The Linguist Parrot

If one wanted to forecast which future career awaited Alexander von Humboldt, born in Prussia in the second half of the 18th century, it was just enough to look at the studies he was pursuing: biology, anatomy, foreign languages, geology, even astronomy – an array of subjects at which he was to excel, destining him to become a brilliant explorer.

In 1792, he was appointed at a job within the Prussian Department of Mines, where he would oversee gold production for the government. This occupation did not prevent him from conducting his science experiments further: Alexander made use of its extensive knowledge to build his reputation, and he eventually got to meet the famous philosopher Goethe.

By the end of the century, von Humboldt felt ready to explore the world. He looked for an expedition to come along in France, but facing the political instabilities of that time, he eventually pushed his luck forward in Spain. There, although it had been three centuries that Columbus had “discovered” the New World, the Spanish authorities were still willing to send scientists to America, in order to know more about local fauna and flora. The King of Spain gave the expedition his green light and blessing: von Humboldt jumped aboard and the ship Pizarro sailed to Venezuela in June 1799.

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Joseph Karl Stieler (1943), Alexander von Humboldt (Source: Wikimedia)

During these years, Alexander kept on sketching species he had never seen before, taking notes about this new environment. His older brother, Wilhelm, was to become a famous linguist – is it the reason why Alexander was also so keen to recording the locals’ languages? Indeed, in 1800, as the expedition moved along the wild shores of the Orinoco River, deep in the Venezuelan jungle, a strange lingo reached von Humboldt’s ears: it was a local tribe’s, the Maypures.

The tribesmen appeared as an interesting-enough field of study for the expedition to stop by. The Spanish crew anchored its ship near the Maypures’ village which, adding to the exotic scenery, echoed with the singing of marvelous, colorful Amazon parrots. One could not get his eyes off these beautiful creatures – von Humboldt was no exception to the rule – and this is how the Prussian explorer noticed that the birds did not use the locals’ dialect. Investigating this oddity, he learned that these parrots had been living with a rival tribe, now extinct, that used to be settled nearby the Maypures’ territory.

Von Humboldt immediately interested himself to the exotic birds, writing down the phonetics of what they would say, making sure to keep track of his discoveries. Hence a dead lingo, none of whose speakers could ever share the secret, was kept alive.

Sometime later, Alexander von Humboldt resumed his journey across the New World: Cuba, Mexico, the United States… The Spanish royal expedition kept on investigating the American continent until it eventually sailed back to Europe four years later, reaching Bordeaux (France) in August 1804.

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One of von Humboldt’s drawings: introducing the Andean condor (Vultur Gryphus). Extracted from: Alexander v. Humboldt, Beobachtungen aus der Zoologie und Vergleichenden Anatomie gesammelt auf einer Reise nach den Tropen-Ländern des neuen Kontinents, in den Jahren 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 und 1804 von Al. von Humboldt und A. Bonpland. Bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Ersterem. Did you really read all of that? (Source: Wikipedia)

The talking parrots’ event was to be forgotten among the large amount of works Alexander published once back, for which he received worldwide acclaim. Von Humboldt pioneered modern geology, naturalist science, and is said to have influenced Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, among others. His fame gave rise to ‘Humboldtian science’ based on accurate observation and precise measure, and everyone willing to push science forward would do well parroting his words:

Nature herself is sublimely eloquent. The stars as they sparkle in firmament fill us with delight and ecstasy, and yet they all move in orbit marked out with mathematical precision.

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Eduard Hildebrandt (1842), Arbeitszimmer des Alexander von Humboldt in Berlin, Oranienburger Str. 67 (Source: Wikipedia)

Ironically, the Orinoco region would, more than a century later, trigger the interest of another bird expert: an American ornithologist, who studied species living in the Caribbean. That very person, as von Humboldt, would also become associated with investigation skills: the author Ian Fleming would indeed borrow his name for his spy character, the very well-known 007 agent… Bond. James Bond.

 


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