We’re sure you’ve caught our April Fool’s day spoof 🙂 If you haven’t yet, we encourage you to take the time for this entertaining read! (and don’t forget that our Fund Drive is still running for two more weeks: http://funddrive.linguistlist.org/)
Puerto Lempira, Honduras —- Shrouded in mystery and dense rain forest, the region known as La Mosquitia In south-eastern Honduras is one of the largest and least explored wilderness areas in Central America. It adjoins the Caribbean Sea to the east; its Caribbean shore constitutes part of the Mosquito Coast, which was something of a pirate haven during the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy in the 17th and early 18th centuries.
Recently, aerial surveys have revealed for the first time untouched ruins left by a mysterious and yet unnamed civilization. The latest archeological team to venture into La Mosquitia is a joint Honduran-American expedition led by Dr. Rebecca Webb of Penrose University. Dr. Webb’s team is now excavating a site that appears to have been a significant pre-Columbian urban center.
La Mosquitia provides an ideal habitat for many species, including an astonishing number of bird species and subsubspecies. One of these is the Yellow-Naped Amazon parrot, which is renowned for its ability to mimic human speech.
During the excavation’s third week, Dr. Webb noticed an intricately carved chunk of stone protruding from the rain-forest floor. She thought it might be a were-jaguar head and crouched down for a closer look it. Just then, completely out of the blue, she heard a parrot’s squawky voice say, “Thee bist a zon of a biscuit eater.” Or at least that’s how she transcribed it.
“The voice certainly gave me a start,” she said. “I looked up and saw a beautiful Yellow-Naped parrot perched on a branch not more than five meters away. I immediately scratched down a quasi-phonetic transcription of the vocalization, but I confess I didn’t understand what it meant. It did strike as sounding like human speech, however, and I was pretty confident that it ended with the words “of a biscuit eater”.
Soon other members of Dr. Webb’s team reported encounters with parrots whose vocalizations sounded incredibly like human speech. Some sounded almost like a strange form of English, but others were largely unintelligible, such as the following, as transcribed by members of the team: “Avast ye zee dogs” and “Veed the vizhez”.
Jessica Pollard, a student of Dr. Webb’s, had studied German and thus was able to recognize the word “bist” in Webb’s initial transcription as the 2nd-person singular form of the German verb “sein” (“to be”). It then occurred to her that the preceding word “thee” might be the archaic English 2nd-person pronoun, mostly because it would agree the verb in the grammatical category “person” if in little else.
Mystified, Dr. Webb decided to contact her friend Dr. Montague Hyde, a dialectologist at Kingsbridge College in the UK. When Webb told him about the parrots, Hyde was astounded and more than a little skeptical, but he nevertheless agreed to board a flight for Honduras the following day. Even as he took his seat on the plane, Hyde was beginning to form a hypothesis about the parrots’ vocalizations, but it seemed utterly ludicrous. He simply had to observe the phenomena with his own eyes and ears.
Once Prof. Hyde arrived at the site and heard the parrots for himself, his wild hypothesis was confirmed in short order. To his astonishment, the parrots’ vocalizations turned out to be very close to the English spoken in the county of Somerset, England around 300 years ago. That is, the parrots seemed to be exhibiting fossilized fragments of a centuries-old form of English.
Prof. Hyde notes certain key properties of the parrots’ vocalizations that led him to this amazing conclusion. According to Hyde, the clearest piece of evidence lies in the sounds z (and zh) and v. For example, when Hyde heard the parrots say, “Veed the vizhez,” he at once recognized it as the Somerset way of saying, “Feed the fishes,” since in Somerset English, the fricatives s and f become z and v, except when adjacent to another consonant.
Thus, “zee dogs” in “avast ye zee dogs” corresponds to “seadogs,” and “zon” in “Thee bist a zon of a biscuit eater“ corresponds to the modern Received Pronunciation “son”. According to Hyde, this voicing of fricatives in Somerset and surrounding counties is a very old phenomenon.
“One can find it Shakespeare, in fact,” Hyde observes. “For example, in King Lear, Act IV, Scene 6, the character Edgar affects a Somerset accent to disguise himself:
“Chill not let go, zir, without vurther ‘cagion.”
“The words ‘zir’ and ‘vurther,’” Hyde explains, “are supposed to be the Somerset forms of ‘sir’ and ‘further,’ respectively. ’Chill’ is in fact a contraction of a very Germanic 1st-person person ‘Ich’ and ‘will’. And ’’cagion’…I have no idea what ”cagion’ is.”
The occurrence of ‘Ich’ in King Lear reminds Hyde of the phrase “thee bist” in the initial vocalization: “Thee best a son of a biscuit eater.” Hyde says that “bist” is indeed is a relic of an earlier Germanic form of the verb ‘to be’. He adds that the form “thee” has long been used as a nominative pronoun in Somerset, even though “ye be” is today more common than “thee bist” for saying “you (sg) are.”
According to Hyde, to call someone a son of biscuit eater was a fairly common insult in the 17th and 18th centuries. He further expounds, “Though it may not sound particularly bad to our ears, it’s doesn’t sound particularly good either, does it? I mean, I think we can agree that it’s certainly not a compliment to call someone the progeny of a compulsive eater of biscuits.” Even so, Dr. Webb, didn’t seem to be especially offended upon learning what that first parrot had actually called her. “I’ve been called worse,” she said.
But where and from whom did these parrots acquire these words and expressions? According to Hyde, the source can be none other than the West-Country pirates who terrorized the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly 1650 to 1730). “The parrots’ vocabulary, phonetics, and idioms match this context perfectly,” Hyde says. “The southwestern counties at that time produced a lot of sailors—-a lot of sailors, including pirates.”
Sarah Bradford, a parrot specialist at the Honduran Zoological Society speculates that some 300 years ago, a pirate—-let us call him Edward—-adopted a certain Yellow-Naped Amazon parrot named Polly. Edward, having hailed from Somerset in England, spoke in the Somerset dialect. According to Bradford, yellow-naped parrots happen to be excellent “talkers”, second only to the African Grey parrot in their ability to mimic human speech. Edward’s pet parrot no doubt learned to replicate many colorful expressions.
Now, while parrots are famously long-lived, pirates aren’t, so Polly probably outlived Edward. After Edward died, perhaps on or just off the Mosquito Coast, Polly would have probably flown off into the jungle of La Mosquitia and found a mate. He would have taught his young and perhaps also his mate the words and phrases he learned during his life as a piratical pet.
Bradford further speculates that the descendants of Polly could have continued to transmit these vocalization from generation to generation. She explains that to parrots, the precise mimicking of a vocalization is more important than the vocalization’s semantic content, so perhaps parrots are better able to replicate a vocalization from generation to generation than humans. Remember also that the lifespan of a Yellow-Naped Amazon parrot is 60-80 years. Such long lives would help bridge the gap between 300 years ago and the present.
Author: Tony Meyer