Polly-Glot.

An amusing and instructive WSJ story by Drew Hinshaw about Nigerian parrots:

Hundreds of languages are spoken in this country: So which one do you teach a parrot?

It is a decision the pet shops of Nigeria confront every time a talking bird lands in their possession. Last year, a babbling grey parrot arrived at Salisu Sani’s bird stand in this northern city.

There was only one problem. She spoke one of the country’s lesser-known tongues.

“I told her: ‘This is a rubbish language. Try my own,’ ” recalled the lifelong parrot distributor, who spent weeks teaching the animal greetings in Hausa, a more widely spoken vernacular. […]

The country’s 182 million people speak 520 different languages, according to Ethnologue, an atlas of the world’s linguistic boundaries, published by the International Linguistics Center in Dallas. Church services drag for hours as deacons translate their pastor’s sermons into three, sometimes four languages. Customer service lines begin with a plethora of options: one for English, two for Hausa, three for Yoruba, four for Igbo.

It makes the parrot business complicated, too. […]

The language barrier means some pollys can accidentally squawk parrot profanities.

In Kano, Mr. Mohammad bought a secondhand parrot from an American or possibly British expat leaving Nigeria. When he peered into the cage, the bird blared back: “Waka, waka!”

In Hausa, this is a very bad thing for a bird to say. Roughly translated, it means “your mother.”

“That one was misbehaving,” Mr. Mohammad recalled. “It took a long time to sell.”

There’s a lot more there (“By a quirk of geography, parrots tend to live in the most multilingual corners of the world: the Amazon, Indonesia, Central Africa”; “As it turns out, parrots face some of the same language barriers. There are untold hundreds of different parrot dialects”) — read the whole thing.

A couple of brief items: if you’re in NYC on Saturday, you might want to attend the launch of the English edition of Oleg Woolf’s Bessarabian Stamps, translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk; it’s at Kray Hall, December 5, from 2 to 4 PM, and if I were in the city, I’d definitely go. And many, many thanks to whoever Paul, who sent me a copy of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (see this LH post and reviews by Fiona Macdonald at BBC.com, Kirsty Gunn at the Guardian, and Daniel Fraser at Berfrois); not only have I been very much wanting to read the book, but it was sent from Kennys Bookshop in Galway, a town I have nostalgic memories of from a four-decade-old visit. The deep green of the store’s bookmark (enclosed with the copy) nicely complements the brighter green of the book’s cover, and both go well with the green of the grass I see outside my window. It’s a good day.

Comments

  1. Obligatory parrot joke:

    – How much is this parrot?
    – 100 dollars
    – Why so much?
    -But he can speak!
    – And this one?
    – This one is two hundred dollars.
    – Why?
    – He speaks two languages.
    – I see. And that one how much?
    – 500 dollars
    – Wow! This parrot must be a real polyglot then?
    – No. In fact, he doesn’t speak at all.
    – But why he’s so expensive then?
    – The other two parrots call him boss…

  2. Alas, the future looks bleak for grey parrots.

  3. Hausa, a more widely spoken vernacular

    Why vernacular rather than language?

    Vernacular, like tribe, seems to me a word that is used to diminish.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    I was brought up short by “vernacular”, like fisheyed, but I think Keith Ivey is right.

    Now, if it had been “dialect”, the case for the prosecution would be secure.

    “Igala, the mother tongue of less than 1% of Nigerians.”

    A mere million people, more or less ….

  5. I understand vernacular to mean a language that is spoken in a specific area by people who aren’t part of the elite (and maybe by the elite too). Hausa is the most widely spoken language in Nigeria, and is definitely a vernacular there.

    Warning: Ethnologue has now become a subscription site, at $10 a month or $60 a year. You get access to five (IIRC) data pages (excluding index pages) per month, and you can access the same pages any number of times, but after that you are locked out. This sucks.

