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Kingfishers And Lost Words

We're back!

And...wow. I don't even know where to start. We saw so many things that I can't even start to parse them enough to talk about them, or if I tried to begin at the beginning, we'd be here for days. The hyenas that went through camp and left fist-sized tracks a foot from the tents where we were sleeping. The walking football (a Red-Billed Spurfowl) that came into camp for crumbs and who we named Football-Bob and who looked at us all very mistrustfully. The elephant that mock-charged our vehicle and trumpeted and the way that the sound echoed around in my chest and made me feel suddenly tiny and fragile and easily stomped. The lions of Savuti, descended from the prides that learned to hunt elephants during a drought a decade ago. The time our bumper fell off, along with the trailer hitch and the trailer, leaving us in Savuti, surrounded by aforementioned lions, with no way of dragging our food and camping equipment with us. (Our driver, B-man,* loaded us up with luggage in our laps, dropped us at the campsite, and went back for all the equipment. Along the way he got a flat. We were very hard on vehicles on this trip.)

So for lack of anything better to start with, I'll tell you about the best moment of the trip, and how it led to one of the odder ones.

We went out on the Chobe River in a boat, looking for animals. Mostly we saw birds. (The group was very good about my bird-mania. Incidentally, I got 154 lifers!) And after about half an hour on the water (during which we drifted briefly and illegally into Namibia, to our boat-guide's mild distress) we spotted a Giant Kingfisher.

Giant Kingfishers were one of the birds I most wanted to see. They're the biggest kingfisher in the world, reaching nearly a foot and a half from beak to tailfeathers. They resemble a bigger and more ornate version of our Belted Kingfisher, but their sheer size is pretty damn amazing. (There were also the very common Pied Kingfisher, which was a gorgeous little bird too.)

This Giant came flying past us, holding a crab in its mouth. (There are crabs in the Chobe River.) It landed on the exposed roots of what I was told was an ebony tree and began beating the crab savagely against the roots. Bits of shell flew. Our boat-guide moved the boat in closer--Kevin got photos--and we watched it whack the crab apart so that it could get at the meat.

"There," said Kevin. "That's your animal. That one. Right there."

"Well, I do like kingfishers..." I said.

"No, I mean, I've seen the way you eat crab."

The Giant launched itself off the roots suddenly and circled the boat so tightly that its wings practically came in over the railing. It made the usual chattering kingfisher cry, swept past me--I could have almost reached out and touched it--and then landed back on the root and went back to destroying the crab.

It is possible that I screamed the whole time it was circling us. I am a little blurry on that point.

We saw some other very nice birds, a couple of giraffes, an elephant or two, and then on the way back, the boat-guide suddenly pulled over the side of a muddy bank and there was a Malachite Kingfisher.

I'll post a photo once Kevin's got them all up, but they're worth googling now. They are unbelievably beautiful. They're quite small, but practically made of neon. I may have had a minor meltdown over its existence. It was glorious.

That was the best moment for me, in a trip made of fantastic experiences.

Later that night, as our guide Jorge and our driver B-man sat around with us and ate dinner at the lodge, I pushed a sheet of paper toward B-man, who was a native speaker of Setswana, and asked him if he could write down the Setswana word for kingfisher for me. (He had tried to teach me the words for "What bird is that?" earlier but my auditory memory is dreadful, so I need to see the words written down. Also, his English was very good but between his accent and my deafness, I wasn't gonna be able to do it phonetically.)

"I cannot do it," he said. "I am sorry."

"...oh," I said, worried that I had run into some weird cultural gap that I hadn't seen coming. (Do you not ask people to write down bird names? I'd managed to remember that when you hand someone money, you clasp your wrist as a sign of a respect, and that pointing was rude, but I was paranoid that I was doing something deeply gauche and was completely unaware of it.)

"There is no word," he explained. "Not in Setswana. We say water bird, but then we use the English, kingfisher."

"Oh," I said again. "There isn't a word. Okay."

He frowned down at the paper. "Ah...there is a book. In eighteen-hundred, a man went all around Botswana and collected all the Setswana words. If you look in that book, there may be a word. But we do not know the word now. It is..." He trailed off, waving the tip of the pen in that I-am-trying-to-think-of-a-word motion (which may not be completely universal, but seems to hold up pretty well between Botswana and here.)

"Lost?" I suggested after a minute.

"Lost. Yes. There was a word, I think. It is lost." He handed me back the paper.

Realistically, I suspect that there is no chance that there wasn't originally a word for kingfishers--they have six or seven species, and at least a couple are common, loud, and found on every waterway. But whatever it was, it's out of common usage. And in fact, of the sixty-odd birds that B-man successfully identified for me, every one was named in colloquial English, except maybe the Brubru. A few, like the coucals, might have started as a native word, but had then had English tacked on--Copper Tailed Coucal, White-Browed Coucal, Burchell's Coucal. (Burchell, whoever he was, got around. Half the birds were named after him.)

I felt a pang of guilt, as if my native language was a dog that had bitten his. English sheds words constantly, of course, but usually not to replace them with someone else's. And Setswana is a language with many, many native speakers--Wikipedia says over five million--and on no one's list of endangered languages. Many of the parks were named in Setswana, and he'd told us both the common Setswana names of animals and sometimes the word in the regional dialect. But here I'd stumbled onto a word that had simply slipped away and been replaced by English.

