murmuration

Have you heard a murmuration – perhaps the murmuration of a herd? Is there rationality in murmuring? Lovers may murmur to each other, but when many may murmur the murmuration is not only a heard phenomenon but a herd phenomenon. One responds to the next responding to the next…

It can be a rum thing. Something coherent can be split apart and partially turned, as an m turned into an r and an n and then the n turned to a u and switched around; or unconnected things, u r, come to be construed as joined m. No single clear voice speaks up so all can hear; nothing calls back to ration, so it remains the unseeing hearing herd of the murmur nation. Who is in the herd? U r, among others. And the sound all around is not really “rhubarb, rhubarb” as some would render it; if you have a large number of friends over, get them all to murmur murmuration at the same time and see whether it doesn’t sound just right. And perhaps a bit creepy.

But, then, is it a herd, really? A herd is made of animals. We might discern it better among birds. And among words for birds. Consider: we do well enough with school for a group of any of many different kinds of fish, and with herd for several kinds of animals, but there are among us those who are unsatisfied with standard flock as applied to birds. Oh, there is fun in fancy: it is enjoyable to speak of a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens, a watch of nightingales, a parliament of rooks, and (this would have changed the complexion of ’80s music) a wreck of seagulls. But the problem comes when someone murmurs that you are wrong if you use flock. These fanciful words, in truth, have (with just a few exceptions) always been just that: fancies. Toys. They ought not to be made into bludgeons.

It is true that among humans, the herd determines the use of the word, but individuals have influence, and sometimes they have quite a lot of influence. A medieval nun appears to have invented many of these words for bird herds, which are first seen – the whole flock of them – in The Book of St. Albans (1486). Thus these words were set, but mostly they are barely used, except among the murmuring set.

And when they are used, new flights of fancies, or just fancies in flight, may attach themselves to them. Consider the starling. The collective for starlings (other than flock, of course) is very rarely used: murmuration. (Yes, the word originally means “act of murmuring” or “continuous murmuring” – and also (though no longer) “spreading of rumours”. And murmur has apparent onomatopoeic origins in its Latin source.) But it happens that starlings can do something rather startling, a fascinating demonstration of complex dynamics: in places such as Otmoor, near Oxford, where large numbers of them come together at day’s end, there is a huge, fluid swooping, quite amazing to see, as thousands and thousands of birds make mass shapes that swirl like a sideways lava lamp sped up several times. They do this because each one is reacting to the ones near it, and they all have some particular pragmatics to follow relating to their role in the group hierarchy and their desire – and relative right – to go where they are safer. There is no one bird saying, “Hey, you guys, the old males come here, and the females go around there, and the younger males go over there.”

You can see this phenomenon in quite a few videos; my favourite is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=XH-groCeKbE. Another is at www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/02/murmuration-starlets_n_1072687.html (note that the URL erroneously has starlets – but it’s the correct URL). But the Huffington Post writer at the latter has taken the exotic act and assigned it the exotic word: “A murmuration, which this is, consists of thousands of tiny starlings (birds) collectively flying and swirling about.” So now it seems, to this writer – and to his readers – murmuration is not simply the word for a flock of starlings but is the word for this remarkable flocking behaviour.

We may say “Fair enough”: there’s already a perfectly good word for a flock of starling – flock – and there hasn’t to this point been a word specifically for this thing that large numbers of starlings do that happens to amaze a lot of people. But whether we like the semantic shift or not, it’s happening; given that the article on the Huffington Post has been “Liked” by over 36,000 people (as of this writing) and shared, tweeted, and emailed by almost 20,000, I think we can assume that each one of those people will take from the article – and pass on again by word of mouth – the word mumuration as referring specifically to this act (and may come to use it not as a murmuration of starlings but as starlings engaged in murmuration).

One bird turns, and the rest follow; one writer murmurs murmuration to this person and that, and they all follow. Of course, since it’s in a published article, it is in a way as though one bird had given direct instruction to the many, but since most people who read it likely found out about it through friends rather than simply turning every day to HuffPost to see what lexical updates to assimilate, effectively the article is the word that is murmured, not the voice murmuring it.

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11 responses to “murmuration

  1. Beatitude! A very comely article James!

    IMHO, This video offers microcosmic representation of what is called by mystics one-wave of consciousness. If anyone could observe from a singular omnipresent view-point, the entirety of existence will seem like this one; where consciousness is one and separations just dissolve.

  2. I have often contemplated with sympathy for crows, because they got ‘murdered’ by the creator of fancy term. Why this partiality with crows James? They’re not that bad after all. Are they? Why this nun had grudge against crows? :D

    • Most people don’t seem to like crows. They’re noisy, aggressive birds, and not all that nice-looking – and their calls are distinctly unlikeable.

      • I like crows. They are beautiful glossy all-black birds, extremely intelligent and with a sense of fun. They are useful scavengers too, and cities would be much messier without them. I feed peanuts to the crows in the park.

        Alciatus’ Book of Emblems (http://www.mun.ca/alciato/e044.html) includes an image of ‘Good Hope’ — a woman in green, holding broken weapons, sitting on a vat, and accompanied by a crow. The book explains:
        ‘Why do you sit lazily on the cover of a little vat?’
        ‘I alone remained at home when the evil things flew off everywhere, as was taught by the awe-inspiring muse of the old man of Ascraea.’
        ‘What bird is that with you?’
        ‘The crow, most faithful bird of augury. When he cannot speak, it is well, and when he does speak, so it shall be.’

        The coat of arms of County Dublin shows a crow speaking — and that is a proper heraldic term for a crow with its beak open. The motto is Beart do réir ár mbriathar, ‘Action to match our speech’.

  3. And the lexical change is in full swing! See the New York Times article The Miracle of Murmuration. The title is already treating it as a mass noun of an act, just as predicted, and a verb has been backformed: “I’ve never witnessed what these canoeists in Ireland saw not long ago — murmurating starlings.”

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  6. Is there a word for this behavior if the word murmuration is the word for the flock and not the behavior?

    • I am unaware of one specifically for the behaviour, which would be one reason the word is sliding over to the behaviour – there’s already a perfectly good word for the collective, flock, but not one for the rather striking behaviour. So I think this shift will be successful and persistent.

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