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  • Animals That Talk; or, Stutter
  • Marc Shell (bio)

That Animals Talk

When I was a child, my favorite stutterer was Aesop. I was sure that Aesop had really existed.1 My edition of his works made it plain that Aesop was handicapped both as to body and as to speech: he was born "most deformed" and "coulde not speke" (Caxton's Aesop 1). (John Vanbrugh writes in his comedy Aesop [1697], "Esop [. . .] that piece of deformity! that monster! that crump!" ([Works 22]). The frankly esoteric quality of Aesop's "animal fables" suggested to me that Aesop had a special need to speak with "forked tongue." Some people told me that Aesop needed to "mask his [real] thoughts" because of his status as slave; the "Brer Rabbit" tales, they sometimes added, work in much the same way. I thought this need to "hold his tongue" was linked with Aesop's speech impediment. The congruency between his political predicament (as a slave who could not speak his mind) and his linguistic condition (as a stutterer who could not speak well) led Aesop to invent the "talking animal" story. The Haitian exile and Paris-based neurologist Métellus says about his stuttering novel La Parole prisonnière [Speech Imprisoned] (1986), published just as Baby Doc was removed from power, that it allies censorship at the sociopathological level with stuttering at the psychological level: "After [End Page 84] writing La Parole prisonnière at the level of the state and conditions of Haitian political life, I [Métellus] described the conditions of living that interdict speech" (qtd. in Naudillon 144, my translation).2


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Figure 1.

Aesop and the Wolf.

Attic cup from Vulci, 5th BCE. Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome. Photo Alinara/Art Resource, New York.

Isaiah's famous statement about divine hesitation in speech—"For with stammering lips and another tongue will [God] speak to this people" (28:11)—operates here as a gloss on the African-American slave writings that Hopkins and Cumming gather in their book Cut Loose your Stammering Tongue (1991). In any case, the "talking animal" genre allows human beings to speak ventriloquistically through dummy animals. Put otherwise, the "talking animal story" allows dumb animals to speak as if they were human.

In the history of the movies that was so much a part of my growing up in the 1950s, there are many real-seeming animals that seem to talk, as in the movie series Francis the Talking Mule (1940s and 1950s) and in the follow-up television series Mister Ed (1960s). There are also many unreal-seeming animals—cartoon animals—that have funny, humanoid speech impediments. But real animals don't talk. It is true, of course, that many human beings talk to animals and also treat their supposedly dumb animals—their pets—as flesh-and-blood ventriloquists' dummies that seem to speak back to them. (Nine-tenths of American pet-owners talk to their beloved "pet animals" as though they were human;3 half of these also put words into the mouths of their animals, just as if they were God opening the mouth of Balaam's mule. Thus even James Russell Lowell endows his dog with the ability to speak.)4 [End Page 85]

But human beings who stutter do not stutter when they speak with (or to) real animals. To people who know traditional rhetoric, it comes as no surprise that the presence of dummy animals and dumb animals can help human stutterers. (Hence, pet therapy and hippotherapy are frequent speech treatments.)5 Nor is it unexpected that children's literature is replete with fictional talking animals that stutter. For example, a stuttering alligator is the main character in Stephen Cosgrove's Creole.6

Real alligators do not quite talk; real parrots do talk—or seem to. Thus, Long John Silver's parrot in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883)—and likewise the parrot in John Skelton's mysterious Speke, Parrot (c. 1521)—seem to have human speech but merely imitate the sounds of human language. (My first introduction to Stevenson's work was by way of a 1957 performance of Treasure Island; see Montrose...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1986
Print ISSN
1040-7391
Pages
pp. 84-107
Launched on MUSE
2004-04-23
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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