Words for birds

What is this bird saying?

An odd question for openers, maybe, but the call of the male black francolin or black partridge, francolinus francolinus (fr-fr from now on), must have something about it, because there seem to be versions of what the fr-fr says in practically every language spoken across its range, and that stretches from Turkey to India.  It used to be wider still, but as Percy Molesworth Sykes put it, fr-fr makes “splendid shooting and equally good eating”.

In the ancient world the fr-fr, known as the attagas (or attagen, attagena), was a celebrated delicacy, and that’s how I first came across it, in a poem by the Roman epigrammatist Martial. It’s in a collection called Xenia, “Gifts” (about AD 85), poems describing presents sent home with party guests at the festival of the Saturnalia, and the fr-fr is there as a particularly tasty bird: in fact the poem in full runs, “Of the flavours of birds, the foremost is reckoned to be/ the taste of Ionian fr-frs.” But in the course of making a pretty tenuous argument about this poem I discovered that an elaborate folktale had been woven around the fr-fr‘s call: the birds, so the story went, had been captured in Lydia and taken to Egypt, and the Egyptians suffered punishment for mistreating them in the shape of a failure of the all-important Nile flood. Ever since, the birds have commemorated the vengeance visited on the Egyptians, crying tris tois kakourgois kaka or tris tois kakois ta kaka, “Threefold evils on the evildoers!”

Another tale of mistreatment is told on modern Cyprus. A young wife gets into an argument with her cruel mother-in-law about the baking: were there twenty-four or twenty-three loaves? Eventually the mother-in-law loses her temper and pushes the girl herself into the oven, but God takes pity on her and turned her into a fr-fr. Now the bird protests for eternity, ’kostethera, ‘kostethera, pethera!, “Twenty-four, twenty-four, mother-in-law.”

When Babur, founder of the Moghul Empire, wrote about what he called the durraj in his memoirs, the Baburnama, there aren’t any stories attached, unfortunately; or at least he doesn’t record any. But it’s a fascinating passage. He’s describing the fauna and flora of his new possession, Hindustan, in effect north-west India, and when he gets to the fr-fr he writes,

“It has a fantastic cry. Sher daram shakarak [“I have milk and a little sugar”] can be heard from its cry. It says sher like qit, but it pronounces daram shakarak quite correctly. The partridges is Astarabad say qat meni tuttilar [“Quick, they have seized me!”] , and those in Arabia and thereabouts say bi’sh-shukri tadumu ‘n-ni’am [“With gratitude good things endure”].”

So Babur gives us three versions of the fr-fr‘s call, in Persian, Turkish and Arabic: the text and translations here are from Thackston’s version of the Baburnama, which I enthusiastically recommend. But what seems clear here is that Babur doesn’t regard these as words attributed to the fr-fr by Persians, Turks and Arabs. He thinks the birds are actually speaking their local languages, though Persian not so fluently: “It says sher [“milk”] like qit, but it pronounces daram shakarak [“I have a little sugar”] quite correctly.”

Perhaps Babur’s just being naively open about something common to all these attempts to fit human words to a bird’s mating call: all of them are confusing birds with humans at some level. (The proper ornithologists sternly eschew anthropomorphism and go for clip, gek-ge-gek, gek-ge-gek; or lohee-uha-which-a-whick; or compare it to “the harsh grating blast of a cracked trumpet”, if anyone happens to know what that sounds like.) 

A few more versions, mainly courtesy of Hobson-Jobson: two in Urdu, lahsan piyaz adrak, “Garlic, onion and ginger”, and khuda teri qudrat, “God is thy strength!”; and two from the British in India, which I can’t help thinking offer a snapshot of the military life led by the “sportsmen” most likely to encounter the fr-fr: “Be quick, pay your debts” and “Fixed bayonets, straight ahead!”

Sir Richard Francis Burton offers another Arabic version, man sakat salam, “who is silent is safe,” along with the observation, “All primitive peoples translate the songs of birds with human language, but, as I have noticed, the versions differ widely.” True enough, except that I don’t think there’s anything exclusively “primitive” about all this. There’s no doubt, though, that behind this confused babel of languages attributed to francolinus francolinus there’s a very simple impulse shared by Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Turks and even Englishmen, to give a human shape to the non-human world.

Whether any of these “translations” sound anything like the fr-fr is another matter.

Addendum, 22.09.2013: a beautiful image of Babur’s durraj from a manuscript of the Baburnama in the British Library, by the artist Mansur. My thanks to BL Asian and African for this!

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

One response to “Words for birds”

  1. Jamal Jafri says :

    Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for sharing!

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