  6. Warning: Ethnologue has now become a subscription site, at $10 a month or $60 a year. You get access to five (IIRC) data pages (excluding index pages) per month, and you can access the same pages any number of times, but after that you are locked out. This sucks.

    No kidding. I’m very sorry to hear it, and I deplore it in the strongest terms.

  7. Strange that there appears to be no online mention of the change, at least none that I can google up.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    “people who aren’t part of the elite (and maybe by the elite too). Hausa is the most widely spoken language in Nigeria, and is definitely a vernacular there.”

    A large part of the perpetual tension in Nigeria is due to the fact that Hausa-speakers *are* an elite; in the army, in much of politics, and above all, in the north, especially the Islamic component. They are, however, definitely not the economic elite. This ever-fragile state of affairs is the legacy of British colonial policy, which favoured the Muslim Emirs of the old Caliphate of Sokoto, the legacy of Usman dan Fodio’s jihad. Times change …

  9. I would believe the elegant variation explanation if I saw European langauges referred to as “vernaculars” or “local languages”, just as I would believe it about “tribe” if I saw it applied as frequently to contemporary Europeans.

    In the case of Hausa, I don’t think calling it a vernacular rather than a language gives any different or additional information.

  10. Ethnologue subscription page. The new policy kicked in on December 1.

  11. I never knew how reliable the Ethnologue site was because the Tamil page had errors, garbled quotes etc. If I recall correctly, they did not list their sources, which is poor form. I was able to guess one source from the order of a list of dialects, but there were errors in copying. For languages I dont know anything about, I don’t know if I ought to trust them.

    Speaking of resources, I just discovered the the website of the Language Information Service, an Indian govt project. The Tamil section is informative, though dated.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    @fisheyed:

    Basically agree about “vernacular”; in this particular instance its use possibly indicates that the writer isn’t really au fait with just how very important Hausa is in Nigeria. The “The Atlantic” page on him says he’s based in Dakar, though it looks pretty old. More simply, it probably just reflects the general cluelessness about language common even amongst the educated in our culture.

    My own take on Hausa was affected by the fact that I first encountered it not as some “vernacular” but as a lingua franca in Northern Ghana, particularly associated with Islam, high culture and trade (a natural conjunction in West Africa.)

    “Tribe” is a bit different. It’s certainly a word used to denigrate (rather the same way that African kings get downgraded to mere “paramount chiefs”) and I’m happy to avoid it. But I think it does actually have a slightly different factual denotation which makes it in reality less applicable to current European circumstances. It implies kinship; within Africa, the Kusaasi whom I used to work among are a tribe (and English speakers among them have no hangups about saying so) regarding themselves as kindred, albeit sometimes distant; but other groups may be culturally or linguistically defined, and to call them tribes is not just rude but an outright error of fact – “the Hausa” are actually an example. Tuaregs vary in physical appearance from southern Mediterranean to West African and cultural Tuaregs sometimes actually speak Songhay or weird hybrid languages with Songhay basic vocabulary and Tamasheq derivational morphology. In Nigeria most ethnic Fulbe actually speak Hausa. The aristocratic men among them wear veils like Tuaregs. And so on. These are no more “tribes” than “Americans” are a tribe.

  13. The new policy kicked in on December 1.

    Ah, very recent then. That explains the lack of comment online.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    vernacular vs language

    I don’t see that “vernacular” is antithetical to “language”, or that it is equivalent to “dialect” which often carries a negative connotation among non-linguists. To me the word seems to refer to a non-official language. For instance, in many African countries the official language is that of the former colonial power, while a variety of other languages are used within the country, often by local governments, basic education, etc. Apart from allowing easier communication with the outside world, having a “colonial” language as the official language avoids elevating one local, “vernacular” language to superior status over the others, or requiring an unworkable number of “official” languages within the country. (Of course, this policy also has its pitfalls, but that is another topic).

