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A Thesaurus of Bird Names: Etymology of European Lexis Through Paradigms (2-Volume Set)

Out of Print

Series: A Thesaurus of Bird Names

By: Michel Desfayes

2510 pages, includes CD-ROM

Michel Desfayes

Hardback | Dec 1998 | #128990 | ISBN: 2884260218
Out of Print Details

About this book

The result of a lifetime's work, including 11 years a professional ornithologist at the Smithsonian Institution, this great work will be of value to linguists as well as as natural scientists. One innovation is the distinction of the origin of words into chromatic, acoustic, morphological and kinetic categories. The paradigms illustrate how the relationships of many European terms predate Latin and Greek.

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"A bird by any other name [...] These two massive and magnificent volumes contain around 100 000 bird names in 40 or so Indo-European languages. About 450 European and Middle Eastern species, with a few well-known introduced birds – chicken, turkey, etc. – are covered in Volume 1. Within each species, the names are listed by language from Irish Gaelic east to the Indo-European languages of Afghanistan and neighbouring regions, then Caucasian and Hamito-Semitic (Hebrew, Arabic, etc.) and finally Romany (Gypsy). The modern language groups involved are thus Celtic, Romance, Slavonic, Lettic (Baltic), Germanic, Albanian, Greek, Iranian, the enigmatic Basque tongue, Hamito-Semitic and Caucasian. There are cross-references within each group of names to appendices in Volume II and species numbers in Volume I. The breadth and depth of coverage is truly astonishing: for example, out of 13 pages of names for the Magpie Pica pica, seven pages are dedicated to German appellations, and among 20 pages for the Wren Troglodytes troglodytes, five focus on French names, prominent among which is roitelet ('kinglet') now appropriated for Regulus. Working on the premise that local speech, the true 'fossils' of vocabulary, is of pre-eminent importance for etymological research, the author also deals in masterly fashion with names in the dialects of English.

Preceding the all-important paradigms in Volume II is an appendix of bird names in ancient languages and one giving the sources of scientific names borrowed from Greek, Latin or regional speech, also a subsection on unidentified species (21 languages)
The paradigms (or filiations) attempt to show in family trees of words the semantic relationships of groups of European terms (bird names and many others), thus allowing models or structures to be studied rather than isolated words and clearly demonstrating that almost all roots are common to all major groups of European languages, often even to some outside Europe. Appendices 3-6 cover, respectively, paradigms of terms of chromatic (claimed to be the most complete collection of colour words ever compiled), morphological, acoustic and kinetic origin. The following topics are dealt with in appendices 7-15: arm, wing, articulation; to seize or capture; smallness; diving and swimming birds, various ways of diving; flight and lightness; circle and birds (i.e. rotund or circling in the air); names for 'bird'; miscellaneous names (nestling, feather, flock, etc.); lexicons of falconry, etc. More than 2000 bat names are given in Appendix 16, the names of over 1000 bird species from francophone overseas countries in Appendix 17 and some 8000 Latin-American names (Spanish, Portuguese and Amerindian) for 1700 species in Appendix 18.

This book is a stupendous achievement, a philological tour de force, a celebration of birds, and of man's relationship with nature, expressed through the wondrous gift of language; it is endlessly entertaining, instructive and illuminating. A few moments of browsing and you are likely to get hooked; when it comes to word search, the CD-rom is recommended."

– M.G. Wilson. Ibis, The International Journal of Avian Science, 142: 333-334, 2000

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"This monumental work deals not with scientific names or "Linnaean" nomenclature, but with names for birds that exist in other than the scientific idiom – the so-called "common" or "folk" names for birds. The first volume is a compilation of such names for all of the species of European and Middle Eastern birds, plus a few others that are almost universally known, such as the domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) and the Ostrich (Struthio camelus). Unfortunately, the introductory material does not clearly state or list which languages are included, but most of them appear in the list of abbreviations. Names for birds have been sought in Indo-European languages including "Iranian, Caucasian, and Hamito-Semitic languages" because "the area covered by these languages includes the Palaearctic region, a zoogeographical entity within which can be found most of the European bird species [...] " Names in Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are omitted because they are not Indo-European languages. Names from languages written with different alphabet characters, such as Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Greek, are transliterated with Roman characters.

The first volume proceeds species by species, with each account consisting of a list of names, given language by language, arranged in a geographical sequence more or less from the northwest (British Isles) to the south and east. All names that the author could discover are presented along with information on the counties or provinces in which each name, no matter how local, is used. The amount of detail is staggering. The section on names for the Magpie (Pica pica), for example, comprises 13 pages, of which more than 6 deal only with names used in Germany. Being Swiss, with an interest in etymology, Desfayes naturally has several languages at his command and has written his book using more than one. In the species accounts, explanatory remarks are generally in French, except for names from the British Isles, for which English is used. Remarks about German names seem to be in either German or English. Definitions in Volume Two may be in either English or French. Anyone who is linguistically challenged would have considerable difficulty using this work, but would have little need for it in any case.

The second volume is less easily characterized. About two-thirds of it consists of what Desfayes refers to as his "paradigms" (Appendices 3-14). Here, names or the words used in names, along with various cognates (or perhaps pseudocognates), are arranged according to qualities, somewhat in the manner of the familiar Roget's Thesaurus of English words. The major groupings include terms of chromatic origin (e.g. red, dark, spotted), morphological (e.g. tall, tufted, swollen), acoustic (mostly onomatopoeic), kinetic (e.g. fly, wag, dive), and others.

The ultimate subheadings are combinations of sounds used in words that Desfayes identifies as being related to a given quality. Thus, section 3.2.54.2 is a list of words that contain the sounds "r-p" and mean "red", including the Greek, Latin, English, Czech and other words for turnip (rapys, rapa, rape, repka). The list also contains a Russian word for menstrues (repaki), Serbo-Croatian, Polish, Ukranian and other words for linnet, robin, and whinchat (repka, rzepoluch, repel, repalsic), and a French word for the caruncles of a turkey (roupie), among others.

There are fascinating diversions to be encountered here. For example, we learn that the traditional (and believable) derivation of "belladonna" is folk etymology, and that "mayonnaise" according to Desfayes, is related to words meaning flecked or spotted, and is not derived from the siege of Port Mahon, Minorca, as given in many etymologies. These paradigms will be of as much interest to philologists and ethnolinguists as they may be to ornithologists. That great erudition, maybe even genius, has been exercised in their compilation is scarcely to be doubted, though I cannot shake off the impression that they may reflect considerable idiosyncrasy as well.

The second volume also contains various other lists of bird names, including those in ancient languages, words for nests, eggs, and bats, terms used in falconry, and bird names from "overseas francophone countries" and Latin America. There is no index, because this would have added more than 700 pages to the work. The CD-ROM, therefore, is an absolute necessity. If, for example, one encountered an unknown word for some European bird and wanted to know to what species it applied, there would be no practical way to find it without searching the text with a computer. I have little doubt that it would be found, however. Michel Desfayes has presented us with a labor of love of such scope as to leave thoughtful reviewers with a lingering sense of their own deficiencies."

– Storrs L. Olson (Department of Vertebrate Zoology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.), The Auk, Organ of the American Ornithologists' Union, 118 (3):815-816, 2001


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