Sunday, July 6, 2008

My Husband Talks to Rabbits

Admittedly, it’s a one-sided conversation.  But when he calls to them as they’re hopping across the grass, they stop and prick up their ears as if they understand he means them no harm.  It reminds me of a long-ago summer when I collected animal “speech” and wove my findings into an article for one of the inflight magazines (PanAm Clipper, V.20, #11, ©Margaret Maron 1980.)  Here it is:


“BEASTLY LANGUAGE: An indispensible discourse on the many tongues of animals”  

Shortly after our marriage, my husband, a very junior naval officer, was assigned to the NATO base in Naples.  We rented an airy apartment overlooking that magnificent bay, acquired an eclectic mix of used furniture from departing military personnel and considered ourselves so domestic that the only things lacking were a clock to wind and a cat to put out.  The PX remedied the first and a German couple offered us the second, a young Siamese kitten whose points had just come in.

I worried about bringing the kitten away from a German-speaking household, but he took it all in stride.  In no time, he was answering the maid's “micio-micio” (rendered in her Neapolitan dialect as “meesh-meesh”) as readily as our "Here, kitty-kitty," so we named him Giacomino Schwarzkatze in honor of his trilingual abilities.

Nothing changed that first opinion until a couple of years ago when a visitor from Denmark read us a Hans Christian Andersen tale in Danish  to see if we, whose Danish vocabulary began and ended with skål!, could identify the famous story he'd chosen.  He read with great animation and delight until he came to a sentence which ended rap-rap, whereupon he smiled and said, "That gives it away, of course.”

We looked at each other blankly. "Rap-rap," he repeated.

Still we looked blank.  By now, our visitor was equally puzzled.  "Surely you recognize the Ugly Duckling’s speech?" he asked.

Enlightenment dawned and we gently explained that in the United States, proper ducks  say, quack-quack, not rap-rap.

Despite Giacomino Schwarzkatz’s telling ability, it wasn’t until I heard the Danish duck that I realized human’s aren’t the only animals to speak different languages.  Since then, collecting foreign animal speech has become a minor hobby.  I like to think of Mexican ducks murmuring cua-cua as they waddle past adobe haciendas on their way to a splash in the nearest pond.  And is it his proximity to the Arctic Circle that adds a shiver to an Icelandic duck's bra-bra?  Yet Finnish ducks, living even closer to the North Pole, manage a respectable kvaak, similar to a Dutch kwak.  Russian ducks, however, split the difference with a noncommital krja-krja, while French elegance is reflected in a Gallic duck's coin-coin.

It’s tempting to assign national characteristics to an animal’s words.  An American owl wearies the night with endless questions of Who?  Who?  Whoooo? But a practical, stolid Dutch owl produces a firm, no-nonsense krast.  Our birds chirp or tweet, Israeli birds tzip, Thai birds jip,  and the Japanese say chun.

Like beauty in the eye of the beholder, animal speech is, of course, all in the ear of the listener.  Capture a pig's voice on tape and it doesn't matter if the tape were made in Africa, Europe or Asia.  That pig will still sound like a pig to anybody who's ever heard one.  The fun comes in trying to translate porcine into Portuguese or Polish.  

Browsing through several bird books, I've noticed that the song of the common goldfinch is rendered by one author as more chicory,  by another as ti-dee-di-di, and by a third as potato chips.  Keep in mind that these are three U.S. authors with a simple goldfinch.  Can you imagine how China, with its two thousand dialects, would handle a chuck-will's widow?

We clearly need  a philology expert here —  someone who could explain why one culture's concept differs from another’s.  Take a cat’s cry, for instance.  Whether it’s spelled mjau (Russian), miau. (Finnish, German, and Spanish) or miaou (Greek and French), most nations agree that Felis domesticus speaks with an initial m sound.  In Japan, though, cats say nyah-nyah (while thumbing their noses at the rest of us, no doubt!)

Again, my informal survey shows that most languages approximate moo for a cow and baa for a sheep, but in Holland, the consonants are reversed: Dutch sheep say meh and cows say boe.  I can't explain their perversity, but who wants to argue with cows that produce such heavenly cheese?  

Predictably, man's best friend also displays a verbal virtuosity.  English-speaking canines woof or arf when they bark and would have no trouble understanding an Icelandic dog's voff or a Dutch dog's woef, but an interpreter might be needed if they met with a Japanese dog (wan-wan) or a Thai (hówg).  Among themselves, Greek and Russian dogs would have no translation problems: both chase cars and burglars with a brisk gav-gav

Happily, some things remain constant.  There seems a general agreement that lions and tigers and bears growl in gutteral r-r-r-r’s, whatever their nationality, and my informants assure me that crows caw with an initial k sound over most of the world; but what of other esoteric beastly utterances?

Does ihahaa sound like the mating call of a hysterical hyena?  Sorry, it’s just the whinny of a high-spirited Finnish horse.  And in case you were wondering,  Icelandic horses hnegg and Mexican horses jii-ii-ii, while troika-drawn sleighs skim across the snowy steppes of northern Russia to the tune of igo-go-go.

Instead of rib-bit, Japanese frogs say kero-kero, French frogs croak couac, and Thai frogs say oup.   In America fish are said to glub or glug.  Russian fish bulj-bulj and Greek  pronounce  bloum-bloum, but when I asked a German what fish say in Germany, he looked at me coldly and replied, "In Germany, madam, fish are mute."    

On the whole, though, animals are much more linguistically talented than humans.  After a month in this country, our Danish visitor appeared to be suffering a mild case of culture shock.  His command of English was excellent, but he seemed homesick for Danish.  No matter how fluent his English, it couldn't compensate for the prolonged abstinence from his native tongue.

One hot afternoon, I glanced out the window to see him sitting on the grass under the crepe myrtle trees petting Mack, our shaggy old collie.  Weeks of pent-up Danish flowed from our visitor's lips as he scratched Mack's ears and  told him in the most minute and extravagant detail what a fine, beautiful, brilliant, intelligent, brave and wonderful dog he was.  Mack's tail flopped back and forth ecstatically as he nuzzled the Dane's hand and waited for even more glowing praise.

That dog had never set a paw outside the tobacco fields of Johnston County, North Carolina., but he understood the Dane’s every word.  Giacomino Schwarzkatze would have been proud.       

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