    If the European Union had adopted a single official language (which English “de facto” became in spite of extraordinary translation efforts), the other European languages could be referred to as “vernaculars”. Similarly for the UN, which officially uses only 5 or 6 of the hundreds of languages spoken within the member nations.

  15. writer isn’t really au fait with just how very important Hausa is in Nigeria. The “The Atlantic” page on him says he’s based in Dakar, though it looks pretty old. More simply, it probably just reflects the general cluelessness about language common even amongst the educated in our culture.

    And important as a lingua franca outside of Nigeria, as of course you know. I don’t accept general cluelessness as the explanation, because the lack of clues somehow never ends up overestimating the importance of Hausa, the depth of its written tradition etc. It’s always clueless in one direction.

    “Tribe” is a bit different. It’s certainly a word used to denigrate (rather the same way that African kings get downgraded to mere “paramount chiefs”) and I’m happy to avoid it. But I think it does actually have a slightly different factual denotation which makes it in reality less applicable to current European circumstances.

    Sure.

    And thanks for your detailed reply, which I read with interest.

  16. “paramount chiefs”

    That was a technical necessity of the British Empire being ruled by a King rather than an Emperor until 1876, so none of the subordinate rulers could take the title of King. Indeed, the same was true of both the Holy Roman / Austro-Hungarian empire and the German Empire: no kings.

  17. Since the beginning of Mongol yoke, all Chingizid rulers were called czars by Russians.

    After the yoke ended, many Chingizid princes entered Russian service and joined the highest ranks of the Muscovite elite.

    But before 1547, their master, Grand Duke of Moscow, remained mere grand duke, while his Tatar vassals were called czars.

    After 1547, situation somewhat improved, now czar of Russia had various Tatar czars in his service who were theoretically his equals in rank.

    Gradually, the Tatar czars in Russia were demoted to princes while Russian czar upgraded himself to emperor.

  18. Trond Engen says:

    John C.: That was a technical necessity of the […] Empire: no kings.

    This led to a demand for marriages into kingdoms just outside the imperial borders.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    In the case of the Holy Roman Empire, I mean. I suspect the dynamics of power between the imperial administration and the principalities was quite different in the British colonies.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Gradually, the Tatar czars in Russia were demoted to princes while Russian czar upgraded himself to emperor.”

    Although it’s presumably a rather different issue, I was always struck by how Prince Myshkin is evidently considerably less important than a mere count.

  21. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Russian_princely_families

    Myshkins were invented by Dostoyevsky, perhaps based on princes Myshetsky.

    https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Мышецкие

    They are said to have descended into poverty and insignificance due to their stubborn persistence on keeping the Old Believer Christianity.

    Count is a more recent title, so presumably counts were closer to czar’s favours.

  22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Russian_princely_families

    Myshkins were invented by Dostoyevsky, perhaps based on princes Myshetsky. They are said to have descended into poverty and insignificance due to their stubborn persistence on keeping the Old Believer Christianity.

    Count is a more recent title, so presumably counts were closer to czar’s favours.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    The title of “prince” seems to have meant different things in different countries or traditions. In France, Spain or England (and probably more) the title was restricted to immediate members of the reigning Royal Family, in other countries the title applied to some heads of state within an empire, but in Russia there seems to have been quite a multitude of them, so that genetic relationship with the Emperor was probably out of the question with most of them.

    A while ago I remember citing the following anecdote I read in the memoirs of the Comtesse de Ségur, née Rostopchine (the daughter of the governor of Moscow who set fire to the city to prevent Napoleon from seizing and pillaging it). While a young man her father was a close friend of the Tsar, who was about the same age, and there were a number of young princes from all over the empire hanging around at court in various capacities. Once the tsar came to the realization that Rostopchine was not a prince, unlike the other young men in their circle. “What! you are not a prince! We must make you a prince!” And the tsar arranged for him to get the title.

