Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds
Birds sing and call, sometimes in complex and beautiful arrangements of notes, sometimes in one-line repetitions that resemble a ringtone more than a symphony. Listening, we are stirred, transported, and even envious of birds’ ability to produce what Shelley called “profuse strains of unpremeditated art.” And for hundreds of years, we have tried to write down what we hear when birds sing. Poets have put birdsong in verse (Thomas Nashe: “Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo”) and ornithologists have transcribed bird sounds more methodically. Drawing on this history of bird writing, in Aaaaw to Zzzzzd John Bevis offers a lexicon of the words of birds. For tourists in Birdland, there could be no more charming phrasebook.
Consulting it, we find seven distinct variations of “hoo” attributed to seven different species of owls, from a simple hoo to the more ambitious hoo hoo hoo-hoo, ho hoo hoo-hoo; the understated cheet of the tree swallow; the resonant kreeaaaaaaaaaaar of the Swainson’s hawk; the modest peep peep peep of the meadow pipit. We learn that some people hear the Baltimore oriole saying “here, here, come right here, dear” and the yellowhammer saying “a little bit of bread and no cheese.”
Bevis, a poet, frames his lexicons—one for North America and one for Britain and northern Europe—with an evocative appreciation of birds, birdsong, and human attempts to capture the words of birds in music and poetry. He also offers an engaging account of other methods of documenting birdsong—field recording, graphic notation, and mechanical devices including duck calls and the serinette, an instrument used to teach song tunes to songbirds.
The singing of birds is nature at its most sublime, and words are our medium for expressing this sublimity. Aaaaw to Zzzzzd belongs in the bird lover’s backpack and on the word lover’s bedside table, an unexpected and sui generis pleasure.
About the Author
John Bevis is a writer, poet, and book artist living in London.
“Mr. Bevis compares his experience of hearing the sound of birds, ‘unhindered in its rawness and potency,’ to the way he hears the Lieder of Schubert and Schumann in German, a language that he does not speak but that still communicates to him in some unquantifiable way. ‘We cannot ground the emotions we hear in any birdland rationality,’ he asserts. What birds give us is—as Shelley wrote in ‘To a Skylark’—‘profuse strains of unpremeditated art.’” , Alexander Theroux, Wall Street Journal
“Aaaaw to Zzzzzd is a miraculous little book: a compressed encyclopedia of our fascination with avifauna.” —Ange Mlinko, The Nation
“A charming, funny, and eccentric book.” —Times Literary Supplement
“But once the walk is clear and you’re inside and warming up with a cup of hot chocolate, you can get a foretaste of spring with a peculiarly charming book from MIT Press: Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds...Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds does what we hope all books will do (and which not all manage to accomplish): It opens a window on a world that has been right alongside us, yet unexplored, and gives us the vocabulary to understand and discuss it with a newly awakened appreciation for its wonders.” —Erin McKean, Boston Globe "Ideas"
“This gorgeous little book is a lexicon of bird words, the most plausible notation of sounds that often have dozens of phonic interpretations This book is an elegant tribute to the beauty of its subject.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
“[A]n evocative appreciation of birds, birdsong, and human attempts to capture the words of birds in music and poetry. Aaaaw to Zzzzzd belongs in the bird lover’s backpack and on the word lover’s bedside table, an unexpected and sui generis pleasure.”—Northeastern Naturalist
“This book is so much more than just a list of bird sounds...[It] provides an interesting overview of how humans have attempted to represent birdsong over the centuries.”—IBIS
"A lexicography of surprise, subtlety, and sheer delight, Aaaaw to Zzzzzd shapes bird sound into comprehensive fabrics of sumptuous articulation."
—John R. Stilgoe, Harvard University
"Every bird lover should possess a copy of this book, but so should every bird. Both will learn the names we have for one another, and enjoy the gossip of our garden. Now, when you hear a call, you'll know who is on the line, and when you hear a song, why whee-oo wheet, and the same to you, my sweet."
"This is a most unusual compilation, surely a labor of love, in which the author, John Bevis, has heroically tried to catalogue in one alphabetical sequence all the weird and wonderful ways we have tried to represent bird songs and calls in words, ranging from the unpronounceable kdddrrddi of the summer tanager to the unforgettable witchity, witchity, witchity, witch of the common yellowthroat. But for me the most interesting parts are the sections before and after the catalogue where he discusses more generally the human response to bird song: the ingenious ways we have recorded and imitated it, the ways we have celebrated it in literature and music, and the ways we might properly compare it with our own language and song."
—Jeremy Mynott, author of Birdscapes
Winning entry, Poetry and Literature, 2011 AAUP Book, Jacket, and Journal Show