What have birds got to do with multilingualism?

Katrin Kohl

You may have noticed a surprising number of swallows on our website, and a research strand looking at the naming of birds. Why birds in a research programme on multilingualism?

Birds – or at any rate the way people respond to them – can tell us a lot about the creative processes involved when different peoples use language in response to their natural environment. By focusing on these ubiquitous creatures, we can get a good insight into the ways people integrate ecological knowledge in their lives through comparison, metaphor and narrative, and what similarities and differences there are across different groups and their respective languages.

Connecting areas of linguistic diversity

Heralding the spring wherever they arrive, British Barn Swallows travel over 10,000 miles across Europe and Africa to winter in South Africa’s summer. Their migrations connect areas of great ecological, cultural and linguistic diversity, and this makes the bird special in linguistic terms. For unlike types of habitation, or tools, or plants, which differ subtly from one community or biological habitat to the next, we can determine whether what a community is naming, or writing stories about, is identical to what another community is responding to. In Europe alone, there are more than 2,000 folk names for the bird, and they in turn inspire other names and expressions such as – in English – ‘swallowtail’ (a kind of butterfly) and ‘swallow dive’ (in diving, and by extension rugby).

The Barn Swallow inspired one of the projects for our research strand on ‘Creating a Meaningful World: Nature in Name, Metaphor and Myth’. The researchers are conducting community and classroom investigations into traditional ecological knowledge, intergenerational communication, linguistic diversity, history, and conservation, and they will be encouraging exploration of linguistic and cultural knowledge within and between communities around the world. The research will include both classroom learning and citizen science initiatives, and involve pursuits ranging from semi-structured ethno-ornithology interviews and investigations into folk names, mythologies, and beliefs within communities, to international comparative cultural and linguistic research. The Ethno-ornithology World Archive is collaborating with project partner BirdLife International and networking with linguists through the Smithsonian Recovering Voices project and the SOAS Plants, Animals, and Words initiative to provide the geographic and digital network necessary for the global scope of this project.

Migrating through literary and philosophical texts

While the project is focusing on the geographical paths of migration, it’s intriguing to consider that written language has enabled these beautiful birds also to migrate through literary and philosophical texts, travel the globe along pathways opened up by translation, and elucidate advice on how we should conduct our lives. Aesop’s rather unhappy Fable about The Young Man and the Swallow is likely to have inspired a statement by Aristotle which in turn gave rise to an English proverb we still use today – ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’:

“ἔτι δ᾽ ἐν βίῳ τελείῳ.  μία γὰρ χελιδὼν ἔαρ οὐ ποιεῖ,  οὐδὲ μία ἡμέρα.  οὕτω δὲ οὐδὲ μακάριον καὶ  εὐδαίμονα μία ἡμέρα  οὐδ᾽ ὀλίγος χρόνος.”

(Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a16, c. 340 BC.)

“To be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.”


Image source: By Benjamint444 (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons