The Parrot That Kept A Language Alive

Mark Seton, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Mark Seton, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0 / Mark Seton, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

On June 5, 1799, the German geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt set out from La Coruña on the north coast of Spain on a five-year exploration of North and South America. He arrived at the Venezuelan port of Cumana on July 16, 1799, and from there headed inland, along the Orinoco river, to the northernmost reaches of the Amazon basin before heading back out to the Caribbean coast. He set sail again in December 1800 and began zigzagging his way around Latin America, first heading north to Cuba; then south into modern-day Colombia and Ecuador; and finally north again, sailing out into the Pacific Ocean from Peru and up into the Spanish colony of New Spain. He reached Acapulco in early 1803, crossed Mexico and eventually made it back into the Caribbean, and headed north to the United States, arriving in Philadelphia in June the following year. Finally, by August 1, 1804, he was back in Europe. 

An eternally inquisitive naturalist and ecologist as much as he was an adventurer, Humboldt’s five-year study set the benchmark for overseas exploration: he returned to Europe having amassed an astonishing quantity of zoological samples and ecological data, ranging from detailed accounts of the flora and fauna of Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo (thought at the time to be the world’s highest mountain) to descriptions of the local climate and the best sailing routes (appropriately enough, the ocean current that flows along the west of South America was named in his honor). Not only that, but Humboldt made detailed notes on the local politics, peoples, culture, climate, and geology of all the places he stopped in, and, whenever his basic knowledge of Spanish permitted him, he spoke with the natives to gain even better insight into their home—which, in the depths of the Venezuelan jungle in 1800, included a surprising encounter with a talking parrot. 

According to legend, during his exploration of the Orinoco river, Humboldt met and stayed with a local indigenous Carib tribe near the isolated village of Maypures. The tribe, so the story goes, had a number of tame parrots kept in cages around the village, many of which had been taught to speak—although one, Humboldt noted, sounded noticeably different from the rest. When he asked the locals why this parrot sounded so unusual, he was told that it had belonged to a neighboring tribe, who had been the Caribs’ enemies. Ultimately, they had violently ejected them from their land, and hounded the few tribesmen who remained onto a tiny islet in the middle of the nearby rapids. There, the last of the tribe had died in total isolation several years earlier—taking with them their entire culture. This talking parrot was, consequently, the last creature alive who spoke their language. 

Among linguists today, the story of Humboldt’s talking parrot is often considered the perfect embodiment of the fragility of language: if a language has not been recorded in some way, as soon as it ceases to be spoken it dies. Luckily, Humboldt had the foresight to phonetically transcribe around 40 words from the parrot’s vocabulary in his notebook, thereby successfully saving the tribe’s language from oblivion—so successfully, in fact, that in 1997 two more parrots were trained to speak Humboldt’s words language as part of an on-going art installation

As always with such a bizarre story, however, Humboldt’s encounter with the parrot that saved a language from extinction is often dismissed as nothing more than linguistic legend—even the great linguist and professor David Crystal calls the story “probably apocryphal.” But in the second volume of his Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, published shortly after his return to Europe, Humboldt recounts staying with a group of Guahibo people in an isolated village beside a waterfall on the Orinoco river: 

A tradition circulates among the Guahibos, that the warlike Atures [another local tribe], pursued by the Caribs, escaped to the rocks that rise in the middle of the Great Cataracts; and there that nation, heretofore so numerous, became gradually extinct, as well as its language. The last families of the Atures still existed in 1767… At the period of our voyage, an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants said—and the fact is worthy of observation—that they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures.

Seemingly, the Atures were the tribe that the local Caribs drove to extinction, and it’s their words that Humboldt must have recorded in his journal. The tale of the parrot that saved a language, it appears, might indeed be entirely true.