Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Why Cats Say "Blurt" and Other Mysteries

Cats do say "blurt" not "meow". Robert A. Heinlein says so, and that's good enough for me.

Now--why do I mention this on a writing blog? Because there has been some talk about "old-fashioned" writing on some of the writers' loops. Old-fashioned in this case can mean practically anything--writers who are in their 60s trying to give their 20-something characters authentic voices; Jane Austen's style as opposed to modern; and historical writers attempting to get their characters talking right for their age and still be understandable to a modern audience.

Always, when writing in another era, there will be something lost in translation. My just-finished WIP is a case in point. In the 14th century, the upper classes spoke either middle-English or Norman French. I can't write in either language--it wouldn't communicate. Even if my skills were up to it, it wouldn't work. Writing is, after all, primarily about communicating.

That said, my characters can't sound 21st century. Not having been there in 1353 to hear how folks spoke, the best I can do is an approximation of a 21st century author's guess at medieval usage and speech patterns.

(I refused throughout the book to use 'tis. Just my prejudices coming through. I'd rather throw in an obscure French term, or even Cornish, than use that tired old contraction. To me, it shouts "Hey, this is a piece of historical fiction and I'm too lazy to guess how they REALLY talked, so here's 'tis' to tell you so!")

Now, some folks are not going to like the guesses and choices I've made. That's fine. If they get the gist of the story, I figure I've done 99% of my job. If my cat says "blurt" instead of "meow," I hope you will enjoy my story anyway, and forgive the fact that my choices aren't quite what you would've chosen.


Grace Bridges said...

After reading this post, I looked over at my cat, who is hungry. He began to talk. Now, I'm willing to agree that what came out of his mouth was not "meow", but I don't think it was "blurt" either. As a one-semester linguist many years ago, I can tell you that "blurt" consists of five phonemes, four of which cannot be pronounced by a cat because they are bilabial plosive, lateral, alveolar, and labiodental, which I'm pretty sure cats can't do! Hmmm... I suspect they speak mainly in nasal vowels...
Thanks for the cool post!

Deb said...

Ooh, you know the technical terms! My 16 year old Cat Kelly, who doesn't, occasionally says "mip". She enunciates this quite clearly when she's just saying hello. But according to your linguistic knowledge, she shouldn't be able to say "mip" either, yet that's what comes out...whadda you think?

Christine Lindsay said...

I enjoyed this piece very much, not only because I'm a cat lover--what female writer worth her salt wouldn't have a cat. . . or 3--and the discussion on 'old fashioned writing'. I think you're right, it's got to be an approximation of what your characters sounded like, but up-dated just enough to not be annoying so they reader can be drawn into the story. Oy, what skill.

Hang in there. I'm waiting with you.

Grace Bridges said...

I think she's probably saying a cut-off "mih" and it just sounds like mip...maybe.
What do you think of the theory that cats have phonetic capabilities that we can't do justice to with our letters? :)

Deb said...

I think cats have all sorts of capabilities they wisely don't tell us about. LOL! My cat in her old age has even managed to let me know she wants her wet food minced fine with a fork before serving ("proper presentation is essential in haut cuisine").

How did she manage this? Looking back, I really don't know. She did manage to communicate, though, whether it was via "mip", "mih" or a disgusted glare at having been served unminced fare.

Cats. Gotta love 'em. They keep us in our place.

Anonymous said...

Of course, you know of the four sizes of kitten: "Peep!", "Meep!", "Mew!", and "MEOW!"

As for Middle-English vs Norman French, you could try the trick of carrying across some characteristic of the language, such as this one:

French (like all Romance languages) forms its possessives "x of y"; early English (being a Germanic/Scandinavian hybrid) formed its possessives "Y's X"; modern English (after hybridizing with Norman French) does it both ways.

French form: The "Blurt!" of the Cat of Deb.

Germanic form: Deb's Cat's "Blurt!"

Using the proper possessive form can show what language the character is speaking. Spelling might also come into play, like using the US spelling for one language and the European spelling for another; I once tried this to show a difference between two dialects of English.

Deb said...

A very good point, Anon. I'm attempting to do exactly that in the WIP, which is a medieval set in 953 Wales. Of course, I can't speak either ancient Welsh nor Anglo-Saxon, but I can read a lot about how they speak now. The Cymry, even when speaking English, have different sentence structures they prefer, and I'm trying to ferret out as many of those as possible. This way I'll be able to show when a true Welshman is speaking, in contrast to the wicked Saeson (G).