Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Language of Beasts

Many legends and fairy tales include stories about heroes who gain the magical ability to understand the speech of animals, such as Siegfried with a taste of dragon's blood. The wish to communicate with the animal kingdom is a perennial human desire. When I was little, I thought my cat, Midnight, understood me, and I tried to interpret her meows as words.

Have you heard about the Bowlingual Voice, a dog collar invented in Japan that claims to translate dogs' barks into verbal expressions of their feelings? It supposedly expresses five different canine emotions. Experts are skeptical:

Bowlingual Voice

According to specialists in dog behavior, you can probably interpret your pet's mood more accurately by watching body language than by using this device.

C. S. Lewis suggests that if animals could talk, their conversation would be dull, because they would do nothing but "talk shop." They would be interested only in practical topics such as food, mates, rivals, and territory. Interestingly, though, his talking animals in Narnia aren't like this, probably because the creatures granted the power of speech by Aslan also gain human-level intelligence.

The author of WATERSHIP DOWN creates rabbits who have language among themselves—with a limited ability to converse with other animals, but no comprehension of human speech or vice versa—yet plausibly think and act the way we can believe rabbits would. On the opposite end of the literary "talking beast" spectrum, the animal characters in WIND IN THE WILLOWS, although sharing their world with actual humans, are essentially people in animal shape, with a few token nods to their ostensible species such as mole's underground home. (Mr. Toad, on the other hand, lives in a luxurious mansion.)

Vivian Vande Velde's humorous story "To Converse with Dumb Beasts" riffs on this fairy-tale trope. The protagonist, a game warden named Kedric, saves an old woman from an enraged bear. She rewards him with a magic acorn that enables him to understand the languages of animals. When he first realizes it actually works, he's excited. He soon learns, however, that the woodland creatures don't have much to say. Birds constantly announce, "My tree," "My branch," and sometimes "Bug!" Butterflies keep up a running commentary of "sip, sip, now I'm fluttering, now I'm sipping nectar...." Squirrels and chipmunks either chortle in delight as they play or mutter obsessively about the coming winter (seven months away) and the need to store up nuts. The creatures of the wild have one-track minds; they "talk shop" and nothing else. Kedric thinks that surely his pets, being more intelligent, will carry on more interesting conversations. The dog barks, "My house!" and "My master!" In scatterbrained canine fashion, he repeatedly asks whether Master loves him and begs Master to play with him. Meanwhile, the cat coolly demands food. To his dismay, Kedric discovers that while he can understand his pets, they still don't understand him. The dog wonders whether Kedric's strange behavior means he's sick. The cat speculates that if their master gets sick enough to die, they can eat him. Finally he runs out of the house, screaming in frustration.

The dog laments, "Doesn't Master love me anymore?" The cat answers, "Don't worry. He just went to find better food."

Maybe we're better off imagining what our pets are thinking, rather than actually comprehending it.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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