On the Trail of Bird Language

by Translation Guy on February 22, 2013

It’s the spring terminology roundup at Rancho de 1-800-Translate. Just after sunset, high up on the Pecos. Deer, antelope play.

Spurs jingle as Translation Guy, trail boss for the whole outfit, approaches the word wranglers sitting around the chuck wagon fire. He spits a big chew into the fire, and takes a long pull on the carton of Chablis, wiping his hand across his mouth by way of introduction.

“This here company campfire meeting is going to be a training moment on what is the most beautiful language in the world, which I am to settle once and all for tonight. Thanks to all the languages we do here at 1-800-Translate, I’ve had a cup of coffee with a fair number of them and consider myself quite the expert.” At this, the wranglers look at each other and roll their eyes.  “And they’ve all been pretty languages. But…” Translation Guy removes his sombrero, smoothing his comb-over sadly. “…I regret that in all those years we have never translated even one word of the most beautiful language in the world.”

“What are you talking about, jefe? We do tons of Spanish,” says Maite, as she picks at her teeth with a Bowie knife. “Spanish is the most beautiful language and we do muy mucho!” The Denver office, aka  los crónicos, raise a ragged cheer from the haze on their side of the campfire.

TranslationGuy lifts his eye patch to give them a warning glare, and turns to Maite. “It surely is a beautiful language, amiga, but not the most beautiful of all, if you will forgive me for saying so.”

“Eto ne, bossu.” says Naoyuki.  “I know! You must of course be referring to Japanese, home language of haiku and falling cherry blossoms.”

“Japanese is a mighty pretty language and I’ll be the first to say it, but still not the most beautiful, I’m afraid. So sorry, Naoyuki-san.” This accompanied by a polite bow as Translation Guy spits once more into the fire.

Capt. Rodrigues looked up from the rabbit she is turning on a ramrod spit over the fire. “Well, I think…”

“Now hold on just a minute, Captain.” TranslationGuy says, “We’re not going thru this same shebang with Portuguese now too.  We got to keep this post moving.  I’ve got a readership to consider here too.”

“That’ ain’t what I was going to say.   I was going to say that you better not spit your tobacco on my rabbit.”

“I aim to eat some of that rabbit, so you got nothing to worry about, Captain.” Another spit, to emphasize the point.  “Anyways, as I was saying, the most beautiful language in the world is not that spoken by any particular ethnic group no matter how kawaii they may be. I am talking about the universal language of all creation.

“It’s what that old cowpoke Willis Eschenbach calls “bird language.”  That is the common tongue of all living creatures, the sounds and looks and movements that all animals understand no matter their kind. A language writ by the author on high,  Gaia’s own lingua franca, you might say, depending on your own particular belief system.

“Eshenbach says, ‘the ripples of the bird language roll outwards in circles, one bird squawks funny, a squirrel down the way chitters the message, the woodpecker on the far side of the hill stops to listen…. Bird language links all of the forest dwellers throughout the course of their lives, they swim in it, they listen to each other’s warnings and see who shows up, it’s how news gets around in the forest.’“It takes long hours polishing a saddle or  a stump in the woods to listen in on this language, which most folks have sense enough to avoid.

“Domesticated as we are, the call of the wild has been pixelated down to the opening credits on the flat screen, yet we all know it in our hearts, tattooed as it is in our DNA.”

“Keep your drawers up, boss, we don’t need to see it!” yells one of the wranglers  out of the darkness.

TranslationGuy removes his hands from his belt and continues. “Now your scientists stay away from bird language for fear of mistaking this universal language for anthropomorphic fuzzy-headedness.  So we’ll just leave those eggheads to cook their own data sets and stick to campfire stories told true by those who’ve had the chance to bushwhack their way into bird language conversations.”

“Next campfire,  I’ll talk about  Bird Language and driving cattle, but for now it’s yodeling time. I’ve got Ranger Doug laying out “Lonely Yukon Stars,” which is the lullaby is use to favor for my little roly-poly many years past.  Hope it puts you to sleep as well, if this post hasn’t done the trick for you yet.

Sweet dreams, saddle pals. Until we ride again. -TranslationGuy


  1. Wilber says:

    Thanks, Ken, for your evocative campfire vignette (gotta look that word up sometime) and especially for the beautiful sample of Ranger Doug and his pals. Whatever became of those guys? I loved ’em.

    That “Eto ne” is a flummoxer. For a split second I thought it was the start of a Russian phrase – “This isn’t/doesn’t …” what? (cf our “xoxo” exchange some while ago). How’s that go in American, Pilgrim?

    Don’t know about “prettiest language.” For a while years ago I thought Romanian was, but maybe my judgment was influenced by the pretty mouth that mouthed it.

    Looking forward to the next campfire.

  2. Great article, and despite the romantic tale about bird language, I have to side with those picking Spanish as the most beautiful language.

  3. Personally I think English is the greatest language of all, of complex and confusing, ever evolving and abused. There is nothing so diverse or rich in all of communication, be it between humans or animals.

  4. Emir Badach says:

    I actually own a book written by Ranger Doug, about the singing cowboy phenomenon in the 1930s, called “Singing in the Saddle” and it really is quite good. Doug apparently has a Masters in Literature, he’s one hell of a writer.

    • Ken says:

      I’ll check it out.

  5. So squirrels speak bird, but do birds speak squirrel? Or dog? Or are all animals just forced to learn bird?

  6. Good piece, certainly one sometimes forgets that language is not exclusive to humans.

  7. I never got the appeal of cowboys, the whole thing is just lost on me. I certainly have an appreciation of nature and it’s noises, but cowboys? Just escapes me.

    • Ken says:

      Not even yodeling cowboys, Rebecca? That’s always been the magic charm for me.

  8. Dolores says:

    Now I’m stuck with this image of you with a huge hat and a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate, it’s somewhat disconcerting.

    • Ken says:

      You nailed it.

  9. Bethany says:

    Portuguese, really? Someone is throwing that hat in the ring?

    • Ken says:


  10. I’d have to agree, while certainly French and Spanish, or various Asian languages have pleasing tones and intensities to them, there is nothing quite like the flow of a songbird or the howl of a wolf and the rhythm they comprise.

  11. Not sure about the view that Japanese is a beautiful language, although my personal feelings may be coloured by working alongside people who used to yell and shout, rapid fire Japnese that cam across as just harsh and ugly.

  12. Not too fond of “bird language” so to speak, I had a Magpie that lived in my garden for a time, stealing things, killing songbirds and generally making horrid noises and a complete nuisance of himself; not all the music of nature carries a beautiful tune.

    • Ken says:

      I had to get rid of my daughter’s cockatiel for the same reason. That bird was driving me crazy.

  13. That article you linked to, while really good, kind of destoyed all my boyhood notions about being a cowboy.

    • Ken says:

      Busted dreams is the cowboy way.

  14. Sam Lampert says:

    As much as I hate the French, their language has to be one of the prettiest there is.

    • Ken says:

      That’s downright unhateful of you, Sam.

  15. Candida says:

    I do so love these little vignettes that have humour, knowledge and usually a fair bit of irrevrence to fill a few minutes of my dreary day.

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