Do Norfolk birds speak Punjabi? Mona Arshi, the poet transcribing bird calls


The lawyer-turned-poet spent a year ‘possessed’ by bird sounds – and found some chirped in her childhood tongue. So what are lapwings and godwits saying?

The pandemic has brought birdsong to the ears of many people in the past year. Unlike most newly transfixed listeners, Mona Arshi, who a decade ago made the unusual transition from human rights lawyer to poet, felt an urge to transcribe the sounds.

When she wrote them down – following a path first trodden by the Northamptonshire farm worker and poet John Clare – she found that the songs of lapwings, reedwarblers and redshanks brought to mind long-forgotten Punjabi words from childhood. Lapwing called out “Kui” – “why” in Punjabi – while godwits sang “thohreh deh” – “give me a little”.

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