The Birds’ Amharic.

Yves Stranger writes for Understanding Ethiopia about የወፍ ቋንቋ (yewof kwankwa), ‘language of the birds,’ “a codified version of Amharic which makes words, sentences and conversations unintelligible to untrained listeners.” It’s a simple insertion game:

How does it work? Let’s pick a simple example. ‘thank you,’ in Amharic, is አመሰግናለሁ (amasegenalehu). You take the word, sound by sound, and interweave the syllable ፍት (fet) into it, starting after the first sound, and leaving the last one uncovered. Thus, amasegenalehu becomes afetmafetsefetgefetnafetlefethu (or, አፍትመፍትሰፍትግፍትናፍትለፍትሁ).

What’s amusing are the myths that have grown from this twig:

There are others who hold, without the least element of proof, that የወፍ ቋንቋ was first used at the court of Emperor Zare Jacob, who believed that by so doing conversations would not be eavesdropped upon by demons. But this seems farfetched even though we do know that the same emperor had his servants tattooed with the words ‘I renounce Satan’ on their hands and wrists and made it mandatory to bear a cross on the foreheads for all of the inhabitants of the realm.

Some philologists insist that Amharic itself is a language of the birds that came to be so widespread that it superseded the original – much simpler – language. This theory holds that the Amharic we now know was invented by a monk from Waldiba. In this theory, to say ‘thank you’ in Amharic you originally said አም (am). It is only much later that the sequence ሰግናለሁ (segenalehu) was added to confuse and lead astray eavesdroppers and foreigners – and any wayfaring demons. Time passed, more and more people came to use the complex form and the simpler language was forgotten forever – the bird of simplicity had flown the nest, so to speak, leaving us with the esoterically difficult language we now have to cope with. […]

This ፍት version is just one of the languages of the birds, and the simplest – the schoolchildren’s version, for the uninitiated. The ድ and ዘ varieties – or should we say dialects? – are much more complicated, and are only practiced by certain anchorites. Mostly when praying out loud, as they do not wish outsiders to learn of their secret heterodoxies. In these languages, not only does the added letter (or better said, fidel) become interspaced between the syllables, but also takes on the vocalic order of the preceding syllable, or fidel. A matter best left to the initiate, believe me.

Thanks, Kobi! For parallels in other languages, I refer the reader to Stuart Davis’s “Language Games“:

There are language games that insert a sequence of phonemes before or after every syllable of the word. For example, Malayalam has a language game in which the sequence pa– is inserted before every syllable of the word. Thus the Malayalam name kamala is realized in the language game as paka-pama-pala. In one dialect of a very common Latin American Spanish language game the sequence –pV (where V stands for a copy of the preceding vowel) is inserted after every syllable. Thus the Spanish word grande ‘big’ is realized in the language game as granpa-depe.

In some language games the inserted sequence appears only once in the word. The location of the inserted sequence is usually made with respect to the first or last syllable of the word. In English Skimono Jive the sequence sk– is inserted before the first syllable of the word. Thus the word you would be pronounced as skyou. Finnish has a language game in which the sequence is inserted after the first syllable. Hence jonglööri ‘juggler’ is realized as jong-tä-lööri. Egyptian Arabic has a language game in which the inserted sequence tinV (where V is a copy of the penultimate vowel) appears before the final syllable of the word. Thus the Egyptian Arabic yeddihali ‘he gives it to me’ has the language game form yeddiha-tina-li.

Not all language games that make use of the insertion mechanism insert a sequence at syllable boundaries. There are language games in which the inserted sequence occurs within the syllable. One possibility is that the inserted sequence is inserted after every vowel of the word. So, for example, in another dialect of the Latin American Spanish language game mentioned above, grande ‘big’ is realized as grafa-ndefe with insertion after each vowel rather than after each syllable. In the German language game B-Sprache insertion occurs also after the vowel. Thus das ‘that’ is pronounced as da-ba-s in B-Sprache. On the other hand, in the English language game ap-talk, which is less common than Pig Latin, the phonetic sequence [ap] is inserted after the syllable-initial consonants (ie, before each vowel of the word). Thus the word pencil would be realized as papencapil (ie, [pap´nsapΙl). There is a variation on ap-talk known as Abi-dabi in which the inserted sequence is [ab] rather than [ap]. However, the location of the insertion is the same.


  1. The English variety is called Oppish. I don’t know if it’s [ɒp] rather than [ɑp] in BrE; WP speaks only of the U.S., Canada, and Ireland.

  2. The favorite variant in my childhood got the combination -ithig- inserted before every vowel. Slightly more cumbersome than monosyllabic insertions, but effective even on kids who were hip to the simpler variants.

  3. marie-lucie says

    In French there is a variety called le javanais, which is not the actual Javanese language but French with -av- inserted in each syllable, as in javavavanavais or fravançavais.

  4. I worry about the accuracy of an article that doesn’t know how to spell “Ubbi Dubbi.”

  5. Absabloominlutely.

  6. I have from my childhood a book which reports some half a dozen language games of this variety based on Finnish (among them ver insertion, ti insertion and la insertion); no insertion among them however. In fact I have never come across most of these in use, mainly just one fairly common type: kontinkieli, formed by inserting kontti (‘backpack’ or ‘limb’) after either every word or every stress group, and spoonerizing the results. E.g. vaka vanha Väinämöinen would thereby transform into kokavantti konhavantti Koinavänttikoinenmöntti.

  7. JPystynen: can you tell me what that book is called? I know ver-insertion from North Saami too.

  8. David Marjanović says

    I’ve never come across any in use in German, but I’ve read about one: duplicate every syllable nucleus and insert -lef-. For, presumably, some reason the obligatory example is always ich bin dumm “I am stupid” becoming ilefich bilefin dulefumm.

    and spoonerizing the results.

    Truly impressive.

  9. I remember Ubbi Dubbi from “Zoom”, but I never really got into it.

  10. Dee Longfield says

    Gibberish spoken in the movie “Slums of Beverly Hills” at the 55sec mark of this Youtube video:

  11. Israel owes the Hebrew incarnation of B-Sprache, /sfat ha-bet/, its very first Eurovision Song Contest victory (1978):

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