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A new term for birdwatchers: Warblish

Date: 23 October 2017

Every English-speaking birdwatcher is familiar with the concept of stringing together easily remembered words in order to mimic a birdsong, such as Who cooks for you? (Barred owl) or Chicago! (California quail).

While in English, these jingles are often used for attuning people’s ears to birdsongs, in other cultures similar practice can transmit important cultural information such as seasonal changes.

Linguist Hannah Sarvasy writes that setting human words to birdsong may be a wide-spread human tendency. Sarvasy coined the term warblish to describe the practice. Warblish (which uses combinations of actual words) is distinct from onomatopoeia (which invents words to approximate sounds in nature).

Sarvasy is a field linguist who has worked in Africa and New Guinea. Growing up with enthusiastic birder parents made her especially aware of birdsong while documenting endangered languages.

During her research, Sarvasy was surprised to find that even ethno-ornithologists had no term to describe what she had observed in several field sites: locals would say things like, “The hondong bird calls, ‘Mother, where are you?’” This led Sarvasy to comb the ethnographic literature for examples like this from cultures around the world—and to realize that the warblish of more traditional small communities often differs significantly in tone and content from the warblish known to U.S. birders. For example, in a recent paper in the Journal of Ethnobiology, Sarvasy shows warblish in North American and Australian English is often flippant or bawdy; much of this warblish, like Nice old ladies don’t chew (Northern waterthrush), or Shit a brick! (White-plumed honeyeater), draws its humor from its incongruity with the birds to which it is attributed. In contrast, warblish in other cultures can be portentful, or relate to seasonal changes, or highlight birds’ roles in mythology. In certain cultures, people even quote warblish in other languages—the equivalent of a California quail calling ¡Sí señor!

Sarvasy believes it’s high time that the widespread, and possibly universal, practice, is referred to by a single term that can apply to both mnemonic, training functions, as in North America and Australia, and to more traditional functions elsewhere. “Warblish is the solution!” says Sarvasy. 

Image above: One Australian warblish phrase for the fluty, carolling call of the Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) is “waddle giggle gargle”.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University