A little medieval poem on birds’ voices

A quick browse through any field guide to birds reveals that the standard ornithological method for conveying bird vocalisations is still transliteration – a careful substitution of complex avian sound patterns into a phonetic sequence that is broadly understandable in another system – a human language. You’ll come across some striking examples, including some that are just ludicrous, or seemingly untranslatable into human spoken utterances. There are the well-known classics: from the Collins Guide, ‘goo-ko’ (cuckoo), and ‘kewickhoooouh’ (tawny owl; better known, of course, as ‘tu-whit, tu-who’). But then what about a willow warbler: ‘sisisi-vüy-vüy-vüy svi-svi-vi tuuy tuuy si-si-sviiy-sü’? Or maybe a greenfinch: ‘jüpp-jüpp-jüpp jürrrrrrrr tuy-tuy-tuy-tuy-tuy juit chipp-chipp-chipp-chipp-chipp dürdürdürdür jürrrrrrrr …’?

These modern examples of ornithologists’ mimicry, though, are in fact no different to much earlier efforts to translate animal and human sounds – they merely continue a long and rich legacy (see here for a fuller discussion of this topic in an earlier post). I have been prompted to think again about the lines of transmission between medieval and modern approaches birds because I am currently working with three manuscripts from important monastic centres of the late Anglo-Saxon age containing a copy each of a little birdsong poem titled ‘De cantibus avium (On the songs of birds), which is, largely, a catalogue of phonetically-rendered, onomatopoeic bird calls. The three versions are all the same, and suggest a lost, earlier source. What seems pretty clear is that this poem, wherever or whenever the original was composed, was designed to teach the typical Latin translations of particular animal and bird sounds. The poem appears in manuscripts that all deal with grammar subjects, and in two cases, it actually appears directly after a standard prose list of nonhuman sounds – what is known as the voces animantium ‘voices of animals’ genre (see here for one of the manuscript examples). The formula, developed from classical models, goes a little like this:

apes ambizant vel bombizant, aquilae clangunt, anseres crinciunt vel trinsiunt,
aves minuriunt vel vernant vel vernicant, accipitres pipant vel plipiant,
anates teritisant …

[bees buzz or buzz, eagles sound, geese hiss or honk, birds chirp or make noise
or twitter, hawks screech or cry, ducks quack …]

Much of the ‘De cantibus’ poem reads almost word for word like these lists, but it also draws attention to the great and enduring fascination of birdsong – its supreme variety and diversity. However hard we might try, it is beyond our capabilities to record, catalogue and know all bird songs:

Quis volucrum species numeret, quis nomina discat?
Mille avium cantus, vocum discrimina mille.
Nec nostrum (fateor) tantas discernere voces.

[Whoever counts the types of birds, who learns their names? A thousand are sung of birds, a thousand differences of voice. Nor do I myself claim to discern such voices.]

Many of these medieval examples might sound ridiculous to us. But they probably did to medieval writers as well: many of the invented onomatopoeic verbs in the sound lists are such nonsense that they basically mean nothing more than ‘cranes make a crane noise’, or ‘blackbirds make a blackbird noise’, as though the writer draws attention to his own complete inadequacy in trying to replicate birdsong. Perhaps this translation tradition highlights a serious point about all translation though: even though these efforts aim to bring us closer to another being or mode of communication, they ultimately reminds us of essential difference – when you try to turn birdsong, or any nonhuman utterance, into human language, the result doesn’t quite manage to do the job. Crucially, though, this difference does not make birdsong irrational goobledygook (a word, in fact, that was coined to mean nonsense precisely because it sounds like turkey gibberish). It is simply that their voices are not our voices.


2 thoughts on “A little medieval poem on birds’ voices

  1. Nice one. I think the classical models for your voces animantium must include the sort of examples I listed in the below (copied from my ch.4).

    ‘In the same spirit, both Varro and Suetonius catalogued a number of specialised Latin verbs representing different animal calls, some of which are clearly onomatopoeic. And these were probably the source for the nerdy linguistic tests that the Roman emperor Geta (AD 189-211) used to set for the grammarians of his day, as reported in the Historia Augusta. Here is a selection from their composite lists*:

    Lambs balant Camels blatterant Frogs coaxant Storks crotolant (the bill-rattling display) Owls cuccubiunt Swans drensant Geese gingriunt Hens glocidant Pigs grunniunt Horses hinniunt Mice mintriunt Pigeons minurriunt Bulls mugiunt Peacocks paupulant Sparrowhawks plipiant Lions rugiunt Ducks tetrissitant



    Jeremy Mynott Lavender Cottage Little Thurlow Suffolk CB9 7LA

    rjmynott@icloud.com http://www.jeremymynott.org



    1. Absolutely right Jeremy – there is a clear line of transmission from the Suetonius type lists down through Isidore of Seville to Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon writers. The verbs are little changed at all – a good example of classical ‘auctoritas’ at work in the Middle Ages. I’m sure you would enjoy browsing the manuscripts in which these lists appear to see the classical grammar works with which they appear alongside. What I particularly enjoy about these texts is what they denote about translation: animals into Latin, and then for us, into English. The task of sliding from those Latin nonsense-verbs into our vernacular is as tricky as the initial step of translating from animal utterance into Latin! They perhaps point up, too, the fallacy of a common mode of perception across cultures: that a particular bird or animal very obviously goes ‘woof’ or ‘quack’ to us, and therefore surely should to others, is clearly not the case.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s