e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Calling to animals

I’ve recently been reading Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane; a book recording the wide range of words used to describe landscape in the British Isles.

Cover artThe meat of the book is a series of glossaries of the words the author has gathered, in most of the native languages and dialects. He gives us words not only in English and its regional dialects, but in Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, Scots and its dialects, Anglo-Romani, Cornish, and the French of the Channel Islands. I haven’t seen any words in Manx but they’re probably there.

Also included are some technical terms and poetic ones, particularly those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who apparently went in for creating new words to describe the countryside.

Between the glossaries are a series of essays-cum-memoires on various landscape writers.

Browsing through the glossary on Livestock, I came across báini-báini, an Irish word for calling pigs to eat. Later in the list is chook-chook-chook, a Herfordshire call to chickens. In the same county you call your ducks with dilly-dilly-dilly and your poultry generally with kepp-kepp-kepp.

Horses, cattle, sheep all have their own calling words.

This made me think about the way we speak and call to animals generally, and it’s true that we use different calls for different creatures. Do they understand us? If you yell ‘Dilly-dilly-dilly!’ to hens, do they ignore you? Or do they come anyway hoping for a treat?

Many’s the time I’ve stood in a garden calling ‘Puss, puss, puss’ with no result. Is that because she doesn’t understand or is it because she doesn’t want to come? I suspect the latter.

Oddly, in my experience, we use general terms for most animals but call our dogs by name. I think that if we kept monkeys we’d call them by name too. It would be interesting to hear if anyone knows.


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