Colour words and archaisms in rural Donegal

May 12, 2015

Red hair is strongly associated with Irish people on account of how common it is here. Less well known, at least outside the island, is that the Irish language has one word, rua, for the red of red hair and another word, dearg, for more prototypically red hues.*

Robert Bernen - Tales from the Blue Stacks - Poolbeg Press book coverEvery language carves up the colour spectrum differently, and it can take children a while to figure it all out in the culture they happen to be raised in. Even as an adult I still discover nuances, one of which appears in Robert Bernen’s story ‘The Yellow Dog’ in his collection Tales from the Blue Stacks (1978).

The narrator is visiting a local farmer with a view to getting a sheep dog:

‘Is this the dog?, I asked.

His fur was that light rust or orange colour we talk of as red hair, and so often associate with Ireland. At home, in America, I would have called him a brown dog. Here in the Donegal hills, I found out later, he was a yellow dog. As I watched him squirming towards me, his belly so low to the ground it seemed as if he was almost afraid to stand at his real height, with that look in his eyes of hope filled with fear, I thought to myself, ‘At least he’ll be friendly.’

‘Will he make a good sheep dog?’ I asked.

‘The best,’ Mickey Paddy answered.

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Most animals bark a little

May 7, 2012

In The Hidden Life of Dogs, anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas reports what she has learned about dog behaviour and psychology from watching different breeds in diverse environments and social situations. I like the observations she makes about the communicative aspects of barking and sniffing:

[O]nly the pugs took much interest in the human life around them, so only the pugs barked. Of course, most animals bark a little – which is to say that if surprised and puzzled simultaneously, most animals, including human beings, make a short, sharp call; the call is ‘Huh?’ in our species. Highly domesticated dogs make an art of their puzzlement and bark insistently, alerting others to unexplained events. But not the huskies, who didn’t bark at human-generated sounds or happenings any more than they barked at birds in the sky, and surely for the same reason: the doings of the birds and the people lacked significance for them.

Is it true that most animals make such a sound? It depends on what’s meant by animals, I suppose: mammals or non-aquatic vertebrates may be closer to what was meant, but I still don’t know how true it is.

In any case, by the author’s reckoning I myself have, on occasion, barked in puzzled surprise. Maybe you have too. I don’t know if there’s another verb for when people make this sound. Huh is a good phonic approximation but it doesn’t lend itself naturally to inflection. Yelping is usually high-pitched and is associated more with pain. I’m open to suggestions of existing words or invented ones.

Marshall Thomas continues:

In contrast, the dogs took an unlimited interest in each other. When a dog returned after a brief absence, the others would quietly surround him and investigate him for scent – the scents of his own body, which would show his state of mind and probably a great deal more as well, and the scents of the place he had been, which he carried on his fur. They’d smell his lips and his mantle, his penis, his legs and his feet. Seldom, if ever, would they investigate his anus or anal glands, evidently because the information therefrom has to do with a dog’s persona but not with his travels. The dogs would investigate me too, particularly if I had been away a long time. They paid special attention to my legs from the knees down, as if I had been wading through odors.

‘Wading through odours’ is a lovely, memorable description, evoking the dog’s sensorial surroundings with appropriate emphasis on smell. What a rush of stimuli it must be for a dog to go exploring outside, where – save a minuscule stationary layer above the ground – the air is more subject to turbulence and so constitutes a fluctuating ‘garden of exotic flora and fauna’, to use a phrase from Lyall Watson’s book Jacobson’s Organ.

Humans’ sense of smell is puny by comparison, and our visual sense may have crowded the field in recent history, but our noses are still capable of delivering intense and subtle effect, sometimes transporting us instantly to another time and place. Most of us need hardly a moment’s thought to list many smells that give us particular pleasure; other smells might even make us bark.


Related items: I’ve written before about word recognition in dogs and the claims made for their command of human language. On Tumblr I posted another passage from Marshall Thomas’s very enjoyable book, which includes the marvellous phrase cynomorphic substitute; you can read chapter one of Watson’s book on smell and pheromones online; and finally, here’s a fun drawing by Lili Chin of a Boston terrier’s body language.


