May 25, 2007

Dialect variation in the terminal flourishes of Flemish chaffinches

I've gotten a great deal of mail in response to my post about the Belgian finch-tweeting contests known as vinkensport ("Watch out for those Wallonian finches", 5/22/2007), and I've also done some additional research of my own -- so far only in the form of a literature survey, as my vinkensport CDs have not yet arrived. One note of particular interest came from Ivan Lietaert:

Finches sing a phrase (song) and they repeat it again and again. The so called Flemish finch ends each phrase with "suskewiet", which is an onomatopeia. During competitions, people count the number of 'suskewiets' they hear, and the highest count is the winner. The French or Walloon finches do not end their song like that, and therefore cannot be used in competitions. The word 'Walloon' here does not really refer to the French speaking community in Belgium, but refers to its older, etymological meaning being: speaking a foreign/different language (here: singing a different song). (This older meaning is also present in the term Wales (GB) and Wallis (Switserland). So the word French is out of context here.

By the way, none of this a joke. It is actually a very serious matter for finch lovers.

In support of Ivan's suggestion for the possible interpretation of Walloon as "foreign", the OED's entry gives the etymology:

a. F. Wallon (fem. Wallonne), n. and a.:—med.L. Wallōn-em, f. Teut. *walah, walh, foreigner (OE. wealh): see WELSH a. The name represents the appellation given by the Teut. Flemings and Franks to their Romanic-speaking neighbours.

Similarly for vlach we get:

Bulg. vlakh or Serb. vlah, = OSlav. vlakhŭ Romanian, Italian, Czech vlach Italian, Pol. włoch Italian, wołoch Walachian, ORuss. volokh Walachian, Italian; these terms are Slavonic adoptions of the Germanic walh (OHG. walh, walah, MHG. walch; OE. wealh) foreigner, applied especially to Celts and Latins.

And for walnut:

OE. walhhnutu str. fem. = WFris. walnút (NFris. walnödd from Da.), MDu. walnote (Kilian walnot), Du. walnoot, MLG. wallnot, -nut, LG. (Bremisch. Wörterb. wallnutt) walnut, G. walnuss (earlier wallnuss), ON. valhnot str. fem. (Norw. valnot, Sw. valnöt, Da. valnød). The first element is OTeut. *walχo-z (OE. wealh, OHG. walah) ‘Welshman’, i.e. Celtic or Roman foreigner.

The AHD entry for Wales agrees:

Although Celtic-speaking peoples were living in Britain before the arrival of the invaders from Friesland and Jutland whose languages would eventually develop into English, it was the Celts and not the invaders who came to be called “strangers” in English. Our words for the descendants of one of the Celtish peoples, Welsh, and for their homeland, Wales, come from the Old English word wealh, meaning “foreigner, stranger, Celt.” Its plural wealas is the direct ancestor of Wales, literally “foreigners.” The Old English adjective derived from wealh, wælisc or welisc, is the source of our Welsh. The Germanic form for the root from which wealh descended was *walh–, “foreign.” We also have attested once in Old English the compound walhhnutu in a document from around 1050; its next recording appears in 1358 as walnottes. This eventually became walnut in Modern English, which is thus literally the “foreign nut.” The nut was “foreign” because it was native to Roman Gaul and Italy.

I'm not sure whether today's vinkeniers interpret "Walloon" in its etymological sense of "foreign" -- they seem sometimes to use "French" as an equivalent, at least if the New York Times report can be trusted, which makes this seem less likely. But Ivan's note may still point to explanations for several things that puzzled me about the original story.

I especially wondered how the chaffinch (Fringilla Coelebs) could wind up singing such a short and stereotyped song in these competitions, given descriptions of that species' song such as this one (from Albertine Leitão, Tom J. M. van Dooren, Katharina Riebel, "Temporal variation in chaffinch Fringilla coelebs song: interrelations between the trill and flourish", Journal of Avian Biology 35 (3), 199–203, 2004):

Each male chaffinch has a small repertoire of one to six distinct song types, but mostly two to three (Slater 1981). Although chaffinch song types differ substantially in phonology, all have a trill (two to five phrases of repeated syllables) segment followed by a terminal flourish (a shorter sequence of mostly non-repeated elements ...).

The length (about 2.5 seconds) and structure (15-20 elements organized as 1-5 repetitions of each of 5 or more types) of typical chaffinch songs seem too complex to be rendered by a two-syllable onomatopeia [suskwit] -- here's Figure 3 from the Leitão et al. study:

And an audio clip of chaffinch song (recorded in Cologne) is here, so you can listen for yourself.

Ivan indicates that a Flemish finch in competition is supposed to "end each phrase with 'suskewiet'" -- perhaps this is what the birdsong researchers call the "terminal flourish"? -- so that by counting suskewiets, you can count song repetitions. This allows the rest of the song to be variable, and also accounts for the emphasis on the importance of a stable terminal pattern. (I should have gotten this from the original NYT article, which referred to suskewiet as "the conventional transliterations of the final chirp in the bird's call".)

Leitão et al. continue:

Within a population, many different song types exist, and variation within one population can be as large as between populations (Slater et al. 1984).