  24. In the beginning, there was prince Rurik who founded Russia. And all his descendants were princes who ruled Russian principalities. (by 18th century, there were thousands of them, though not everyone kept the title)

    Then, a guy called Gediminas came to power in Lithuania and made himself a prince. He and his descendants conquered about half of Russia, so the proud Rurikovich princes were forced to recognize Lithuanian princes as equals.

    The Rurikovich and Gediminovich princes constituted natural Russian princely families. In addition, there were some immigrant princes and also princes of nations conquered by Russia (for some reason, tiny Georgia had overabundance of them which greatly devalued the title).

    And in 18th century, the czars discovered that they had a power to grant princely rank to anyone they liked. However, they didn’t abuse this privilege, only those who really deserved it got princely rank (prince Potemkin of Taurida, prince Suvorov of Italy, etc)

    Rostopchine was created count, not a prince.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    I quoted his daughter, not him.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you for the explanation of the princely multitude!

  27. While this explains the preponderance of the title князь, I have never understood why it has always been glossed into English and French as ‘prince’. Whatever these minor nobles are, they are certainly not princes in any Western European sense. It’s even more confusing as an actual imperial prince (Великий Князь) is always translated as Grand Duke.

  28. Умом Россию не понять!

  29. Yeah, both the великое княжество Финляндское and the Großfürstentum Siebenbürgen usually get rendered as Grand Duchy in English. Oh, and don’t even get me started on that kaiser business: just recently I overheard a show on the History Channel where somebody, speaking of the Central Powers, said something about “the kaiser” doing this and “the emperor” doing that. Silly goose, they were both emperors and they were both kaisers!

  30. This led to a demand for marriages into kingdoms just outside the imperial borders.

    Indeed, marriage became the standard way for the HRE to grow: bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube. Of course, then the next generation had to find more princely lines still outside the Empire to marry into….

    Fundamentally, Henry II of England had it right. Primogeniture, by which all but the eldest sons were commoners, forced all the younger sons to work for a living and prevented territorial fragmentation (which kept the tax base and local government stable). “Prince(ss)” in England is a life estate only, an honorary title without feudal implications: the eldest son of the sovereign is not Prince of Wales by birth, but only if granted the title (the current one became prince at age 21).

    both emperors and they were both kaisers

    Yes, but by tradition in English the Kaiser means the German Emperor specifically. So by default the Emperor refers to the Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, etc. etc. when you are speaking of both of them.

  31. Yes, but that tradition is silly and annoys me.

  32. But it avoids exactly the confusion implied by your “they were both emperors and they were both kaisers”; why is that silly? It’s as if you were complaining that bow and bough are spelled differently even though they’re pronounced the same. What, you want more ambiguity?

  33. It may have a certain utility that way, but it seems like cheating because it’s inventing a distinction that doesn’t exist in the source language – and I think the fact that that the (Prussian-)German monarch had taken on the same title as the Austrian(-Hungarian) and Holy Roman emperors is significant enough in itself that it does people a disservice to obscure it. I mean, we make do talking about the British king and the French king, not the king and the roi.

  34. it seems like cheating because it’s inventing a distinction that doesn’t exist in the source language

    If you start down that road you will surely go mad.

  35. J. W. Brewer says:

    I think back in the day prior to 1914 the Hohenzollern fellow sometimes got called Emperor William in English-language sources favorably disposed to him but Kaiser Wilhelm in sources less favorably disposed to him, with the practice of the latter ultimately becoming the standard. That his hapless allies are even post-1918 still generally called “emperor” and often called “Francis Joseph” and “Charles” rather than “Franz Josef” and “Karl” just shows we never managed (in the Anglophone world) to drum up the same degree of anti-Hapsburg animus. Also, “Kaiserism” got made up as a pejorative at a time when “imperialism” was not yet necessarily a pejorative.

  36. Yes, the poor Hapsburgs were so insignificant we couldn’t even hate them properly.

  37. taken on the same title

    Not quite the same.

