April 11, 2022

L is for Language

        (My A to Z theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.  Don’t forget to check out all the other participating bloggers here.
        The sad facts of the mundane world are that the only creatures who can speak human language are humans.  So it comes as no surprise to learn that when other creatures can speak, they must be magical.  No matter how ordinary or everyday a creature may seem, if it can speak your language, it’s fantastical.  Heroes in folktales and legends around the world routinely encounter talking animals including fish, birds, mice, horses, monkeys, and more.  And (with a nod to the letter K) if you would be a hero, you would generally do well to listen to these animals’ advice.  Arrogant older siblings especially ignore these talking creatures to their peril.
        The Zägh is a huge bird in Islamic lore.  It has a human face and, to go along with the face, the ability to speak human languages.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that most of the mythological creatures with humanoid aspects can speak human languages, including the centaurs (see K), fauns and satyrs (see C), ogres (see A),  jinn (see I), merfolk, nymphs (see E), and all sorts of Little People (whom we’ll be seeing more of later - Foreshadowing!)  (All of which actually makes it interesting that there is a class of humanoid creatures that do not seem to speak: the Bigfoot-type beasts including Sasquatch, yeti, yeren, and yowie.  Perhaps this is why science tolerates them as cryptids instead of relegating them to utter mythology.)
        Dragons in modern fantasy can usually speak, although in the medieval era western dragons were seen as mere bestial monsters.  In fact, modern writers have done some really interesting things with dragon speech, such as giving them a sort of primordial language, or making it so they never lie, or conversely making it so that all their words tend to be riddles, deceit, and guile.
        Speculative writers have also used extraterrestrials to explore questions of language, including the heptapods of Arrival (introduced under K), and the Tamarians of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” whose language is famously composed of nothing but metaphors.  Usually, however, these stories are explorations of translation, which is a contrast to the more classic trope that starts when we can magically speak perfectly fluently with creatures with whom we wouldn’t normally be able to communicate.
        The xiezhi has the body of an ox, with a head more like a lion, and a single sharp horn.  It is very wise and understands human speech.  Because it always knows right from wrong and guilt from innocence, it can listen to court cases, whereupon it stabs the guilty party with its horn.  However, while it understands speech perfectly, it’s not clear to me that it ever speaks.
        The opposite of that is that there are a number of creatures who can mimic human speech without necessarily understanding what they’re saying.  The real world does have this in some birds, but in fantasy there is the leucrota, which has a mouth that stretches all the way from ear to ear, with only a single sharp bone across each jaw instead of individual teeth.  It mimics human speech in order to lure people 
out into the wilderness to be devoured (flashback to A).  Then there are the
jackalopes (flashback to C), which like to join in with cowboy campfire songs.
        The moral of these stories is that however much we may mistreat other creatures and each other, we nevertheless always long for communication.
        If you could have a conversation with any creature, which would you want to talk with?

[Pictures: Talking Fox, wood block print by Walter Crane from “The Golden Bird,” 1882 (Image from Internet Archive);
Zagh, illumination from The Wonders of Creation by Zakariya al-Qazwini, 16th century (Image from Library of Congress);
Tamarian, film still from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” 1991 (Image from Memory Alpha);
Xiezhi, cast bronze incense burner, Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 (Image from Vir Muze);
Leucrota, illumination from bestiary, 1200-1210 (Image from British Library);
Talking Wolf, wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from The History of Little Red Riding Hood, 1777 (Image from The British Museum).]


James Pailly said...

I recently learned that there was a parrot named Alex who learned over 100 English words and demonstrated (in controlled experiments) that he understood what those words meant. For example, researchers would present Alex with a bunch of shapes in different colors and ask him how many yellow triangles he could see, and he would give the correct answer.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Sokath, his eyes uncovered!

This is a very interesting post. I love languages and wish I had the skills to invent my own for my books.

Tim Brannan
The Other Side | The A to Z of Conspiracy Theories

Melanie Atherton Allen said...

There are lots of YouTube videos of cats who speak, but it never really sounds plausible to me. People record their cats, and the cat mews, and the person gets very excited and says, okay, he clearly said "ice cream" or "where are you?" or "bring me the head of my nemesis Mr. Squirrel." Okay, I haven't seen a video of that last one, but the others, yes. Although... I think the ice cream one might have been a dog?

But my point is, I think we all sort of really really want our pets to speak. Although that does not always work out well. I am now thinking of Saki's story Tobermory, in which a house cat is taught to speak at a house party, with awkward results.

Jayashree Srivatsan said...

Even in fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood we have human and animal interaction ( your fox pic reminded me of this) ... reminds me of the Dr Do Little movie
Jayashree writes

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

I like the various creatures you've mentioned!

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge My Languishing TBR: L

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

James, that's very impressive. I knew about crows being that smart, but I didn't know parrots are, too.

Timothy, I've never made up a whole language, but I do enjoy coming up with a few selected words for the people in my books.

Melanie, I definitely think humans are hardwired to interpret language, so we're always looking for language-sounding patterns, just like we tend to see faces in everything. And yes, we wish our pets could speak (although I'm really not so sure that would be as great as we think it would be...)

Jayashree, yes, talking animals are everywhere in stories! With Dr Dolittle, though, it wasn't that the animals could speak human language, it was that he learned to speak animal language.

I'm glad you're enjoying them, Ronel! You know so many yourself that I hope I'm able to introduce you to some interesting new ones.