Kingfisher 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. 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.

  • reply C. S. P. Schofield ,

    There is a very weird and very readable little book called THE ROADS TO SATA, the account of an (American? English? I knew once.) expat living in Japan who took it into his head to walk from Soya Cape in Hokkaido to Sata cape in Kyushu; from the northernmost place in Japan to the southernmost place. At one point he discovers that the Japanese have pretty much abandon the traditional Japanese name for a young deer in favor of the English loan-word “Bambi”. Languages shift. Peoples who attempt to prevent their language from shifting usually only succeed in making their language obsolete. But the process of the shift can be very idiosyncratic.

    • reply Agnes ,

      I don’t know much of anything about birds, but is it possible that there is no word for kingfishers (the group) because the species were only identified as being related by some English speaking naturalist? Based on your descriptions the individual species are very different, aren’t they?

      • reply Agnes ,

        Because it looks like my own language does not have a word for kingfisher either. Wikipedia (if it can be trusted) points to the page for the family Alcedinidae, which then mentions it covers 2 groups of birds which do have vernacular names. Only one of which I knew of, BTW.

      • reply Isy ,

        It sounds like a quest of sorts, to find lost names for birds. There are some things that feel cliche in a fantasy novel and yet feel strange when you find them sitting in the real world.

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