This article was first "published" in an electronic newsletter "The Cup" in October 1996. It was passed around a bit (with my permission), and then was also published in two parts with some slight modifications as "Dr. Language Person's guide to bird name pronunciations, Part 1 and Part 2" in the newsletter of the San Diego Field Ornithologists. 1998, The Skimmer 25 (12) 2-3; and 1999, The Skimmer 26 (1) 2-3.

Oh, and just so you know, the Rainbow-billed Barking-Duck was a frequently discussed target of birders in the Cayuga Lake Basin in 1996.


Dr. Language Person's Guide to Bird Name Pronunciations

by Kevin McGowan (with apologies to Dave Barry)


You say PLUH-ver and I say PLO-ver,

You say pro-THON-a-tery and I say pro-theh-NO-tery,...


If you spend time birding with other people (and you should), you will find that not everyone agrees on how to pronounce certain bird names. The differences can be as obvious as a southern drawl adding a few more syllables than seems necessary, or they can be as arbitrary (and entrenched) as the to-MAY-to, to-MAH-to debate of the old song. (My old doctoral advisor tells the story of how in his first year in Florida from the north he was mystified by the report from another birder of seeing a puh-ray-uh-ree. He spent the next hour looking for this exotic sounding bird, but could only find the common Prairie Warblers.) But even if you get past the disparate accents and regional dialect problems, still you hear many different versions of common birds. Is it "pa-RU-la" or "PAR-u-la"? Is it "PIE-le-at-ed" or PILL-e-at-ed"?

If you're a beginning birder, you might be afraid of embarrassing yourself in front of other, more experienced birders by choosing the wrong pronunciation. Well you should be; we birders are a pretty snotty lot, never afraid to snigger at a novice's mistakes. No, that's not true. Actually, we're very nice and helpful. But, never fear, Dr. Language Person is here to set you straight about these nagging doubts. I will give you the definitive pronunciations of the most commonly mispronounced birds, as well as some others that you never thought about mispronouncing, just to make you self-conscious so that you'll make more mistakes, HAH-HAH! No, wait. In keeping with the scholarly tone of this fine publication, I will give you the information as I see it, and then you can make your own decisions.

First, English is slippery language. In fact, all language is slippery. No accepted absolute standards exist, in contrast to official measurement standards, like meters. So you have to rely on either (is that I-ther or EE -ther?) some authority or on common use. Without a widely accepted authority, all language drifts and people begin to subtly change the way they pronounce things. Languages, like populations of organisms, change and evolve over time.

English is perhaps more confusing than most languages, because it has a history of change (based largely on the number of different invaders that conquered Britain throughout the millennia) and freely borrows words and pronunciations from other languages. "Original" or Old English is a mostly Germanic language that came to Britain with the Saxon (and other) invaders that drove the Celts pretty much out of England around 450 AD. When the French-speaking Normans invaded in 1066, they added a heavy Latin influence to the language, as well as a (still existent) snobbishness for French words and pronunciation and a disdain for "vulgar" four-letter Anglo-Saxon words. In the 15th century, England embraced the Renaissance along with the newly invented mechanical printing technique, adding some standardization to the language The fairly rigid ideas and temperaments of the 18th century led to more standardization and eventually the language we now speak. Grammar, inflection, case, and conjugation changed with these influences, with the result that pronunciation shifted dramatically as well. After the 1700's another major change in the language was the result of the large number of English speakers in the Americas. Americans created some novel pronunciations and preserved some that became archaic in Britain. We just don't pronounce things the same way. In fact, we don't share all of our vowel and consonant sounds anymore. We'll stick with American here, because, well, we're in America. Also, who wants to talk like someone who thinks Leicester is pronounced "Lester"? (Here in America we try to use more than 2/3 of the letters in each word.)

Because languages change over time, even in the face of authority, the adherence to a "correct" standard is difficult, and some would say unnecessary. As a point of reference, one thinks to look in a dictionary for the "correct" pronunciation. But dictionaries seem to have two, divergent, aims: providing a standard, and documenting the evolving standards. Some dictionaries seem to be most interested in adding new words and documenting the gradually accepted changes in pronunciation and meaning. Others try more to provide a standard and only grudgingly add words as they become too firmly entrenched in the common lexicon to be denied. My own personal favorite dictionary is the "Standard College Dictionary" of Harcourt, Brace & World, which seems to follow the latter idea. The following is their statement of policy: "A pronunciation is correct when it is normally and unaffectedly used by cultivated people. Strictly, any pronunciation is correct when it serves the purposes of communication and does not call unfavorable attention to the speaker... When two or more pronunciations are indicated for a word, the one that the editors believe most frequent in the northern and western sections of the United States is listed first, but other pronunciations are equally reputable. (The dictionary does not list socially substandard pronunciations, no matter how common they may be.)" "Pronunciations," by James B. McMillan, Standard College Dictionary, Harcourt, Brace & World.

It sounds snobby enough to be satisfying.

So what often happens is that you go to a dictionary to find out if it's PLUH-ver or PLO-ver and you find BOTH of them. The one listed first is not the "preferred" one, but rather as admitted by this dictionary, the most frequent one (with a heavy regional bias). So whom do you believe? Trust Dr. Language Person, I'll set you straight. First, just be glad that the one you say is there. If you pronounced it PLEE-ver, plo-VER, or BAR-king-Duk, well then you're just hopeless. Below are the most common North American bird names that receive different pronunciations. I give the Harcourt, Brace & World pronunciations when available, otherwise I make them up. No, I mean I exhaustively searched for other authoritative sources, such as The Random House Dictionary (Unabridged), Webster's International Dictionary (Unabridged), and "The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds" by John K. Terres. Terres does not talk about where he got his pronunciations, so I treat them with a little skepticism.

