As Sue Farlow wrote, according to the Beach Comber, about Alexander von Humboldt’s encounter with a parrot who was the last speaker of an almost lost language:
According to legend, famed 18th-century explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt was traveling along the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela when he happened upon a Carib Indian tribe. When he asked his hosts why their pet parrots were speaking a dialect different from their own language, the Indians told von Humboldt the birds had belonged to the Maypure tribe, whom they had recently exterminated during tribal warfare. The birds were spoils of war. To von Humboldt’s amazement, the parrots were the last remaining speakers of the Maypure language. von Humboldt’s meticulously detailed journals don’t corroborate the legend of the parrots, unfortunately. However, they do contain the Maypure words he heard on his travels, transcribed phonetically since Maypure existed only in spoken form. (The Parrots of the Atures – Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog: strangehistory.net)
Here is what von Humboldt’s journal records: “A tradition circulates among the Guahiboes, that the warlike Atures, pursued by the Caribbees, escaped to the rocks that rise in the middle of the Great Cataracts; and there that nation, hear-to-fore so numerous, became gradually extinct, as well as its language. The last families of the Atures still existed in 1767, in the time of the missionary Gili. At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants related, and the fact is worthy of observation that ‘they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures’ [Vol. 5, 620]. The language that was passed down had become pure nonsense, sound without meaning, since there were no more active speakers – it takes a least one who, like all of us, is simultaneously a speaker and a hearer split into a communicative loop – and there were no recording devices to preserve the community of speakers. A parrot repeats, but, not understanding, cannot explain the language or invent in order to expand the language.
Since Humboldt’s time, however, there have recently emerged are even more internationally famous parrots. Alex the African Grey Parrot (May 1976 – 6 September 2007) trained professors Irene Pepperberg and Dianne Patterson to train him in order to study his language and mathematical capacities. Learning a variety of terms, how to recognize and distinguish objects, and the basics of counting – perhaps even the concept of zero – and occasionally correcting his instructors (which are always the best kind of students), Alex also had the rudiments of a concept of self as he entered the Lacanian mirror-stage. “Looking at a mirror, he said ‘what color,’ and learned ‘gray’ after being told ‘grey’ six times. This made him the first and only non-human animal to have ever asked a question – and an existential question at that” (Wikipedia, Alex). A gray on gray, after only six attempts. Not bad. We do not know, unfortunately, what his ultimate capacities would have been after entered the stage of the symbolic, as he passed away at the early age of 31. His last words, the ones he always said last to Pepperberg as she departed, were “You be good, I love you. See you tomorrow.” These sentiments will be echoed by countless human beings, including Socrates in the Crito. “You be good, I love you. See you tomorrow.”
Another famous parroteer, although not a parrot, is Laurie Anderson, the performance artist who is deeply intrigued by the voice animalized or artificialized – but be careful with these distinctions – and separated from the “normal common sense” figure of the body. As she has noted:
As a talking artist, I’m always on the lookout for alter egos – surrogate speakers. And I’ve always been completely fascinated by parrots. …I spent a lot of time with my brother’s gray African parrot Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob has a vocabulary of about five hundred words. You’re never sure with Bob where the line is between repetitive babble and conscious communication. [Isn’t this precisely the same question for those commonly known as “human beings”?] The more I listened to Bob the more it seemed like he could communicate emotion – cries and phrases that expressed loneliness, fear, sheer happiness – all with his extremely limited vocabulary. It made me realize how much human language is a combination of rote phrases and fortuitous invention, a complex mix of the things that can be said and the unsayable. (“Control rooms”, 128)
Uncle Bob, like any self-respecting linguistic genius, has his own website, where you can hear him speak. “Lobster” is my favorite example, since lobsters explain the double-articulation of materiality-expressivity always at work in the world.
And what a concept: the “alter-ego – surrogate speakers …”. Repetition and difference are always at work, variations of tone, pacing, vocabulary and syntax that shape the space for the emergence of meaning and whatever arrives that is unexpected, not part of the program. The “I” of the ego depends, in an essential manner, on its innumerable alters – in an infinite ecology of expressivity. Surrogates; technologies. Who do we speak on behalf of? Who, and what, speaks on our behalf?
- “Alex the Parrot,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_parrot (Wikipedia).
- Anderson, L. “Control Rooms and Other Stories: Confessions of a Content Provider,” Parkett 49 (1997): 127-35.
- Anderson, L. “Parrot,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= h1Q_6-cqyBQ).
- Farlow, S. Beach Combing, “The Parrots of the Atures,” (November 2, 2010). Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog. http://www.strangehistory.net/2010/11/02/the-parrots-of-the-atures/.
- Humboldt, Alexander von and Aimé Bonpland. Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent during the years 1799-1804. Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1815.
- Uncle Bob’s Website. http://www.beakandfeathers.com/intro.htm.