The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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The Language of the Crows

August 31st, 2011 · 2 Comments

Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (1739-1817) was an ardent naturalist, and earned a bit of notoriety in his time for his research into the language of birds.  In his 1807 work, Quelques mémoires sur différens sujets, la plupart d’histoire naturelle, ou de physique générale et particulière (Some notes on different subjects, mostly on natural history, or on general and particular physics), he noted the language of the crows.  Here’s a sample, in my translation.

“I will probably see some of my respectable colleagues, and those I hold dearest, smile at what I have to say about the dialogues of the crows, of which they know only a rather unpleasant cry.

“I wanted to live with them in the fields, to enlighten myself by their lights, and also to study them far from the village, in a rough shelter, quite immobile, quite silent, my eye watchful, my ear attentive, a pencil and a little white book in hand, neither crows nor other animals fear books…  It is a long labor.  Crows cost me two winters, and cold hands and feet.  This is what I have collected of their cry, which is thought to be always the same, when heard infrequently and distractedly.

“Cra, Cré, Cro, Crou, Crouou
Grass, Gress, Gross, Grouss, Grououss
Craé, Créa, Croa, Croua, Grouass
Crao, Créé, Croé, Croué, Grouess
Craou, Créo, Croo, Crouo, Grouoss

“There are twenty-five words, their similarity is quite grammatical… Their twenty-five words are enough to express “here, there, right, left, forward, stop, food, warning, man with gun, cold, hot, leave, I love you, me too, nest,” and ten or so others which they can draw upon according to their needs.

“They are quite reasonable and educated about that which concerns them. The reason and education of man are more valuable.”

I suspect the G’s in his lexicon are meant to be C’s, and are due to the vagaries of typesetting; but I’ve transcribed the passage as printed (it’s on Google Books, if you want to see for yourself).  Du Pont de Nemours, by the way, was the father of Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, who founded the DuPont chemical company in 1802, five years before all of this.

(Posted by Doug Skinner)

Tags: Animals · Language

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lisa // Aug 31, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Crows are indeed extremely intelligent – perhaps smarter in some ways than chimpanzees, according to recent studies. I don’t know how you would compare them in an actual test, or why it would be important to do so, but I like the fact that he was pro-crow so early on.

  • 2 Doug // Aug 31, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    I like the fact that he listened to them so closely. The idea that other animals use language is still controversial, but corvids have so many other surprising abilities (self-awareness, tool-making, complex social structures) that I wouldn’t put it past them.

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