Birbspeak: every bird loves to hear himself sing
A new internet language has cropped up in recent years: birbspeak, which purports to communicate the thoughts of birds. Popular purveyors of birbspeak include the Twitter account Birds Rights Activist, which has over 371,000 followers, the Facebook account Birb, which had some 12,000 followers, and the website Important Birds.
An animal language on the internet is nothing without an implied sensibility. LOLCat is cutesy except for when it’s quietly sad and hostile. DoggoLingo is upbeat, joyful, and clueless. Snek (a language for snakes) ostensibly tries to intimidate, but instead comes across as lovable. And birbspeak? Birbspeak is self-seeking, oblivious, and vain. If web ventriloquists have it right, birds spend their days thinking about how to better instruct us as to what we can do for them.
Part of the comedy comes from verbal style. As with other animal languages, the syntax of birbspeak is simple and error-strewn, reflecting the pretense that the speaker is a bird. The prose often lacks capital letters, which makes sense given that a bird can’t peck simultaneously at the shift key and a letter key.
I am feel uncomfortable when we are not about me?
— birdsrightsactivist (@ProBirdRights) August 17, 2013
More than this, however, the sloppy typing, the run-on sentences, the poor grammar, combine with the content to suggest a speaker with no filter or patience to delay the sharing of his thoughts. As the Italians say, every bird loves to hear himself sing.
The major purveyors of birbspeak each give the language a somewhat different emphasis. Posts on Important Birds – commenters on the site often pretend to be birds themselves – deploy more spelling errors, more specialized vocabulary words, and a ditzier tone: “I just u know ,,, we bribs ned to stik togethr… we ar import !” Bird Rights Activist is more given to run-on sentences and subject-verb errors. Bird Rights Activist is also more grandiose, which makes the account a better vehicle for indirect digs at human folly. (Talk about subtweeting.)
Sometimes a post puts a feathered twist on a conventional blowhard statement:
i hate airplane befor it is cool
— birdsrightsactivist (@ProBirdRights) April 11, 2017
dont raise your son to be feminism cover the childs in glue and feathers so to eventually bird
— birdsrightsactivist (@ProBirdRights) June 2, 2017
Sometimes a post goes directly for politics:
happy 4 of julie did you know amcaria was invented by birds it true pic.twitter.com/11rNibiPqY
— birdsrightsactivist (@ProBirdRights) July 4, 2017
— birdsrightsactivist (@ProBirdRights) June 27, 2017
Gretchen McCulloch, who is writing a book about internet languages, notes that single-authored ventriloquism accounts, like Bird Rights Activist, tend to have recourse to a wider range of jokes and verbal play than do accounts with collectively authored content. Birb memes on Facebook, which has a collectively authored feed, tends to keep to a narrow schtick and blandly wholesome content. By contrast, the single-authored (and recently discontinued) Facebook account Birb extended Bird Rights Activist’s conventions of making the speaker a distinctive, pompous character (“yell bird”) and of taking talking points from public life – for instance, by doctoring phrases making the rounds in politics to create motivational messages. The emotional effect relied on the recovery of the news cycle’s catchphrase economy for personal self-care:
(Birb, April 26)
onley FAKE NEW round here is 🚨SELF DOUT🚨
🍟SO DO THE THIGN🍟!=%–
🐦ME BELIEVE AT YOU 🐦
(The account provides a helpful translation: “Listen pal, the only fake news around here is self doubt – so do the thing! I believe in you.”)
Our birdies, ourselves
In real life, of course, birds have all sorts of different temperaments, with different species exhibiting wide variance in behavior. Crows are clever and playful, Canada geese are surprisingly impolite, and swans basically have the personality of the Lannister twins. Excellent books are out there for amateur ornithologists of all ages who want to spend a little time in an avian brain. But as with other animal languages on the web, birbspeak isn’t really about birds; it’s about what we need to tell, and hear from, each other.
That birds would become a mouthpiece for political commentary online isn’t something many of us would have predicted, but in retrospect it does make sense. As media influencers might put it, birbspeak capitalizes on a content gap. In the realm of animal languages, dogs are commodities for personal joy, and cats are messengers of personal woe; the public world is wide open for someone else to take. Birds are alien enough, with their little dinosaur brains, to render human folly strange, but cute enough to soften the hostility entailed in mocking the follies of others. In its brush with politics, birbspeak participates in the project of all satire, showing the absurdities of public life the bird.