Speaking the Language

I went to bed late last night, it was easily midnight or beyond, and as I lay there on the edge of sleep, I heard an unaccustomed sound. It sounded like…birdsong. I listened closely. It was, indeed, birdsong. And not just little chirps or the otherworldly radar sounds of an owl.

There were two birds, calling to one another, long, complicated tunes that sounded like they were being played on a glass harmonica.

My first thought was: Nightingale.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale. From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale.
From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book

I thought of those lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east…

Imagine knowing, eyes closed and in a darkened room, what time of day it is just by the type of birdsong on the air.

I thought to myself that I had no real idea what a lark sounded like, nor for that matter, a nightingale.

Rather, it was night time, the birdsong didn’t sound owl-like. It wasn’t the sharp chirps of the ever-present flock of sparrows that live in the vines on our house, and I know nightingales sing at night. Deductive reasoning, not actual familiarity.

The above video shows 3-D digital sound sculptures of nightingale and canary song, created by Australian artist Andy Thomas, who begins his work “by listening to the sound carefully, going for a walk, and concentrating on the sound.”

But do they sing in autumn?

Yes, apparently, because they are on a migratory route to the south for the winter.

Research has shown that songbirds share similar ‘gene products’ for vocalizations that humans use for speech. So what we hear as song might be, for the birds, a rich conversation, good as a book, engaging as a movie. Better, probably, because it’s theirs.

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation. Artist: Andy Thomas

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation.
Artist: Andy Thomas

After all, other research has shown that dolphins call each other by name, using a ‘signature whistle’ to identify themselves, and using others’ signatures to call individuals. And let’s not forget the mice who ‘sing’ to each other in ultrasonic melodies, and have vocalization brain patterns that resemble humans – and songbirds.

Think of all the conversations we are missing because we either can’t hear them, or don’t speak the language, or have forgotten how to listen.

Island of Memory

Interactive map of global languages at EndangeredLanguages.com

Interactive map of global languages at EndangeredLanguages.com

When I was a teenager, I had the privilege of tagging along on an archeological dig on the California coast. The goal of the dig was to salvage parts of a coastal Miwok village in danger of disappearance due to cliff erosion. The village had been inhabited until the early years of the 20th century, but was completely abandoned. All manner of interesting objects turned up, including a few that were difficult to identify.

An elderly woman who had been born in the village was asked to stop by, and one evening we all sat around a large campfire with her while she helpfully explained what the inscrutable finds were. Simple things, once you knew their use. A smoothly notched pebble was a fishnet sinker, and so on.

She had words for each item that were carefully transcribed and recorded by the researchers – the number of people who spoke this woman’s language was diminishingly small, even 30 years ago. In any case, she no longer knew any living speakers since her brother had died many years earlier.

I don’t remember the woman’s name, but I do remember thinking how sad and strange it must be to have your language and the world it describes shrink until you yourself are a small island of memory that no one else can share.

Credit: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Credit: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

A language goes silent every two weeks, along with the culture that created it and which it sustained. With patterns similar to the loss of biodiversity, many languages are dwindling into extinction.

Of the approximately 7000 languages on the planet today, it is estimated that at least half will have disappeared by the end of this century. There are organizations and projects trying to record these languages for posterity.

When we lose a language, we lose a unique worldview.


National Geographic article – Vanishing Languages by Russ Rymer

National Geographic article – Save a Language, Save a Culture by Tim Brookes

Endangered Languages, a project by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity