That Bird Speaks Nukna: Birdsong Translation on the Huon Peninsula, Papua New Guinea


     Birds are known to bear strong cultural importance in Papua New Guinea. Further, the ways birdsongs are described in Papuan languages may hold clues to cultural and social history in Papua New Guinea. In English, some birdsongs are described with onomatopoeia: crows are said to caw. Other birdsongs, however, are commonly described through a type of homophonic translation—translating the avian vocalizations into sequences of English with similar rhythms and cadences. For instance, the barred owl, Strix varia, is said to call: Who cooks for you? These two ways of describing birdsongs also exist in the Papuan language Nungon. Some birdsongs that are translated into meaningful Nungon words relate to the bird’s mythic or behavioral traits. Beyond this, Nungon speakers cite some birdsongs as homophonic translations into other Papuan languages, not into Nungon. Birdsong translations may serve as important parts of the reconstruction of human and avian pasts in Papua New Guinea.