FOR generations, naturalists and twitchers have tried their darnedest to convert birdsong into written language, but the results, to put it kindly, have been a bit mixed.
The difficulties are legion, but the main sticking points were brilliantly summed up a couple of years ago in a book by the poet and author John Bevis. In From Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds, Bevis didn’t attempt to concoct any transcriptions of his own – instead, his goal was to track down as many existing efforts as he could and gather them all together in the same place.
“The idea of transcribing birdsong into human language does seem slightly absurd,” he wrote in his introduction, and the resulting list of words proved him more-or-less right. In several cases there were multiple spellings of the same sound made by the same species. One bird was quoted as making a “wha-wha-wha” sound and also a “wow-wow-wow” sound, begging the question: which spelling is the more accurate? You could get a panel of experts to debate that one for a month, but in the end you can pretty much guarantee that the favoured spelling wouldn’t replicate the actual bird anyway.
Bevis used his list to suggest that, in spite of all our linguistic sophistication, “birdsong might somehow be beyond us” – and, having seen the best efforts of the experts, it’s hard to disagree.
I was reminded of Bevis and his bird book a few days ago while sitting in a stalled chairlift, wafting gently to-and-fro in an exfoliating breeze while technicians somewhere – I hoped – were doing whatever needed to be done to get us moving again. In the absence of the usual hum from the lift, the only sounds I could hear – apart from the wind whistling along the cables – were the whoops and shouts of the skiers and snowboarders flying around on the piste below, and after a while I started to notice patterns in the cries. Few of them bore any relation to the English language as it exists in any dictionary, but they still made up a language of sorts, in that certain strangled yelps and exultant hoots appeared to have broadly similar meanings. And it got me thinking: if there’s a comprehensive list of bird noises out there, shouldn’t there also be a list of snowslider noises? So I started making notes. Here are the results of my preliminary fieldwork. Just to be clear: we’re not talking about actual words – just the apparently meaningless (or semi-meaningless) utterances skiers and snowboarders make in extremis which, like birdsong, seem to come from some dark, primordial place within. I’ve also hazarded a few basic translations, although these are mostly based on guesswork and may vary from skier to skier.
AAAAAH – this is about to go horribly wrong.
AAAAAH-MMF – that just went horribly wrong.
AIEEEE – there’s a very good chance that this is about to go horribly wrong.
BANZAI – there’s an excellent chance that this is about to go horribly wrong, but what the heck? I’m going to do it anyway. And pretend to be a ninja while I’m at it.
FAAAAAA... things have just gone suddenly, unexpectedly wrong.
OOO-LOO-LOO-LOO-LOO-LOO-LOO-LOO – I see you, stylish skier over there, doing lots of stylish little turns like an old-school slalom master, and I like it.
SHIIIIII... see FAAAAAA... above.
WAA-HOOOO – things are going very right.
WHOOOOO – this is fun.
WHOOPAH – that was fun.
WOAH – that very nearly went horribly wrong.
WOOOOOOH-hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh – for a minute there it looked as if things were going to go horribly wrong, but now, thank goodness, they are going very right. As a result, I am amused.
YAHOO – things are going extremely right.
YEEEW – either a) I see things are going very well for you, my friend, and I want to alert you to the fact that I have registered your good fortune or b) things are going very well for me, my friend, and I want to make sure that you have registered my good fortune.
The above is by no means a definitive list – skiers and boarders should feel free to add their own terms and/or regional variations. And skiing anthropology students looking for a final year thesis topic? You’re welcome.