed to Apollonius Tyanaeus, who boasted of understanding their Language. As for me, who am no Diviner, I can give you no more than probable Conjectures.
Bougeant makes an interesting admission at the end of his treatise:
I shall here make you a Confession, that will reduce the whole Language to almost nothing. I mean that you must absolutely retrench from it whatever is called Phrase or grammatical Construction, not excepting the most Contracted.
Although Bougeant wants us to appreciate the linguistic abilities of the birds and other beasts, he denies that animals are as intelligent as humans: they can only utter 'sentences' corresponding to very basic immediate sensations and needs. But compare this to Fulcanelli's stipulation that esoteric analysis of the 'language of the birds' should disregard human grammar and spelling.

We come to Michel Bréal, the founder of semantics, whose little essay 'On Bird Language' is included in George Wolf's collection of Bréal's shorter works. Bréal quotes a transcription of crow-calls made in an 1806 paper by Dupont de Nemours (a friend of Turgot and progenitor of the Duponts):
cra, cré, cro, crou, crouou.
grass, gress, gross, grouss, grououss.
craé, créé, croa, croua, grouass.
crao, créé, croé, croue, grouess.
craou, créo, croo, crouo, grouoss.
Bréal makes the point previously made by both Bougeant and Porphyry that 'the difference between animal and human organs makes hearing the details of animal language even more difficult'. He then goes on to discuss repetitions in bird-sounds (the nightingale: 'zquo, zquo'; the sparrow: 'tell, tell', etc.), insisting that they come about because 'the speech organ once in movement, less effort is required to let them continue than to bring them to rest'. Bréal compares bird-repetition to primitive human reduplication, including Kaffir njo njo, 'to break', as well as Latin me-min-i, 'I remember'. Bréal agrees with Dupont that there are dialects in bird-languages, although he concludes that 'Tiresias, who understood the language of all birds, knew more about it'.

This was in 1900; since then there has been plenty of scientific interest in bird communication. According to Jean Aitchison, birdsong is the closest thing to human speech, containing both innate cries and learnt patterns—a combination of meaningless notes carrying a given message. She also discusses dialects of birdsong. Last year an article on recursive 'grammar' in starlingsong caused a splash in certain sectors of the blogging community. I learnt of it mainly via Languagehat, who claims to have 'an admitted prejudice against the whole talking-animal thing'. I guess Steve won't have much interest in this post, then.

Update: material on Kircher's Musurgia has been added. Thanks to Michael for the pointer (see comments).


John Cowan said...

'Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain
When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled,
And mute's the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain,
And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I heard the priestess shrieking
That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
'Tis true there's better boose than brine, but he that drowns must drink it;
And oh, my lass, the news is news that men have heard before.

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air,
And he that stands will die for nought, and home there's no returning.

The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

See also my take on that war.

Raminagrobis said...

Of interest in this connection is Pierre Le Loyer’s La Nephelococugie (1579), a Rabelaisian imitation of Aristophanes’s Birds. It follows the plot of the ancient comedy fairly closely, but replaces a lot of the characters and references: so Le Loyer replaces the crow and the jay that lead the main characters to Tereus (here Jean Cocu) at the beginning of the play with the oracle of the ‘Dive Bouteille’. He also gets a lot of obscene humour out of the choice to make all the main characters ‘cocus’ (cuckoos/cuckolds). He replaces the character Meton with an ‘Alchemist’, who talks in an incomprehensible language of ambiguities and rebuses: to which Genin (Euelpides) responds ‘Je n’y entendz que le haut Allemand!’ (it’s all Greek to him).

paul said...

Back when I lived in Michigan, I was plagued by a whip-poor-will that would invariably start shrieking at 3:00 am. I had no trouble understanding him: "My tree! My tree! My tree!"

I've suspected that Sudre had the language of the birds in mind when he was creating his langue musicale universelle, Solresol. Another musical conlang of possible interest is Eaiea, though it's a bit less philosophically grandiose and not as germane to this discussion.

There's a natural whistling language from the Canary Islands called Silbo Gomero that sounds quite bird-like.

The Wikipedia article that you mention has a passing reference to Zaum, a poetically polemical Russian language of the birds from early last century, and not one that I'd heard of before. Great stuff.

Michael said...

I hesitate to introduce such a work into distinguished literary company of the sort mentioned here, but Bert Popowski's "Varmint and Crow Hunters's Bible" (1962) contains an extensive discussion of crow language.

Crows, like lawyers, as individuals are intelligent and interesting birds, but a large flock of them constitutes a predatory nuisance. I have observed their behavior for many years and have no doubt that they communicate effectively with each other. Their calls are remarkably varied and it is likely that each one has a different meaning. Crows surely have "words" to inform their brethren: "Road kill here!"

They also like to destroy the eggs of other birds, and I watched with appalled fascination how three of them teamed up to reconnoitre a mallard hen nesting in our pond, waiting to swoop down and eat the eggs as soon as the poor duck left her nest. I have several times found duck and pheasant nests abandoned after a crow raid of this sort. Often very little of the eggs has been eaten, even though every one of them has been pierced and cracked by a crow's bill.