Note, pronunciation is difficult to express via the Internet where all the neat characters (like upside down e's) aren't available. I have tried to express long vowels by either doubling them (ee), adding a terminal e (o_e, _ie), or adding a terminal y (ay); short vowels either do not have these additions, or have an h associated with them. ALL CAPS indicates the strongest accented syllable, while a Single capital letter indicates a secondarily accented syllable. If multiple pronunciations are listed, that's because both are "reputable." Therefore you can use either one and feel okay. If someone tries to correct you when you use one of the listed pronunciations, you can give them that haughty, look-down-your-nose expression (add a touch of a pitying look for best effect), make a short laugh, and then tell them that despite their pretensions you as an informed birder in fact know more than they do. Cite Dr. Language Person as your source, and watch them cringe in abject apology and obsequious acceptance of your vastly superior intellect (or not). If your favorite pronunciation is not there, well, you'd better learn something and change, or we'll be laughing behind your back constantly.


BECARD (as in Rose-throated Becard) - BEK-ard. I admit right at the start that I say be-KARD, but I'll try to mend my ways from here on.

BEWICK'S (as in Wren and Swan) - BYEW-iks. Like the car, not the Bugs Bunny sound.

BUDGERIGAR - BUJ-e-ree-Gar (remember BUJ-e as the short name). Where I come from, we just called them parakeets.

CALLIOPE (Hummingbird) - keh-LIE-eh-pee; KAL-ee-ope. Despite its being accepted by the dictionaries, I have almost never heard the second version, so avoid it unless you want to attract attention to yourself.

CORDILLERAN (Flycatcher) - Kor-dil-YAR-ehn, kor-DILL-er-ehn. Since it comes from the Spanish, I recommend staying with the Y sound of the double l.

GOSHAWK - GOS-hok. From goose-hawk; separate the s from the h and say "Gosh, I saw a Gos-hawk."

GUILLEMOT - GIL-eh-mott. This is English from the French; avoid the urge to do a Spanish double l "y" sound, and keep that terminal "t" on there, it's not THAT French.

GYRFALCON - JUHR-Fal-kehn. From gir[vulture]-falcon. An easy way to remember juhr not jeer is that an old alternative, but now unaccepted, way to spell it is Gerfalcon.

HARLEQUIN (Duck) - HAHR-leh-kwin, -kin. Add that w sound at your own discretion.

JABIRU - JAB-eh-roo. (Tupi Indian, via the Portuguese)

JACANA - Zha-seh-NAH. (Tupi Indian name) I can almost guarantee you that you will be corrected on the pronunciation of this name, no matter HOW you pronounce it. I don't think I have EVER heard anyone pronounce it "correctly" as the dictionary lists it. Terres gives four pronunciations, two as "many American ornithologists" do it: jah-KON-ah, Yah-sah-NAH; and two dictionary pronunciations: Zha-sah-NAH, JAK-ah-nah. Then he proceeds to pronounce the family jah-CAN-ih-dee.

JAEGER - YAY-gehr, JAY-gehr. Stay with the first pronunciation; think Swedish, even though it's German.

MURRE (Common or Thick-billed) - muhr. NOT myuhr, he was the Sierra Club guy.

PARULA - PAR-you-lah. From the diminutive form of Parus, meaning little titmouse, even though it's a warbler. I couldn't find a listing for the way I usually say it, pah-RU-la, so I guess I'll have to change the way I say this one too (hah!).

PHALAROPE - FAL-eh-rope. NOT BAR-king-Duk.

PHAINOPEPLA - fay-no-PEHP-lah. No PEEPing!

PILEATED (Woodpecker) - PIE-lee-ay-tid, PILL-ee-ay-tid (having a pileus or cap). This and the next two are commonly pronounced as the two alternate versions listed from the dictionary. If it bothers you when people say it differently than you do, lighten up. They're just birds, for goodness sakes, and THEY don't care what you call them.

PLOVER - PLUHV-er, PLOV-er. The uh's are first, although the second is a more American, less British version.

PROTHONOTARY (Warbler) - pro-THON-eh-Ter-ee, Pro-theh-NO-the-ree.

SABINE'S (Gull) - Named for Sir Edward Sabine, we would have to know how he pronounced it, which might have nothing to do with any other pronunciation of the word. My dictionary lists s-a-b-i-n-e as being pronounced variously: SAB-in (a shrub), SAY-bine (the Italian people, you know, the famous rape painting), seh-BEEN (a river in Texas). Terres and Websters give the gull SAB-in, so SAB-in it is.

VAUX'S (Swift) - Here again we have a bird named for a person, this time William S. Vaux, and we need to know how he pronounced it. Those of you with training in French probably, and understandably, think you pronounce it as would the French - "vo" with a silent x. But you are WRONG (and probably pretentious too). Terres and Websters lists it as "vauks." I talked to someone once who knew some relative of William Vaux and said that they pronounced it "vauks."


There you have it, the final word on pronunciation of all the birds you always wondered about. If you have others that you are nervous about, or feel like you're pretty creative with, keep them to yourself. Next month, it's how to pronounce the Latin names! (It's easy; all the Romans are dead, so pronounce them any way you feel like! Maybe even BAR-king-Duk!)



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