How Language Skills Go to the Birds
Iwas writing up a taped interview with a husband and wife. She described the limited English a Japanese friend used as ''pidgin English.'' Pidgin is the basic English resorted to in various parts of the world where English is far from the native language and yet a smattering of it is needed for simple survival.
One theory to account for its name is that the first form of pidgin English was developed by the Chinese, trading with sailors in ports. The Chinese could not say the word ''business.'' It came out sounding like ''pidgin.'' My suspicion is that it was the sailors who couldn't say ''business'' the way the Chinese said it. Either way, it became ''pidgin.''
Anyway, without thinking, I wrote the word down in my interview as ''pigeon.'' The husband - who kindly checked the article for accuracy - gently suggested that ''pidgin'' was more conventional. Laughing, I changed it immediately.
The English used by pigeons really is limited. It seems, in fact, exclusively to consist of one onomatopoeic syllable: ''coo.'' Or that is what English-speaking humans have concluded is pigeon-speak. We seem no more competent at saying or writing the word pigeons use than the Chinese traders were at wrapping their tongues around ''business.''
The French for ''to coo'' is a slight improvement: roucouler. But I am not convinced a pigeon would necessarily realize it was being addressed if I were to approach it saying ''coo'' repeatedly. The pigeons in our nearby woods breathe out sounds deep in the trees that are more like ''whoo-whoo'' if you draw your breath first out, then in. I've tried it. But still they ignore me.
Trying to sound out the words that ornithologists concoct to imitate the song of different species is a great joke. One bird book suggests ''coor-li'' for the curlew. Coor-li?! This is a bird whose haunting ululation floats into the blackness of the cosmos like laughter shaking the sides of a limitless bubble. ''Coor-li'' just does not do it.
Having been brought up to believe that Tennyson's lines, ''The moan of doves in immemorial elms/ And murmuring of innumerable bees'' comprise the consummately magical transposition of natural sounds into English poetry (or that if they do not, then Keats's ''murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves'' do), I am a little reluctant to agree with Sir Richard Paget, the physicist. But something this gentleman wrote in 1930 makes a point:
''Man is a very indifferent imitator of natural sounds, as witness his absurd attempts to represent the barn-door cock. The Englishman says 'cockadoodledoo', the German says 'kikeriki', while the Frenchman describes it as 'coquerico.' ''
Anyone who has been regularly woken at dawn by innumerable bantam cockerels screaming their defiance at the reappearing light will know that an alphabet of 26 letters including only 5 or 6 vowels is simply incapable of representing such a fearsomely jubilant noise. Perhaps, however, it is this very inadequacy that has reduced us to not even bothering to try. We seem content to repeat already established code words. We says donkeys go ''hee-haw,'' horses ''neigh,'' little birds ''tweet,'' elephants ''trumpet,'' and cows ''moo.''
That last one - really! Cows don't moo. It's an insult to any self-respecting cow. Surely, it is time we came up with a new word for cow sound. Nothing tame, mind you. Cows may be placid, but their bellowing, even in the most mellifluous of summer meadows, is gigantically more heartfelt than a moo.