Monday 10 August 2009

Names Games, part 1

I have recently found that I often reflect on language, particularly the English one (in which I blog despite the fact that German is my first language), and more specifically about the ways in which English relates to German and how it all shows in the birds and the birding we do - an obvious connection.
In this post, I will pick up that thread once again and combine it with another one of my favourite topics, bird names.
One of the most interesting aspects of knowing two (or more) languages is the possibility to compare the different terms used for the same thing or issue. I don't mean the plain translation of ordinary terms, like "house" being "Haus" and "teacher" being "Lehrer" and "bird" being "Vogel". That is boring. What I am interested in is the different (or identical) ways in which languages use descriptive terms.
For example, the blossoms of a willow are not just called "willow blossoms" in English but are "willow catkins". Now, if we translate the German term "Weidenkätzchen", we get to "willow kittens" which is quite remarkable.
Another example, this time without the happy ending:
A screw driver in German - when the exact term is translated to English - is a screw puller and thus exactly the opposite of the English term (Germans are fond of disassembling while the English prefer to construct? Who knew...).
Now, as I have promised, I will combine that aspect of languages with my passion for discussing bird names, specifically the descriptive ones. What I will therefore do in this first of two posts is present the German name of European birds as it translates directly into English (some also occur in North America, e.g. the Loons/Divers) and see where the most striking differences are. In a second part due to be posted soon, I will do the same for some North American birds.
So here we go, part 1:

The German names of selected European Bird Species, translated into English

Common Loon/ Diver = Ice Diver
Black-throated Loon/ Diver = Gorgeous Diver
Red-throated Loon/ Diver = Star Diver (not the fame but the celestial bodies - wonder why? Winter plumage!)
storm petrels = storm swallows
shearwaters = storm divers
petrels = storm birds
Great White Egret = Silver Heron (all the Ardeidae except for the bitterns are "herons", no differentiation in e.g. herons and egrets)
Little Egret = Silky Heron
Bittern = Reed "Dommel" (I am not entirely sure what the root of the word "Dommel" is but would guess it comes from drumming = trommeln, making the bogbumper a Reed Drummer. An older, inofficial name is Reed Ox)
Glossy Ibis = Sickler
Mallard = Stick Duck (probably from some strange hunting technique / background)
Tufted Duck = Heron Duck
Common Pochard = Table Duck (apparently it tastes really good and was therefore often presented at festive dinner table events)
Goosander / Common Merganser = Goose Sawer (the size plus the fiercely toothed bill)
Lesser Spotted Eagle = Screaming Eagle
Golden Eagle = Stone Eagle
Common Kestrel = Tower Falcon (all Falconidae are falcons, no differentiation in kestrels, falcons)
Hobby = Tree Falcon
Corncrake = Quail King
Avocet = Saberbill
plovers = rain whistlers
Calidris sandpipers = beach walkers
Tringa sandpipers = water walkers
Common Sandpiper = Riverbank Walker
A Riverbank Walker doin' its thing on a riverbank
Red Phalarope = Thor’s Little Chicken
Red-necked Phalarope = Odin’s Little Chicken
skuas/jaegers of the genus Stercorarius = robbery gulls
terns = sea swallows
Puffin = Parrot Diver
Barn Owl = Veiled Owl
Eurasian Kingfisher = Ice bird
House Martin = Flour Swallow (no differentiation in martins and swallows, all are swallows)
This Flour Swallow either got itself a bit dirty (they are supposed to be white) or is of the wholemeal variety

Barn Swallow = Smoke Swallow
Well, if it was "smoked" instead of "smoke" I'd postulate a certain resemblance to bacon but frankly I have no idea whatsoever where the smoke comes from

Winter Wren = Fence King
Bohemian Waxwing = Silktail
Dipper = Water Ouzel
Cetti’s Warbler = Silksinger
Phylloscopus warblers = leaf singers
Acrocephalus warblers = reed singers
Marsh Reed Singer (palustris) - yes, I am sure. I mean, look. it is so distinctly coloured, there's no mistaking it.
Locustella warblers = buzzers (Field, Reed and Beat buzzer, can you figure out which is which?)
Hippolais warblers = mockers
Sylvia warblers = grey slippers (Not the shoes, the movement – derived from an old German expression. In modern German this reads as "grass gnats" by a funny yet pure coincidence:
gra smügge = old/ancient German for grey slipper while gras-mücke is modern German for grass gnat - all you have to do is move the "s" a bit and the Sylvia Warblers, which are called Grasmücke, have a very obscure name)

nuthatches = gluers (as they often narrow tree holes that are too large for them by gluing clay around the rim)
Red-backed Shrike = Ninekiller (derived from the myth that it would kill 8 animals and store them on thorns before eating its ninth victim)
Great Grey Shrike = Robbery Strangler
Hawfinch = Stone Biter (as in cherry stone biter, its former and now unofficial name)
Bullfinch = Dome Cleric or alternatively (now official) Dolt
Pine Grosbeak = Hooked Dolt
Yellowhammer = Gold Bunting

