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Friday, February 19, 2016

Dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon

This amazing "video selfie" of a gyrfalcon in Churchill, Manitoba, has received a lot of attention since it was posted by explore.org a few days ago: https://youtu.be/IfV8Vi2o_W0 

Of course my burning question was...

How the heck is "gyrfalcon" pronounced, anyway? And where does this name for the largest member of the falcon family come from?

First, the pronunciation.

"Falcon" itself is not simple. When we researched the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we discovered that most Canadians pronounce the first syllable exactly the same way as they pronounce "fall" (rhymes with "doll"). Some Canadians pronounce it "fal" (rhymes with "gal"). 

This preference for "rhymes-with-doll" seems to be uniquely Canadian. Here are the pronunciation preferences in some other parts of the English-speaking world:
1) "fal"
2) "rhymes-with-doll"

Australia and New Zealand:
1) "forl"-without-the-"r"
2) "fal"

1) "forl"-without-the-"r"
2) "rhymes-with-doll"
But there is yet another British pronunciation, with no "l" in it, rather like "forken"-without-the-"r".

Why does this British pronunciation without the "l" exist? Back in the Middle Ages when we got the word from French, it was "faucon" (as it is to this day in French). The origin of this French word was the late Latin falcōn-em, falco, commonly believed to be from falc-, falx (sickle), the name being due to the resemblance of the hooked talons to a reaping hook. But since "l"'s after a vowel tend to get swallowed up and pronounced as a vowel themselves before disappearing entirely (the same thing happened in words like "almond", "calm" and "psalm"), Latin falcōn became French faucon.

But, as we have seen with many other English words, come the Renaissance we refashioned the word to reflect its Latin origins, reinserting the "l" in the spelling even while we still did not pronounce it. By the 19th century, under the influence of literacy, people started to pronounce the "l", but for some it is still silent (exactly as in "almond" and "calm"). 

This history explains why the name of the novelist William Faulkner (whose medieval ancestor would have been the important employee in charge of a noble's hunting hawks) is pronounced "FAWKNER" rather than "FAWLKNER".

How do YOU pronounce "falcon"?

Compared to "falcon", "gyr" is a walk in the park: it is pronounced "jurr" (though really I would never have intuitively guessed that from the spelling).

But where does "gyr" come from?

The ultimate source is the Old High German gîr (vulture) derived from a root *gῑr meaning "greedy". But medieval scholars suggested that it was instead derived from the Latin gȳrāre (circle, gyrate), and refers to the ‘circling’ movements of the bird in the air. Since we had a fondness for classical etymologies even when they were wrong, we ended up reflecting this in the spelling (originally we had spelled it "gerfalcon"). See my post about ptarmigan for another example of this phenomenon.

For the interesting story of another member of the same family, the peregrine falcon, click here.

And here's a piece of ornithological trivia for you: female falcons are larger than male falcons. 

With all this talk of falcons, why not contemplate this beautiful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which gave me the title for this post. It's inspired by a smaller falcon, the windhover or kestrel, but what the heck.

The Windhover
To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,        5
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion        10
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

REMINDER: March 16 "Tea and Wordlady": Bachelor for Rent: Things You Never Suspected About Canadian English. BOOKING UP FAST! More info here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2016/02/tea-and-wordlady-wednesday-16-march.html

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.