Canine Pidgin and Talking Dogs

Mister Wicked is barking out the window. Why is he barking out the window? Not because his friends are walking by (the usual cause), nor because a bird has dared to sit in the maple tree. No, he’s barking because I backed the car down a bit to shovel beneath it (there having already been quite a lot of snow when I got home last night), and it is now in front of the window.

“Car! Car! Car!” he barks. “Alert! Alarm! Visitors!”

“Look, that’s our car,” I say. “You saw me move it. My car. KV’s car. KV car. Mister Wicked’s car.”

“Car?” he barks, more quietly. Quizzically, looking at me. Then he grumbles, “Garoo-oo-oo,” and lies down again, rather than racing to the door. So I think he understood, somewhat.

We talk to Mister Wicked a lot. We’ve also noticed that we talk baby-talk. Not “Ootsie wootsie widdle puppy-wuppy” revolting baby talk, but the way a friend of mine has noticed she is talking to her new baby. We repeat things several times, with simple variation of structure. We use the pronoun, but then repeat with the proper name. We do all the things that humans are hardwired to do, when talking to infants who are doing that most important thing that makes them human, and programming their brains with language. I think pidgins do this too, when they reduce a language to its simplest form to make communication between speakers of two different languages possible, stripping out all the complex syntax, using duplicated syllables to make it easier to catch them and fix them in the mind, removing all inflected endings and strong verb vowel changes.

The result of this is that Mister Wicked has an alarmingly large vocabulary, because we’ve been doing it deliberately, setting out to teach him words that aren’t necessarily useful in his daily life, like “horse” and “cow”. He’s also learning “right” and “left” (after all, draft horses learn that: “gee” and “haw”). More useful, he’s learning “later” and “then”, putting things together in small sequences, as in “First we’ll go for a walk. Then” (or “later”) “we’ll go for a drive in the car.” Or when he’s demanding something, and I’m busy, “Later,” I can say, about whatever it is he’s demanding I do, “we’ll do that later.” And he’ll go off to his bed and glower at me, waiting with a martyred air, for the guilt to kick in and later to arrive. He definitely remembers whatever it was he was wanting, though, and expects it to follow. “Later” is not the same as “No.”

This has led to speculation: could dogs learn to speak? That is, if a dog were physically capable of mimicking human sounds, could and would a dog begin to use its small basic vocabulary appropriately? I’m imagining something like the genetically-engineered pet sphinx Nefertiti given to Jin in Bujold’s Cryoburn, who announces her desires — food, pee, out — in human language.

It’s possible, but perhaps not desirable. I’m not sure that I really want to know what Mister Wicked thinks of my trying to sit around writing much of the day, instead of playing with him from dawn to dusk. “Enough book! No book! Bad book! Walk now! Play now! Now! Now! Now!” Is this a critic I have nurtured in my bosom?


About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at
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