And then the many "Little X-throats":
Whinchat = Little Brownthroat
Stonechat = Little Blackthroat
Bluethroat = Little Bluethroat
Robin = Little Redthroat
Siberian Rubythroat = Little Rubythroat

Little Brownthroat should actually be called Little Buffythroat and then we could call another species Brownthroat, like e.g. some North American or tropical species. Wait, what's that you say, brown as a bird colour is largely restricted to Europe? Well, crap!

So let's hear it in the comments: which ones do you like, dislike, think are nice or funny or boring or should be opposed? Have an unlimited and uncensored go at it!


Clare said...

The Red-throated Loon's specific name is Gavia stellata which also refers to stars. It does indeed refer to their winter plumage.

Nate said...

Could the descriptor "storm" placed in front of all the pelagic species indicate some German aversion to the ocean?

Laurent said...

Funny I started some time ago a post like that (but in French) on the new world warblers, but I eventually left it unfinished. The Orange Crowned Warbler, for instance, is "backtranslated" from french to english as "greenish warbler". Quite a bit better, if you ask me, as I still have to see the orange on one of those!!!!

Rick Wright said...

Pontoppidan is said to have seen the red throat of the loon as star-like when he gave it the name stellata.

Kluge says that "Dommel" is echoic (I'm a bit skeptical).

Rauchschwalbe: the "Rauch" is a metonymy for the chimney (Rauchfang) where the birds nest.

All of my favorites are among the larids:

English Lesser Black-backed Gull = German Herring Gull

English Herring Gull = German Silver Gull

English Silver Gull = German Silver-headed Gull

English Mediterranean Gull = German Black-headed Gull

English Black-headed Gull = German Laughing Gull

English Laughing Gull = German Aztec Gull

Fun stuff; thanks, Jochen!

John B. said...

In my opinion, Hooked Dolt is a winner.

When I was taking German in college, I was always amused by the translation of "squirrel."

Jochen said...

@ Clare, yes that's right! I was so entangled in my German-English translation that I forgot about that. The scientific names for loons were actually the first I learned during an organized tour through Sweden sometime in the early 1980ies when I was still a young and aspiring newby birder.

@ Nate: well you see, Germany doesn't border an ocean, just a small almost cut-off piece of North Sea (which is pretty wild anyway) and the Baltic which is more like the Great Lakes. Although I also noticed the dominance of "storm", "ice" etc., so there might really something to it.

@Laurent: go, go, go!!! Then we can compare English, German and French names!!! I actually did see the orange (more red to be honest) once, pretty cool.

@ Rick: wow, thanks for the insights! About the Larids: I actually have another post planned about the larid names as they are so confusing: your herring gull is a silver gull in Geman while our herring gull is your lesser black-backed and silver gull is a name you give to a gull species from New Zealand that I don't know the German name of right now. Glad you enjoyed my post!

@John: I also like the Dolt thing, although names like Fence Kings for Wrens are also charming. "Little Oak Horn" for squirrel is funny, I actually wonder where the name comes from, does it really mean "oak horn"? Don't know.

SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

Hi Jochen. An interesting subject and one I was discussing with someone just yesterday. Afrikaans (my second language) is based on Duch which in many respects is similar to German. This leads to some very interesting things. Some words are spelt just as those in English but with a totally different meaning so it can cause a whole lot of confusion (and amusement) to tourist here. :)

Jochen said...

Hi Joan,
a very good friend of mine at the Fish River Canyon was from SA (originally from Bloemfontein but he spent most of his youth at the SW Cape coast near Wilderness and then moved to Namibia). He taught me a little, little bit of Afrikaans which I thought was a very interesting language - so very young with so many different influences.
Of course after nearly 10 years most of it is forgotten and I also only ever learned the words by sound, never by spelling, so I can't even tell you now what I still remember, but if this topic of bird names in different languages has convinced the French guy Laurent to finish his post, maybe it will inspire you to a comparable post about bird names in Afrikaans?
And regarding your comment on Dale's blog:
I am psychologically prepared and ready now for your pics from the bush.

Jochen said...

@ Rick again: stupid me (been watching one too many Dolts recently?), you delivered the name for the NZ Gull in your comment. Dang.

corey said...

You left out my favorite: Hooded Crow = Fog Crow!

Of the ones you listed I like the bittern being Reed Drummer because it reminds me of the colloquial name of American Bitterns, "Thunder Pumper."