"I'm sorry," he said again.

"No, no, it's okay," I said. "I'm sorry it's lost. Languages are strange."

He nodded, then shrugged. Sometimes the bumper falls off your truck. Sometimes a word falls off your language.

I still don't entirely know how I feel about that.

*B-man was a stoic, a fantastic driver, probably Muslim (he did not eat pork or drink alcohol, though I suspect he regretted that last after the second flat tire.) and very, very good at bird IDs for a non-specialist. Botswana guides go through very rigorous training, which includes bird IDs--tourism is THE big industry, being a guide is a big deal, and the licensing process for guides is extremely thorough. He said that I made him brush up on all his birds. We spent a lot of time hunched over my bird book. At one point, he managed to ID a bird based on the call that I was making Kevin imitate for him. (It was a Brubru, in case you're curious, a member of the Bush-shrike family.)

He called himself "B-man" because his name was very long and very hard to pronounce. (We did offer to try.) I felt much better when he started running into friends of his at lodges and THEY all called him B-man, too. It's one thing to be the dumb American who can't pronounce hard words, and another when even your friends default to a nickname.

The loss of a word is the loss of a thought about the world which had persisted for generations. In what way is that not a sadness?

On a different note, does Botswana have Superb Starlings? Because I've never seen a better named bird than that.

And regarding elephants, it is notable how any animal which is charging at you automatically gains ten feet in height and half a tonne (at least) of weight.

Edited at 2015-04-20 08:55 pm (UTC)

Well...it's complicated.

I mean, English sheds words all the time--when was the last time you heard somebody refer to a "yeld"? And it's honestly a fairly specialized bit of vocabulary, unless you're a birder. And Africa, as a continent, has probably had it up to the neck with Western pity by now. So I'm not sure how to feel.

If B-man's opinion is a what-are-you-gonna-do shrug, I suspect he knows a lot more about it than I do. But I'm still sad, on a purely personal level, not to be able to learn the name, because I love the bird.

Edited at 2015-04-20 10:20 pm (UTC)

I felt a pang of guilt, as if my native language was a dog that had bitten his.

Oh. That feeling exactly. So that's how to put it in words.

See, I was just about to put money down on you for the Ursula vs. Elephant fight.

I believe in you! You may be tiny but you are also mighty! Get in there and beat the spread!

Also, glad you had a fun adventure!

so soon?
Sounds wonderful I can't wait to hear more

I wonder if Burchell is the one who wrote the book.

"I felt a pang of guilt, as if my native language was a dog that had bitten his." is simultaneously the perfect description of how I would have felt and a sad commentary on the situation.

Oh man, even from this it sounds like it was an amazing trip!
Did he give you any more info on the book? I might see if I can track it down, but might be hard to find :C

Unfortunately, no--Wikipedia said that there were a couple of lexicons assembled in the 1800s, so it might be one of those.

You have such a gift for metaphor and framing meaningful exchanges. ^_^ "Sometimes a word falls off of your language" indeed.

The language thing happens all the time. Just think about how many latin words there are in the english language. And french words. And did you know, that there is no english word for kindergarten? Becaus kindergarten ist german.

There's no American English word for it - we use the term nursery school in British English for a similar concept and infant school for the first years of proper school.

That's a bummer about the Setswana word for Kingfisher... If you don't mind spending a lot of time talking to librarians, you might be able to track down a copy via some of the larger city libraries. I know the Denver Public Library has a sizable collection of gorgeous old books, and I've found some cool obscure (and very old) references through them. Did the name "Robert Moffat" come up in your search? He was a missionary in that area around that time.

Looking forward to hearing more about the trip, it sounds like it was amazing!

It seems highly unlikely that there were not names for the individual types of kingfishers in Setswana, but possibly there was no group name for that exact set of birds? I am not bird-literate enough to know if they're all obviously of a type.

Well, B-man was a smart guy and his English was certainly good enough for things like "It is a coucal, maybe White-Browed," discussions, so even if there was no general classification for kingfishers at the genus level, I'm sure he could jump to things like "a Giant Kingfisher is _______." So I got the impression there was more at work, but of course, we're starting to wade into fairly complicated waters there and we may not have had the mutual vocabulary to get there.

Not only a great Kingfisher story, but it was *sitting in an ebony tree*. Wow, to be able to touch the trunk of a living ebony tree. To perhaps pick a leaf, crush it and smell the living plant. Mmmm.

(plant weirdo over here)

My viewing of a Malachite kingfisher was also stunning. Such amazing birds. And so many kinds of kingfishers in Africa. I think I saw at least five or six different types. Oh the birds over there! I'm not sure if East Africa is more bird heavy but I racked up 350 lifers when there. So many birds.... my eyes are now glazing over. Can't wait to see the photos You said they are posted already. Where!? Didn't see a giant kingfisher unfortunately! I've checked out pics online now. Very impressive! Can't wait to read more of your stories!

350! Wow! How long were you there? I only had eight days. Another guide told me there's about 450 that are reliable in Botswana, so arguably I knocked off a third of the species, but still!

Woo! Adventure!

I found this painting of a kingfisher. It made me think of you. http://fineartamerica.com/featured/kingfisher-steven-ponsford.html

I followed your Tweets & many of them left me grinning at the awesome & the squee you were expressing.

I recognize the wistfulness in your summary... and predict a book about lost words for things.