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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Are You Positive You are Saying That Chicken’s Identify Proper?

Birds and English don’t all the time combine properly.

As a self-taught birder, I’m accustomed to having my ornithological experience questioned—very accustomed—however educating English is my occupation. This makes me assured in my understanding of subordinate clauses and punctuation, however that confidence vanishes once I’m reminded of an necessary truth concerning the language: it’s written and spoken.

Like many birders, I first turned acquainted with all however the commonest yard birds by studying about them. Such birders discover the species talked about in a subject information or different guide, usually with accompanying images or illustrations, and earlier than lengthy they know every chicken by identify. It’s solely after they get out within the subject with different birders that they instantly understand subject information entries don’t embody pronunciations.

The tiny twinge of worry that accompanies talking a chicken’s identify for the primary time is one that may be felt even years after the sector marks have been dedicated to reminiscence. I revisited that worry final spring on a visit to the Pacific Northwest, once I noticed a pair of squat black-and-white alcids diving and resurfacing within the placid waters close to Deception Go. Although they have been life birds, I knew their species immediately: a pair of winter-plumage Marbled Murrelets.

However once I needed to say “murrelet” aloud to my good friend and information Tina, I balked and mentioned one thing like “mrrrlt.” I used to be seized with panic as a result of I hadn’t actually thought of that first syllable earlier than; does murre have the simple ur sound of fur, or is there extra of a your to it, as in pure? I’d lengthy assumed the previous to be the case, however now that the second of fact was right here, I couldn’t decide to it.

Even now, with a big unabridged dictionary open, telling me to go together with murre as in fur, I really feel unsure. In any case, many English phrases, comparable to route have a number of pronunciations. There are regional variations, too, just like the second a in caramel, which vanishes as you progress north and west. Actually, a dictionary can usually lead me to have even much less confidence that I am saying a chicken’s identify proper. 

You might be able to recognize a Pigeon Guillemot from your field guide, but do you know how to pronounce its name? (Hint: Use those Ls.) Paul Kusmin/Audubon Photography Awards

Take, for example, the guillemot. I took French in highschool, so once I see that the guillemot’s identify is a diminutive of the French identify Guillaume (the francophone model of William), I wish to pronounce it with a Gallic aptitude: “GEE ye mo.” It’s the identical method I say guillotine. However, I do know (and my dictionary confirms) that many English audio system don’t pronounce the double L as a Y when discussing beheadings in the course of the French Revolution, so I in all probability shouldn’t be shocked that the seabird is formally “GILL a mott” in English. 

This is one other one: Robyn Hitchcock as soon as sang “On the horizon of the gulls and plovers / She noticed the define of clear lovers.” My Webster’s declares this an ideal couplet, however it additionally says I’m free to rhyme plovers with rovers, which I normally do. Why are two variations acceptable? Blame one thing linguists name the Nice Vowel Shift. The o that you just’d have present in plover in 1300 would have been fashioned again within the throat, making it sound like lover. However inside just a few hundred years, that o moved ahead within the mouth to sound like rover. So, chicken names that originated in Europe (together with plover, which comes from Outdated French) can have two or extra English pronunciations, every with a historical past going again centuries.

Are you able to blame a man for indecision?

When identifying a Semipalmated Plover, the latter word can rhyme with lover or rover. Both are technically correct. Pat Ulrich/Audubon Photography Awards

This situation in all probability wouldn’t trouble me so if I had not been known as out publicly for mispronouncing an avian identify earlier than: that of the Prothonotary Warbler. Throughout a radio look just a few years again, I discussed how a lot I really like the brilliantly coloured little chicken, and some minutes later, the station obtained a name from an Audubon official; he knowledgeable me that I mustn’t say “professional THON o ta ree,” however fairly “professional tho NOTE a ree.” I withered behind my microphone and stayed in a state of embarrassment concerning the topic for a number of days till I returned residence to my dictionary and found that I HAD BEEN RIGHT ALL ALONG.

Not that I maintain any type of grudge concerning the matter.

However that brings me to my level: It’s, alas, our lot as birders to reside in a state of heightened consciousness, each of the avian life round us and of the probability that another birder will in some unspecified time in the future disagree with us about an ID. (“Sharp-shinned? Naw, that was completely a Cooper’s, dude.”) Thus, on this age of elevated divisiveness, I ask you to suppose twice earlier than correcting a fellow birder, to simply accept that there may be a couple of right technique to pronounce a chicken’s identify, and to keep away from making a harsh judgment a few speaker who may know a chicken intimately, nevertheless she might say its identify. 

However please, don’t attempt to inform me it’s “PILE e ated” Woodpecker. Simply, no.

Peter Cashwell is an English instructor, a birder, and the writer of The Verb ‘to Chicken’ and Alongside These Strains.

An earlier model of this text contained a photograph of a Gyrfalcon by Darrell Crisp/Audubon Images Awards

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