Any idea why kingfishers are "Ice Birds?" Do they, like Belted Kingfishers, stay as north as possible until their streams and ponds are completely iced over? Or is it that their electric blue backs resemble blue ice?

Jochen said...

Corey, yes you are right, there are a few bird names that I forgot. mind you, there are 10,000 German bird names, so I hope I will be forgiven.
The name Ice Bird is a subject to heated discussions ever since I started birding (well, I presume before that as well, only I wasn't aware of it). The two theories are:

a) as you said (your second guess), the shining blue back is reminiscent of ice
b) "Ice" (German: Eis) doesn't mean ice after all but is a short form of Eisen (Iron) as freshly forged iron bars apparently are equally shiny.

Surely it is not their tendency to stay north for as long as possible as they do not migrate (not systematically anyway) but also cannot cope with ice very well and severe winters reduce the German populations regularly by more than 90% ! As they can breed up to three times a year with 5+ young in each clutch, this is however quickly compensated.

So, I think they are called Ice Birds because their back shines like ice.

Nate said...

Because Germany doesn't border any open ocean, perhaps the pelagics are "storm" birds because they only show up in the Baltic when storms blow them in.

At least, that's the logic I'm going with.

Jochen said...

Nate, you're a genius.
Mind having a go at "Fence King"?

Nate said...

Absolutely not. I know when I'm beat...

Rick Wright said...

Eichhorn is an old word for acorn; Eichhoernchen thus means "little acorn creature," in reference to their diet. It's exactly analogous to glandarius as the epithet of Jay.

Zaunkoenig refers generally to the assertive nature of wrens, and specifically to the very old story of the wren's candidacy to be king of the birds--there was an article about it in Birding within the past five or six years.

Rick Wright said...

And of course a wren is roitelet in French, if I remember right.

Laurent said...

Roitelet is actually for kinglet (quite logical if you ask me, King=Roi).

Wren is "troglodyte", pretty close from the latin names, if I remember correctly

Laurent said...

By the way, a very convenient way to get translation of North American Birds in French and Spanish is simply to use ebird, and change the user preference from english to french. Thanks to our neighbours "Les Quebequois"!!!!

Sounds like we could open a forum here!!!!

Rick Wright said...

Hm, I'm pretty certain that "roitelet" is in widespread use for Troglodytes troglodytes (and of course, as Laurent points out, for the crests and kinglets, as a back-translation of Regulus).

Try a google search for "roitelet wren."

SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

Dale is going to be back soon and I think he knows a lot more about them than I do so we will put the task to him when he gets back.

At least you remember the most important ones: boerewors, braai en bier. LOL!!

Are you following my other blog on the wildife Jochen? I will post something about this last trip to Pilansberg soon.

Marj K said...

Fascinating! We've been losing a lot of our descriptive names, in favour of 'Australian' eg Nankeen Kestrel has become Australian Kestrel.

John B. said...

According to my French dictionary, roitelet can refer to kinglet, petty king, or wren. A roitelet huppé is a goldcrest. But wren is also a given translation for troglodyte, so there might be a matter of common vs. official usage. I would expect eBird to reflect the latter.

Troglodytes is one of my favorite scientific names.

As much as I laugh at the name, I would really like to see a Hooked Dolt.

Jochen said...

@Rick: thanks a million for your insights, you're good at that, ey?
I am looking forward to your comments on the German names of american species.

@Laurent, Rick & John: interesting discussion! This link might help clarifying the matter:

@Joan: I have links to both your blogs on mine and check them regularly. As some other blogs may confirm, I can be an aweful blog stalker when I am fond of a blog, so you'd better put up lots of great images! :-)

@Marj K: that's a bit unfortunate in my opinion. I am rather glad that the "German Committee for Bird Names" (yes, there is such a committee) decided to avoid people's names and geographic references as often as possible but concentrate on the bird's biology or looks. It hasn't helped much in many cases but at least we are spared the too-common and thus annoying "Eurasian" / "American" / "African" / "Australian" repetitions of other regions.

@John: Once you see your Pine Grosbeak, I'll be expecting a reference to "Hooked Dolt" in your blog's post!

@ everyone: Cheers, this was great fun!

Charlie said...

'bentavi' is based on the Portugese colloquial name for the Greater Kiskadee and it comes from the call (which to Brazilian ears apprently sounds more like 'bentavi' than 'kiskadee' (all this travelling had to pay off one day!)

Great post by the way

Rick Wright said...

Hurray for Charlie--excellent!

Jochen said...

Charlie, FINALLY we know what all this traveling is good for!
And thanks, it was great fun, I have to say.

Rick, thanks again!!