E.G., a native English-speaking friend who’s quite proficient in Spanish, asked about the differences between aveand pájaro in translating “bird”.
For starters, both originate in Latin: avis and passer (sparrow), respectively.
How do the two Spanish words divvy up the turf of meaning—what linguists call the “semantic field”
Sparrow and ostrich: in Spanish both birds are aves, but only one would typically be called pájaro. Which one?
Ave (AH-veh, as in Ave María; that ave is a different word, a Latin greeting usually translated as “hail”) is a scientific term: the taxonomic class Aves. It’s broad, covering hummingbird and sparrow, turkey and heron. It can name categories, e.g. birds of prey (aves de rapiña), poultry (aves de granja, literally “farm birds”), or songbirds (aves cantoras). And it is often literary or poetic in tone.
Pájaro, true to its origins, is almost always used to mean used a relatively small, flying bird, typically a songbird. Somewhat informal, it can also be applied humorously to birds that would usually not be so called: a penguin, for instance, or a goose, or a ñañdú (the three-toed South American counterpart of the ostrich).
In English, “bird” carries singly almost all the weight that in Spanish is shared by ave and pájaro. In English, the Latin root avis appears only in scientific or technical terms such as “avian”, “aviform”, or “aviation”.
In highly informal or vulgar language, pájaro can refer to the male genital organ, a connotation not absent from English: think of “flipping the bird” for the obscene, middle-finger gesture. In some (particularly Caribbean) countries, pájaro, pato (duck) and the like can mean male homosexual.
Bird-related expressions where English and Spanish coincide include “A little birdie told me” (Me lo contó un pajarito) and calling someone “a strange bird” (rara avis).
On the other hand, Pájaro que comió, voló (literally: Bird that ate, flew away) is rendered in English simply as “Sorry to eat and run”. And saying something is “for the birds”, or worthless, in English, has no avian counterpart in Spanish, although in Argentina the rhymed expression “Alpiste, perdiste” (literally: Birdseed, you lose) is common in a situation where someone has said something they regret, or otherwise made a mistake.
While we’re on the subject of birds, we can’t help but think of the humorous definition of Homo sapiens, often attributed to Plato, as “the featherless biped”.
Copyright © 2013 by Pablo Julián Davis. All rights reserved. A version of this essay was originally written for the June 23-29, 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the regular bilingual column “Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”. Pablo Julián Davis (www.interfluency.com) is an ATA Certified Translator (inglés>español) and a Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (inglés<>español) who also provides custom-designed cultural/linguistic coaching and training.