Lund Language Diversity Forum Blog

A blog about the wonderful diversity of the world's languages, updated biweekly by the members of Lund Language Diversity Forum.

Summer etymologies: Chirps and bonks

Bird names are an exceptionally good source for funny and descriptive nomenclature. They also have some of the most predictable etymologies around as they often are of onomatopoeic origin regardless of whether the names are inherited from an earlier language stage or borrowed from another language.

For example, the English word cuckoo is very similar to the typical call the bird makes. This specific form probably comes from Old French cucu which could be entirely imitative but might simultaneously be derived from Latin cucūlus. The funny thing is that before this form was introduced to English, Old English speakers used the word ġēac. While ġēac might seem less imitative than cuckoo, it does derive from Proto-Germanic *gaukaz, which also consist of k-like sound (g), followed by a rounded vowel diphthong and another k-like sound, just like cuckoo.

Another telling example is owl which is very similar to the bird’s hooting call and to words such as howl and ululate. For comparison, the taxonomical genus horned owls belong to is called bubo, containing different, but equally hoot-like speech sounds.

Similarly, English names for the small birds belonging to the Paridae family include the tits and titmice. These names could be of imitative origin as well, since the sounds in the bird names resemble high-pitched chirping.  These sounds also denote small size, which can be found in words such as titbit as well. In North American English these birds are referred to as chickadees, which is more certainly of imitative origin due to the similarities between the names and the birds’ alarm calls.

Lastly, using names based on how something sounds like is of course not restricted only to birds. While there are hundreds of such words just in English, some of my favorites include the limnodynastes dumerilii, or the pobblebonk, named after its bonk-like call, and the dik-dik, used four species of tiny antelopes named after the repetitive dik-like sound whistle through their snouts.

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