    “imperialism” was not yet necessarily a pejorative

    The OED’s quotations go back to 1684 and are pretty much all pejorative, with only one positive: “Under the pretext of Imperialism and farseeing statesmanship, the habitual and hitherto incurable fault of our Governments — especially of Tory Governments — has been to look too far ahead” (1881), which in fact may be ironic. A few are neutral, or pejorative only if you know the speaker, like Bertrand Russell’s “The argument would be that the economic imperialism of the United States will not tolerate the industrial development of a formidable rival in the Pacific” (1922).

  38. Trond Engen says:

    John Cowan: “Prince(ss)” in England is a life estate only, an honorary title without feudal implications:

    In Scandinavia, no doubt following a German Vorlage, we make the distinction of prins(esse) “child of a king/queen, spouse of a ruling queen, or child or spouse of the heir apparent; pretender to an abolished throne” and fyrst(inn)e “ruler of a principality; holder of a title of that pretension”. Actual usage with foreign titles (and there are no native titles of fyrste in Scandinavia) is more confused. It takes knowledge of the facts on the ground to know that the monarch of Monaco, or the handsome Georgian emigré, or even the Prince of Wales, is not a prins but a fyrste. (Well, the latter of those is a point of little significance, since the principality of Wales is a strictly nominal entity. and anyway, the Prince of Wales is also a prins, but so are his brothers, and his sons, and his father, the dukes.)

  39. Trond Engen says:

    My wife, the conoisseuse of all things royal, hastens to tell me that all those British dukes and duchesses are also princes and princesses in British terminology. But the heir apparent is the only one with a titular principality. The others hold … ducheries?

  40. Duckponds.

  41. I could be wrong, but I think that legally there is no Principality of Wales, nor any British duchies (just as there’s no Kingdom of England or Kingdom of Scotland) – just titles with places associated with them. For what it’s worth, the Germanic and Scandinavian Wikipedias all seem to indicate that Prince Charles’s title can be translated in either manner.

  42. “German”, I mean.

  43. J. W. Brewer says:

    Here’s a British duchy with its own website (proof positive of ontological reality!): http://www.duchyoflancaster.co.uk/. But its Duke has another job as the Queen, and perhaps it and the Duchy of Cornwall (also controlled by the royal family) are the only ones, with e.g. the Duke of Devonshire having no authority over either the actual geographical Devonshire or even some legal abstraction related thereto.

  44. Trond Engen says:

    Lazar: I could be wrong, but I think that legally there is no Principality of Wales, nor any British duchies (just as there’s no Kingdom of England or Kingdom of Scotland) – just titles with places associated with them.

    Oh, sure. I didn’t mean to imply anything else. The legal existence of the kingdoms could probably be argued, though, as constituents of the Union of 1707.

  45. Yes, the Duchies of Lancaster (held by the monarch) and Cornwall (held by the monarch’s heir) are the only remaining duchies in the UK. However, by no means all dukes are princes: rather, the princes who bear ducal titles have been given them so that their heirs male will inherit a title. The exception is the dukedom of Rothesay in Scotland, which has been held jointly with the dukedom of Cornwall since the Union of the Crowns: Charles isnae cried Prince of Wales nor Duke of Cornwall in Scotland, but ay Duik o Rothesay. (Note the distinction between duchy, a place, and dukedom, an office or title.)

    Beyond all these, there are 24 hereditary non-royal dukedoms: Norfolk, Somerset, Richmond, Grafton, Beaufort, St. Albans, Bedford, Devonshire, Marlborough, Rutland in the peerage of England; Hamilton, Buccleuch, Argyll, Atholl, Montrose, Roxburghe in the peerage of Scotland; Manchester, Northumberland in the peerage of Great Britain; Leinster, Abercorn in the peerage of Ireland; Wellington, Sutherland, Westminster, Fife in the peerage of the UK.

