May 22, 2007

Watch out for those Wallonian finches

Language Log Labs is working up an acoustic analysis -- or will be, as soon as I can find some audio clips -- but meanwhile, there's no reason for you not to enjoy Dan Bilefsky's recent article on a popular sport in Flanders, finch tweeting ("One-Ounce Belgian Idols Vie for Most Tweets Per Hour", NYT, 5/21/2007):

The timekeeper waves a large red flag. Spectators wait in hushed anticipation. The nearly 50 featherweight rivals — including Rambo and Duracel — are surrounded by nervous trainers.

But the event is not a boxing or a wrestling match. The one-ounce contestants, with gray caps and blue beaks, will be judged on how many “susk-e-wiets” they can tweet in an hour from inside a wooden box.

This is vinkensport, or finching, the 400-year-old Flemish competition in which winning finches are feted like feathered opera divas, and one false note, like a “susk-e-wiat” instead of a “susk-e-wiet,” can lead to disqualification or, worse, disgrace. [...]

“As with any star athlete, like Lance Armstrong, what separates a champion bird from a loser is natural talent,” said Filip Santens, a leading vinkenier, who prepares his five-time champion chaffinch for matches by pumping heavy-metal Guns N’ Roses music into his cage and feeding him high-protein birdseed.

You'll want to read the whole thing, but my favorite part was this:

This being Belgium — divided between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North and French-speaking Wallonia in the south — the sport also has been infected by linguistic divisions. Flemish finchers insist that only Flemish chaffinches chirp the susk-e-wiet and that Wallonian finches, found a few miles away, sing in a dialect closer to French. If a bird fails to sing the Flemish susk-e-wiet, it can be disqualified. (Hard-core vinkeniers insist they can discern the difference.)

“In Belgium, even the birds sing in different languages,” said Romain Furniere, 70, a veteran vinkenier, who recalled that when he was a young man in western Flanders, he and his friends would capture finches in the wild but release those that sang “in French.”

For more background, see Bill Poser's recent post on "The Belgian Language".

[If you have a pointer to some recordings of Flemish vs. Wallonian finches, please let me know. I've already found the web site of the Koninklijke Nationale Federatie Algemene Vineniersbond A.Vi.Bo. v.z.w., and I do know about Peter Marler, "Variation in the song of the Chaffinch, Fringilla Coelebs", Ibis 94:458-472 (1952), etc. It's the specific Flemish vs. Wallonian dialects that I'm looking for.]

[By the way, I apologize for not making it completely clear which aspects of this post are jokes. Geographical variations (i.e. "dialects") in the songs of some birds, including finches, have been well documented for more than 50 years. However, in the cases that I know about, the "dialect regions" involved are fairly small, like a few square kilometers or so; and I suspect that it's unlikely that finch dialect regions correspond in any systematic way with human linguistic boundaries in Belgium. Therefore, my guess would be that the Flemish finch enthusiasts are projecting their own linguistic issues onto some locally-varying birdsong features. I'm hoping to sort out the facts, through some combination of reading the scientific literature and looking at available recordings; meanwhile, I thought that readers might enjoy the article.

Let me also point out that Wallonian is apparently not really a word, although I picked it up from its use in the cited NYT article -- the correct adjectival form for Wallonia should be Walloon. It's not only George W. Bush who has problems with over-regularization of toponymic adjectives...]

[Alex Baumans writes:

As far as I've understood the sport (and I am not, in any way, an expert) the Flemish-Walloon difference has to do with the judging. Only a correct suskewiet is counted as a 'hit' (slag). It is, by the way, a fascinating sight. You have a row of birdcages with in front of them agricultural looking gentlemen in anoraks with a long stick on which they chalk up the hits. As far as excitement is concerned, sheep trialling beats it hands down.

What is a correct 'song' is judged differently in Wallonia and in Flanders (no doubt influenced by local song patterns). As it is said on the Avibo website:

In tegenstelling tot Vlaanderen waar alleen Vlaamse of inheemse zang getekend wordt, gelden in Wallonië meerdere zangen. ("Contrary to Flanders, where only Flemish or local song is counted, in Wallonia several songs are valid")

So, as far as competition finches are concerned, yes there is a Flemish and Walloon way of singing.

I'm a bit confused by the Avibo quote, which could be interpreted to mean that in Walloon competition, anything goes (well, at least, "several songs are valid"), whereas in Flanders, the rules are stricter. And does "Vlaamse of inheemse zang" imply that Flemish song and local song are two different options? Or are they just two different ways of describing the same thing?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 22, 2007 08:20 AM