April 9, 2020
A friend of mine posted on her blog recently:
“I guess I’ll have to settle for the cats and the dog for my wordless communications. I do feel fairly fluent in Cat, but I am still working on my Dog awareness.”
I’m the opposite. I used to be the personal attendant of a cat (they don’t have ‘owners’), and when I came home from work each evening, she’s miaow at me. I’d miaow back. Then she’d do a double miaow, and again I’d echo her. At one point we hit reciprocal triple miaows, but then she got bored, and gave up the game. Or maybe my Cattish accent was so bad, she had no patience with it. I probably sounded like a tourist lost here in Mexico, grinding through mis-vocalised vowels and badly conjugated verbs, trying to get directions for the hotel his GPS says is across the street, when it isn’t.
There are rumours cats are evolving to be more like us.
Barkish is a different language. Having looked after a half-dozen or more dogs during my times in Mexico, I’m reasonably certain it’s a tonal language. There are variations in pitch that, if you can echo them, sound a bit like language to a dog. A single utterance can’t last more than three seconds, or it becomes too complex for the animal, but a short phrase, maybe hitting three pitches, each a couple of tones apart (no more), seems to make a dog listen.
I found this bizarre skill useful when I first returned to this village a year and a half ago. I always thought of myself as being “on” the team of dogs, but I was bitten by three in the space of four months. “That never used to happen,” I thought one time, as I looked at the red and purple wound above my ankle, and I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong.
Over time, I probably began smelling more like the local people. I’d eaten the food, drunk the water, used the local brands of soap, and gotten the dust of the streets into my clothing. But also, I learned that a soft, bitonal growl, made from the side of my mouth, seemed to disarm acts of aggression. I’ve not even been seriously threatened in a year now.
We naturally assume that any language is made up of nouns and verbs: names and actions, with some qualifying adjectives, prepositions and conjunctions thrown in. Barkish, if I’m right, is about states of being: Everything’s cool; You’re a jerk and I want to bite you; I think your tail is so cool; I want food now. I have to render these concepts in English words here, but the growls themselves don’t actually operate on that basis.
I tried one experiment a day or so ago that seemed to work, which might, in part, verify my theory. Two of the four dogs currently here stay in a corral beside the house all day. One, the incorrigible Rem, needs to be there to stop him getting out and killing the neighbours’ chickens for fun. His buddy, Woody, is in there because they’re pals, and dogs don’t like being alone all day.
When evening came, and I wanted to let them out of the corral to eat, Woody especially would bark at maximum volume. He’s not actually my dog, but one I’m looking after for someone who’s away, and he seems quite neurotic compared to my others. Since I had to bend to move a large stone that kept the corral gate shut, this being necessary to foil Rem’s ingenious escape techniques, each evening I’d have 90 decibels of Woody right in my ear.
Woody in laid-back mode.
Finally, I decided to try my Barkish on him.
“Ah-row-ow-rah-ow!!!” I uttered as loudly as possible.
I don’t know that he “understood” exactly, but as probably happened with my cat, it intrigued him long enough for me to clear the stone and get my ear safely more than 16 inches from his mouth.
I’m still working on the general theory of all this, but since I’m now spending more time at home, I have more time and opportunities to practice. My Spanish still sucks, but if I can ever publish my Barkish in Twelve Easy Yelps, I won’t have wasted this time in quarantine.