Humboldt’s parrot

Very interesting post at the Kircher Society web site – it’s almost impossible to describe without giving everything away, so click through. The story reminds me of a children’s book I just read: The Last Giants. There are similar themes – destruction of the discovered world and the marks it leaves on those that live on. Not the point of the post, but I can recommend Mr. Place’s ‘Giants’ book without reservation – a good story and wonderful illustrations (that’s Monsieur, not Mister).

Update (6/14/09) – The Kircher Society web site is gone; I re-linked above to a snapshot in the Wayback Machine. Just in case, here’s the post:

In 1804, when the Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt returned from his five-year expedition to Central and South America, he brought back this poignant anecdote about a dead language once spoken by an annihilated tribe that had been kept alive by a single feathered linguist:

“It is to be supposed that the last family of Atures did not die out until a long time afterwards: since at Maypures – bizarrely – there still survives an old parrot that nobody, say the natives, can understand, because it speaks only the language of the Atures.”

Humboldt recorded the 40 words spoken by the parrot, the only remnant of the dead Ature language. In 1997, with the help of a linguist and a bird behaviorist, artist Rachel Berwick painstakingly taught a group of parrots to speak those 40 words, and exhibited them in a cylindrical aviary made of transluscent plastic.

The story of Humboldt’s Parrot is recounted in Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley.

Incidentally, Charles Darwin wrote, “I shall never forget that my whole life is due to having read and reread as a youth” Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent During the Years 1799 to 1804.

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