    [*] By the way, there has been no “Devonshire” for centuries; the county is called Devon, though Devonshire (i.e. clotted) cream has kept that name (just as with Scotch whiskey, beef, pie, etc.) and so has the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    I never knew how reliable the Ethnologue site was

    From what I’ve read, very heterogenous; sometimes even its religious worldview seems to shine through.

    That was a technical necessity of the British Empire being ruled by a King rather than an Emperor until 1876, so none of the subordinate rulers could take the title of King. Indeed, the same was true of both the Holy Roman / Austro-Hungarian empire and the German Empire: no kings.

    There were two kings in the Holy Roman Empire: the German King (always identical with the Emperor) and the King of Bohemia (not, for the first few hundred years, identical with the Emperor, but a vassal).

    Indeed, marriage became the standard way for the HRE to grow:

    Ha, that would be easy! I’m not sure if the HRE ever grew; it shrunk in 1648 and then didn’t change till its end in 1804 – at which point both Austria and Prussia had long had possessions on both sides of the Imperial Border. On maps like this you can often see the Imperial Border as a line that cuts randomly through colored territories.

    In Scandinavia, no doubt following a German Vorlage, we make the distinction of

    Yep: Prinz / Prinzessin “child of a monarch, or spouse thereof”, Fürst / Fürstin “the other meanings of ‘prince'”.

    I’ve never seen Prince Charles called a Fürst; but part of the reason may be that not only his name, but often even his title are left untranslated. His mother was a Prinzessin before she became Queen of Hearts. Prince Philip is Prinzgemahl, “princely spouse”, by profession.

  47. David Marjanović says:

    [*] By the way, there has been no “Devonshire” for centuries; the county is called Devon, though Devonshire (i.e. clotted) cream has kept that name (just as with Scotch whiskey, beef, pie, etc.) and so has the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment.

    Much like in China: the (scientific) names of certain Jurassic and Cretaceous animals only make sense if you’re helpfully informed that the current province of Liaoning once was home to three Yan states or that Sichuan (I think) is broadly congruent with some ancient entity called Shu.

  48. Trond Engen says:

    David M.: I’ve never seen Prince Charles called a Fürst;

    Neither have I. It’s a point of pure pedantry, fun to make but totally irrelevant in the real world.

    but part of the reason may be that not only his name, but often even his title are left untranslated.

    Not so here. Prinsen av Wales

  49. The German Empire did have kings – one of Prussia who doubled as emperor, and one each for Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg. (Kingdoms, notably, were allowed to maintain their own armies.) The funny thing is that those latter three elevated themselves from electors after Napoleon scrapped the HRE with its king-prohibition, and the later federal empire didn’t bother trying to demote them. This post-imperial rank inflation also led many duchies to elevate themselves to grand duchies. (I’m not sure what Luxembourg is trying to prove at this point.)

    Within the Austrian crownlands, the emperor retained the old kingship of Bohemia, and was also king of Galicia and Dalmatia, neither of which had been in the HRE.

  50. I confess to blurring the distinctions between the HRE and the AHE, as well as overlooking the Bohemian Crown.

  51. Not forgetting the Duchy of Normandy. Her Majesty reigns in the Channel Islands as Duke of Normandy; the loyal toast on the islands is “La Reine, notre Duc !”.

    ‘Devon’ instead of ‘Devonshire’ is a relatively recent development. Both have been in use for centuries but ‘Devon’ was informal. Most maps until the early 20th century mark the county as Devonshire. It wasn’t until the Local Government Act (1888) that the short-form Devon was adopted as the official name of the county..

  52. David Marjanović says:

    its end in 1804

    Oops – 1806.

  53. The loyal toast is indeed to the Duke, but that is informal: the Queen’s Crown in right of Jersey/Guernsey, per the Treaty of Paris (1259) is the monarch in the two bailiwicks.

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