Another bird that is very vocal - at least in the vicinity of its nest - is the peregrine falcon (duck hawk). Last year a pair of them nested on my property and fledged two young. They "talked" constantly back and forth between the nest and wherever else one of them was. It was a splendid sight to see a peregrine perched on the railing of the stairs leading to my front door, or drinking water from a puddle on my patio. Peregrines do not get along with crows, and one of the benefits of their presence last year was that they induced the noisy flock of crows that hung around the place to move. Unfortunately the peregrines did not come back this year and so the crows have returned.

Michael said...

On a completely different note, I'll mention that Athanasius Kircher transcribed bird calls in his "Musurgia universalis" Some of these may be heard in the "Sonata representativa" of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern, who undoubtedly knew Kircher's work. After quite a number of bird calls are played, the cat appears, and frightens the birds away!

Language said...

Khlebnikov, whose father was an ornithologist, did talk about the "language of the birds" (and introduce it into his play Zangezi), but I wouldn't call it a feature of zaum as such; I've read a fair amount about zaum, but this is the first I'd heard of the bird thing (I googled the information about Khlebnikov).

Just because I'm skeptical about the idea that animals have language doesn't mean I'm uninterested in what people have said on the subject!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Wow, these are all nice additions, thanks. Ah, Kircher! How could I forget? I'll have to look this passage up tomorrow. Don't tell me you own a copy of the Musurgia Universalis, Michael? I might just have to hunt you down and make off with your library in the middle of the night... My own experience with birds is rather small, being a Londoner. I did have seagulls ca'ing furiously outside my bedroom every morning at 6, which I always found a very profound and pleasant noise.

LH: yes I know, I was joking.

Mencius Moldbug said...

Speaking of corvids and falcons:

I've befriended my local resident pair of ravens with the aid of big bags of Costco peanuts. They seem to enjoy playing catch-the-peanut, but won't quite take one from my hand.

This year they had a baby who is now a juvenile, and who is old enough to come for peanuts sometimes on his own. I expect he will be ejected from the vicinity shortly. Life as a young raven is hard.

But today I was on the deck as he was attacked, or quasi-attacked, or something, by a peregrine falcon. I don't think a raven, even a young one, is really appropriate prey for a falcon, but who knows, maybe it was worth a try. The falcon kind of sneaked up on him, fluttered a few feet overhead, the raven looked at him and cawed, the falcon thought better of it and flew off. Ravens have rather large sharp beaks, I suppose. I wouldn't want to mess with them. And the city is full of nice fat pigeons.

The crow is a very inferior bird. They shouldn't even be mentioned in the same context. I'm sure ravens feel about crows much the way Charles Kingsley's salmon, in the Water-Babies, shared his feelings on the subject of trout.

Mencius Moldbug said...

And it's also worth mentioning the famed parrots of Telegraph Hill, which are no longer confined to that locality and now seem to be all over the place. A flock of these things (actually conures) sounds like nothing so much as a gaggle of thirteen-year-old-girls. They are clearly conversing, though their thoughts do not strike me as deep.

Gawain said...

it would probably go beyond the boundaries of this discussion (such as they are) to discuss bird song in the musical theories (and the music itself) of Messiaen.

but it may interest you to know a factoid, which the wiki page you quote does not mention: bird song appears to be organized differently in different species of birds: some species appear to have an innate song (deafened chicks still begin to sing it about day 20 or so); some species need to learn it (deafened chicks never learn to sing anything); and some exhibit combination of the two (deafened chicks learn only a rudimentary, "ugly" song).

in a similar experiment, Frederick Barbarossa, Stupor Mundi, ordered several small children to be raised in complete silence to see what language they would grow up to speak if their minds were not channeled into that of their nannies. the experiment appears to have foreseen four alternatives: a) Latin (of course) b) Hebrew c) Arabic (he was king of Sicily and later Jerusalem, of course) or d) some other, more basic language, thought to be angelic -- quite possibly the language spoken by humanity prior to the tower of Babel. (Which was of course -- though Stupor Mundi did not know it, either Chinese or some Slavic tongue). the experiment failed though it is not certain why -- the explanation given was that it failed because the nannies who had been ordered to remain totally silent could not resist telling their babies how much they love them etc.

similarly broad material on bird songs in Chinese literature; the Chinese still refer to the sound of foreign tongues as being "like bird-song.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, G. I didn't know these details about birdsong, which are consistent with the general remarks about Aitchison. However, I did know about the Frederick II (not Barbarossa) story. According to Kantorowicz the children all died! (Though I wonder if the story is not apocryphal: a similar tale is told by Herodotus of Psammetichus, who discovered that Phrygian was the primal language.)

Gawain said...

ah, yes, Barbarossa was his granddad, wasn't it.

the subject of ferile children would make for a nice post, eh? but the subject of the natural language -- the one we spoke before the tower of Babel -- in which alone things are what they are, which has magical powers -- perhaps God spoke it to create the world -- would be more of the vunex fare, i suppose.

have a nice holiday and come back refreshed. i hope it does rain. it does here, fitchforks.

Gawain said...

PS I note Frederick II and his granddad, F I, the red beard, had often been confused in legend. I take it as my excuse.

Ray Davis said...

A few years ago I encountered the delightful hypothesis that grammar developed as a sexual display, with Bengalese finches entered as evidence.