Temple Grandin, in her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behaviour, has an interesting note on barking in a section on neoteny and how dogs are essentially juvenile wolves. She describes research that found that ‘the more wolfie a dog looks, the more wolfie it acts’:

I saw this up close in a dog I knew. He was a mixed-breed black-and-white dog with perfect, pointed ears and a long tapered nose, just like a wolf’s. The strange thing about him was that he never, ever barked. He could bark, and he easily learned to “speak” (bark on command for food). But left to his own devices he didn’t bark. He’d sit in the front bedroom monitoring the street, but when people came to the door he didn’t launch into that crazed barking other dogs do. He’d get worked up and do a little “sneeze-bark,” but that was it. I think that was probably his wolf ancestry showing through his dog exterior. Wolves don’t bark, and neither did this wolfie-looking dog.

Do dogs get a ruff deal, linguistically speaking?

July 7, 2011

Galway had its first Dog Expo this summer. I don’t have a dog, but I went with a friend who does. (It was all fine fun until they started putting hats and boots on the dogs and catwalking them around the stage to bad dance music.)

The communicative bond between the two species has long fascinated humans. I read Man Meets Dog (1950) by Konrad Lorenz lately and thought the following passage worth posting:

It is a fallacy that dogs only understand the tone of a word and are deaf to the articulation. The well-known animal psychologist, [Viktor] Sarris, proved this indisputably with three Alsatians, called Harris, Aris and Paris. On command from their master, ‘Harris (Aris, Paris), Go to your basket’, the dog addressed and that one only would get up unfailingly and walk sadly but obediently to his bed. The order was carried out just as faithfully when it was issued from the next room whence an accompanying involuntary signal was out of the question.

It sometimes seems to me that the word recognition of a clever dog which is firmly attached to its master extends even to whole sentences. The words, ‘I must go now’ would bring Tito and Stasi [an Alsatian and an Alsatian/Chow crossbreed, respectively] to their feet at once even when I exercised great self-control and spoke without special accentuation; on the other hand, none of these words, spoken in a different connection, elicited any response from them.

Lorenz describes a report from Annie Eisenmenger, who co-illustrated the book, about her Schnauzer, Affi. Supposedly, Affi recognised the words Katzi, Spatzi, Eichkatzi (diminutives of kitten, sparrow, squirrel) and Nazi, which was the name of Eisenmenger’s pet hedgehog and had “no political meaning in those days”.

Imagine: Nazi the hedgehog. Anyway, Affi reacted differently to these words, for example running from tree to tree at the sound of Eichkatzi; and, upon hearing Nazi, rushing to a rubbish heap where a hedgehog lived.

Lorenz writes that Affi “knew the names of at least nine people, and would run across the room to them if their names were spoken. She never made a mistake.” This is a second-hand anecdote, but Lorenz says he is confident of its truthfulness. Stressing the crucial difference between the behaviour of an animal in the lab and that of one who is free to accompany its human companion, Lorenz adds:

With the dog, one is seldom given the chance of achieving high feats of word recognition in the laboratory, since the necessary interest is lacking . . . . Every dog-owner is familiar with a certain behaviour in dogs which can never be reproduced under laboratory conditions. The owner says, without special intonation and avoiding mention of the dog’s name, ‘I don’t know whether I’ll take him or not.’ At once the dog is on the spot, wagging his tail and dancing with excitement, for he already senses a walk. Had his master said, ‘I suppose I must take him out now,’ the dog would have got up resignedly without special interest. Should his master say, ‘I don’t think I’ll take him, after all,’ the expectantly pricked ears will drop sadly, though the dog’s eyes will remain hopefully fixed on his master.

This subtlety of understanding is a far cry from the Far Side cartoon in which Gary Larson pokes fun at the tendency to harangue dogs at complicated length:



Many animals-and-human-language stories are of the YouTube Wunderhund variety: crude phonetic imitation. Others emphasise vocabulary. Some dogs can recognise hundreds of words, but to claim that this means a dog is as intelligent or linguistically advanced as a two-year-old human is pretty silly, I think, and unfair to both dogs and people. It rests on a facile interpretation of intelligence (human and animal), an impoverished misinterpretation of language, and a hopeless anthropocentrism.

The comparison is misleading because it isolates one modest parameter — vocabulary, or perhaps just recognition of aural stimuli — and omits many other relevant ones. Syntax, for example, is a different matter altogether. I don’t think dogs do grammar, whereas kids begin to employ it from a very early age.

Dogs are intelligent animals and very sensitive to people’s cues, but the degree to which they understand our utterances is easily overstated and difficult to settle. A discussion at the Straight Dope Message Board shows how divided common opinion is. The chat is also worth browsing for some of the anecdotes, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Do you own or know a dog, and if so how highly would you rate its inter-species communication skills?

Edit: Arnold Zwicky has posted a Wondermark cartoon on the subject, followed by a short discussion, at his language blog.