Daily Archives: January 20, 2011


Psst! Listen! Sifting, siffling, shifting, sighing, whispering, rushing, brushing… It starts like a sound of corduroys whiffing together, perhaps, or a sigh, a distant waterfall… As it approaches, the shaking becomes visible, thousands of shades shifting, and the echoes of restrained applause or quiet dissonant voices (is there rhythm? nary a bit; you’d sooner find it in Ligeti’s Kyrie)… Then a gradual rise to a roar, a crashing washing, white noise, and all is in motion, leaves, twigs, branches, all the trees, lifted and whirling and flailing in the gust, like thousands and thousands of dancers or papers or birds or dervishes or even the sparkling sun on a lake, shades of green glittering in the breeze, this prism undulating in emerald… and then it passes again, and all calms down to a quieter whisper.

Ah, the psithurism of the trees in the breeze in my native Alberta, rising and falling in the gusts of the spring and fall. Does it sound romantic, idyllic? Try hearing it outside your window in the night, perhaps in an empty house, just you and the darkness and the rushing wind rising and falling, and the trees sighing and shaking and asking your name. I admit I am not much treated to psithurism in my aerie in downtown Toronto, but I also do not so much feel the Windigo coming for me.

Now, psithurism does not have to refer to the sound trees make when they whisper in the breeze, since it comes from Greek πσιθυρισμα psithurisma, “whispering”, but it does have a history in English of focus on trees and leaves – inasmuch as it has a history in English, of course. It arrived only in the 1800s – likely accounting for the fact that, unlike earlier borrowings, it renders the upsilon as u and not y. It’s been taken so directly from Greek, and with so little wearing down by the breezes of common conversational usage, that I really do think one can pronounce the initial p. It’s a word that seems almost just to be passing through the language, stirring it a bit on the way by and then moving on, with no lasting state, just as it rustles the lips and the tip of the tongue without shaking the root: start with mouth closed, open to the tip of the tongue hissing a little air, then a lift, a touch of the teeth, a slight recoil and back to the tip and again the lips close and it is finished.