Parrots speak lost rainforest tongue

Artist revives the language of a vanished tribe after 2000 years

Louise Jury,Arts,Media Correspondent
Sunday 02 April 2000 00:00 BST

Only three brains in the world can understand the language of the Maypure people, and two of them belong to parrots.

This week visitors to London's Serpentine Gallery will be able to hear Maypure spoken for, as far as anyone knows, the first time in Britain - albeit in a limited way, as parrots tend to have a limited vocabulary.

The parrots feature in one piece of work by American artist Rachel Berwick, who became intrigued by the story of the language, rescued from the South American rain forest by the great 18th century explorer Alexander von Humboldt.

Maypure originated from the lands around the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela, but disappeared when the tribe was murdered by a rival group of Caribbean Indians in the last years of the 18th century.

On to the scene stepped German naturalist and explorer von Humboldt, who was astonished to hear a strange language spoken not by the Maypure people, who were dead, but by their talkative pet parrots. The birds had been captured by the rival tribe but continued to mimic the speech of their dead owners.

Von Humboldt realised they were the sole surviving repository of the language, brought one of the birds back to Europe and proceeded to phonetically record the parrot's vocabulary.

That was in 1799. Two hundred years later, Rachel Berwick was so taken with the story that she decided to resurrect the dead language - with the appropriate ornithological help.

The results can be seen, and heard, at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, London, from Tuesday, in an exhibition entitled The Greenhouse Effect, about the way contemporary artists are reinterpreting the classical subject of nature in art.

Ms Berwick, 37, said: "I have often worked with ideas of loss and extinction and this was, for me, too good to pass up. I needed to do a piece about it."

She spent nearly two years in research based on von Humboldt's phonetic transcriptions, preparing the parrots, a blue-front and an orange-wing which come from the Amazon, and teaching them words of the Maypure tribe.

The story of the lost Maypure tribe was mentioned by the English writer W H Hudson about 60 years after von Humboldt visited South America. Douglas Botting, a more recent biographer of von Humboldt, had never heard the parrot story before but he said that it rang true.

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