April 24, 2008

hitting the books

Dogs work hard at establishing communication with their humans.

I love languages. My French is passable, I learned a little Vietnamese at one time, and last summer I ended up being a Spanish interpreter at an international quadrennial meeting here in Toronto.

Please understand, I have never studied Spanish in my life. I picked up a few phrases from some Chilean neighbours about ten years ago. As a quadrennial volunteer, I put every last scrap of my knowledge to use during registration for one nice Cuban delegate, and was punished for it by being called over anytime one of the other hosts was trying to communicate with a hispanoparlante. Luckily my impromptu career lasted only an hour or so until some bilingual delegates arrived.

Apart from that, I can say “Thank you”, “How are you”, and “Fine” in Greek, the same first two things in Japanese, and the first thing in Ojibway. I can count to ten in Hungarian. I can say “I’m a bird watcher” in German. I used to be able to pronounce “I have a little white rabbit” in Cantonese, but I only get funny looks when I try it now. Mind you, this last sentence might be a bit of a conversation stopper in any language.

 Because of my fascination with languages, I started wondering today how many human words my Cardigan Welsh Corgi knows. For that matter, how much dog language has he taught us?

Cai knows all the basics, of course:

  • ball
  • toy
  • pottie
  • walkies
  • bickie
  • shh
  • hush
  • be quiet
  • that’ll do!
  • hey!!!

He comes when I call his name in a high-pitched, singsong voice: “Cai-i!”, and he knows that “good boy” is his middle name. Being a herder and not a retriever, he is still learning the linguistic nuances of “Bring it!”, but improving daily.

Cai knows a number of words and phrases that aren’t in the manuals:

  • “Let’s go check the mail” means we’re gonna enter the building by the front door, not the side door.
  •  “Let’s take the stairs” means the side door, not the front door.
  • “Please stop chewing on your brother’s leg” means to pause a moment before continuing to rough-house with the cat.
  • One evening on the way in I remarked conversationally, “Tomorrow we’ll be going out in the car-car” and Cai turned to the back of the elevator, facing its basement-opening back door.
  • If we’re playing in the back field when Jack arrives from school and I see the boy first, my whispered “Where’s Jack?” sends Cai into a four-alarm lookabout that stops just short of whiplash.
  • Then there’s the phrase, “Oh, da scoodie-boodie-woobie-goobies”, which means, “I see you’d like someone to give you a nice belly rub. Will I do?”

I’m sure there are more words and phrases that Cai knows, but I think this sampling is a good start. Tomorrow I’ll discourse on some of the Cardi language that Cai has taught us.