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Names of birds in foreign languages

Updated: Apr 10

My sons’ nicknames for me are either word-nerd or bird-nerd, depending on which conversational topic I’m trying to engage them in. On this occasion, we’re in the centre of that nerdy Venn diagram...

In Spanish, bird names range from the familiar:

Paloma = dove

Flamenco = flamingo

... to the fantastically onomatopoeic:

urraca = magpie. Try saying it out loud with an enthusiastically rolled ‘rr’ sound.

... via the simply excellent "pájaro carpintero". Yes, woodpeckers are 'carpenter birds'.

In French, everything just sounds so elegant: bergeronnette (pied wagtail) hirondelle (swallow), and rossignol (nightingale) which you might recognise from the brand of ski-gear.

Edith Piaf – the singer who became a national treasure in post-war France – was born Edith Gassion, but was nicknamed ‘sparrow’ for her diminutive size. Those of you with next-level French garden bird vocabulary will know le moineau as the normal word for sparrow; piaf is a colloquial, onomatopoeic and usually somewhat pejorative alternative.

In German, the taxonomy can be wonderfully descriptive, and sometimes even give an insight into the origins of birds' English names. Peregrine is semantically linked to the word 'pilgrim', so the German 'Wanderfalke' fits nicely: a wandering falcon. Similarly, if Adler is German for eagle, I'm sure you could work out that Fischadler is an osprey. Can you guess what these birds might be from their literal translations?

Zaunkönig (fence king)

Mauersegler (wall sailor)

Eisvogel (ice bird)

Lachmöve (laughing gull)

I won't ask for answers on a postcard. The answers are below.

While we're here, an honourable mention for the chiffchaff's German counterpart, known there as Zilpzalp. Same idea, different accent.

I'd love to hear of interestingly-named birds in other languages. If you know of any – particularly if there is some kind of story behind the name, please share…

Answers to the German bird names:

Wren, swift, kingfisher, black-headed gull.

Andrew Wenger runs French, German and Spanish classes, mainly for adults at beginner and intermediate level. He is ably assisted by a growing team of native-speaker colleagues, who take charge of the advanced level groups, and who can add Italian, Japanese and Mandarin to the list of languages on offer. We went 100% online when the plague was in town, and many classes have remained there, but we are increasingly trying to offer in-person classes again, if there is sufficient demand in any given geographical area. We operate mainly in the Reading and West Berkshire area, but are starting to expand our reach.

Please contact me here if you would like to find out about enrolling in a class, or to suggest a location for a new one.


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