This makes it unclear how there could be stable "Flemish" and "Walloon" finch songs, at least in the sense of a difference characterizable so simply as "susk-e-wiat" vs. "susk-e-wiet"; and my curiosity was further aroused by reading in a study of song variation among chaffinches in New Zealand (where the species was introduced by British colonists quite recently) that

...we estimated that approximately 10 syllables per generation enter each population as a result of immigration [and] [a]pproximately 20-30 new variants of syllables arise [by mutation] in a population each generation.

(Alejandro Lynch, Geoffrey M. Plunkett, Allan J. Baker; Peter F. Jenkins, "A Model of Cultural Evolution of Chaffinch Song Derived with the Meme Concept", The American Naturalist, 133(5) 634-653, 1989.

Again, if only the terminal flourish is controlled -- and perhaps only some aspects of it -- this makes it easier to believe in a stable aspect of regional variation. But the re-interpretation of "Flemish" and "Walloon" as "our kind" and "the foreign kind" also helps: perhaps the "suskewiet" flourish is not actually an invariant characteristic of wild finches in Flanders, but rather is a crucial characteristic of finches that can be used in Flemish vinkensport competitions. This idea is confirmed by a quote in the NYT article that started this off (Dan Bilefsky, "One-Ounce Belgian Idols Vie for Most Tweets Per Hour", NYT, 5/21/2007)

“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.”

In other words, an aspect of natural variation in the songs of finches, in Flanders as elsewhere, has (I conjecture) been re-interpreted in terms of the locally salient concept of ethno-linguistic allegiance.

Another relevant factor is that vinkeniers reinforce their birds' "Flemish" dialect by training them with recordings or by exposure to "master teachers":

Vinkensport also has exasperated animal-rights activists like Jan Rodts, director of the Flemish Bird Protection Society, who accuses vinkeniers of “brainwashing” their finches into performing by forcing them to listen to recordings of susk-e-wiets played over and over.

In 2002, the society won a case it filed at the Belgian Constitutional Court to prevent the government from relaxing a 1979 European Union law banning the capture of wild finches. Belgian vinkeniers breed 10,000 finches for competition each year.
But Mr. Rodts says clandestine hunts remain widespread in western Flanders, because finchers believe that wild birds sing better than those bred in captivity.

“These cages are like miniprisons, and the birds are not happy,” he said.

Mr. Santens retorts that one of his birds lived 24 years, while finches typically live 3 years in the wild.

He trains his finches in his backyard, where he places the caged birds for several months in a heated aviary alongside Briek, a “master teacher” whose perfectly tuned susk-e-wiets, he boasts, have few equals in Flanders.

This process will obviously produce a kind of homogeneity not found in the wild, especially given that the training is combined with a process of selecting those birds who respond to it in the desired way.

[Another reader wondered whether there any connection between the onomatopoeic finch-call susk-e-wiet and Suske en Wiske, a Belgian comic-book franchise whose name is based on the Flemish nicknames for Francis and Louise. This seems unlikely, but I invite correction.]

[Update -- Alain van Hout writes:

Let me start my mentioning how much I enjoy reading Language Log. I'm a Ph. D. student in Behavioural Biology at the University of Antwerp, with a large interest (but little expertise) in linguistics.

I especially wondered how the chaffinch ( Fringilla coelebs) could wind up singing such a short and stereotyped song in these competitions

I think the main reason for this is in fact that because chaffinch song has such stereotypical structure, it is relatively easy to determine the quality (sensu winners vs. losers) of a chaffinch's song. Something that has not been mentioned, I think, is that vinkeniers only receive credits for fully formed song bouts. The main goal of the contest is therefore for the chaffinche to have a high song rate, combined with well structured, stereotypical song.

perhaps the "suskewiet" flourish is not actually an invariant characteristic of wild finches in Flanders, but rather is a crucial characteristic of finches that can be used in Flemish vinkensport competitions.

This process will obviously produce a kind of homogeneity not found in the wild, especially given that the training is combined with a process of selecting those birds who respond to it in the desired way.

Vinkeniers do try to improve the 'quality' of the finches' song by exposing them to chaffinchsong during the right developmental period (usually referred to as the 'sensitive period', for obvious reasons). However, most wild chaffinches in Flanders nevertheless do produce the 'suskewit' at the end of a large portion of their song bouts. Conversely, I do not remember ever having heard any Wallonian chaffiches use it. Although I am not aware of any research into the biological cause for this difference, one possibility is that a female preference exists for those terminating elements. This mechanism could be sufficient to make Flemish male chaffinches less successful in Wallonia and vice versia, and create two somewhat isolated populations. This is nothing but guesswork however.

a difference characterizable so simply as "susk-e-wiat" vs. "susk-e-wiet"

A small note on this: I have always heard the difference referred to as "suske-e-wiet" vs. "sisk-yew", which isn't that much more of a difference, but possible sufficient for the female chaffinches to successfully spot the difference.

I've learned from talks about songbirds of other species that a female will prefer a male who sings a wider variety of songs, but also, other things equal, will also prefer males who sing songs similar to the songs her father sang. I'm not sure whether these preferences have been demonstrated in the case of the chaffinch, though. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 25, 2007 06:08 AM