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The Voice of the Turtle,
Who Speaketh Not in Homophones

Bill Meredith

"For, Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers
appear on the earth; the time of the singing of
birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." Ö
"The Song of Solomon," 2: 11-12.

Def.: "Homophone: a word that sounds like another word
but means something different." Ö
Miss Rosina Potesta, Senior English, East Fairmont High School, 1951.
 

(April, 2014) Spring arrived on schedule at 12:27 P. M., March 20, Anno Domini 2014, and for a little while you could almost believe it. The temperature got clear up to 54 (normal for that date is 57), and the sun came out for a while and melted the last of the mound of snow that the plows had piled by our driveway. It didnít last, of courseÖ within the week we were back into the 20s, with a mixture of snow and freezing rainÖ but there for a while it was nice enough to get out in the yard and do things. I stood there for a while and glared balefully at the dead leaves that blew in after I raked last fall, but at my age you canít afford to spend time being grumpy, so I decided to work on the plum tree that fell over last month.

Of course the easiest way to deal with the tree would have been with the chainsaw, but I couldnít remember where Iíd put it. After a quarter of an hourís search, it finally emerged from under a pile of debris in the back of the garage, but then it refused to start. I diagnosed its problem as partly the result of old gasoline and a dirty carburetor, and partly what my Dad used to call "the innate cussedness of inanimate objects." The former could have been dealt with if Iíd wanted to spend the next hour taking it apart; the latter was already there when I bought the infernal machine 25 years ago, and it is beyond my power to cure. So, since the weather was not likely to remain clement, I decided to clean the chainsaw later, and got out the pruners and bow saw.

It was a good choice. The chainsaw, when it chooses to work, is so noisy that it scares away all of the wild creatures within a half-mile radius, and besides that, it is marginally safe to operate only if you focus your entire attention on it. But when using hand tools, the birds usually decide that I am not a threat, so while I work I can listen to them and let my mind wander without risking the loss of body parts. Thatís the kind of day it was, and I meant to take advantage of itÖ but of course, my mind didnít cooperate.

Being outdoors on a spring day always makes me remember that verse from the Song of Solomon. That is not as odd as you might think; when I was a small child my father used to read aloud from The Bible before bed-time, and I knew a lot of verses; they seemed to come easily to me. Of course he didnít read the Song of Solomon to me at that ageÖ I didnít know about it until much laterÖ but there were a lot of mourning doves around the farm, and he sometimes quoted from that passage when he pointed them out to me. He said they were the same as the turtle doves in the Bible. I donít know whether he really knew they were different, but at that time it didnít matter. He told me they said "HOOOOooo, HOOOOooo, " and I could tell them from owls, which said "HOO-HOO."

When I was four I knew a lot of stories in which animals like Peter Rabbit or Uncle Wiggly talked to each other, so I assumed animals and birds had their own languages, and they should have a specific equivalent for every word in English. This began to bother me as I got older, because the doves never seemed to say anything else. I assumed "Hoo" in bird language meant the same as "Who" in English, and doves and owls were inquiring about the identity of someone (I didnít know the word, "homophone" then, so it was a logical idea). I also noticed that crows communicated with each other, but they only seemed to have only one word, "caw," in their vocabulary. It was a mystery. By the time I was six, I began to wonder if saying a word with different degrees of emphasis or loudness might change its meaning. That didnít make much sense to me, but it turned out to be a good guess; my granddaughter, who has been in China for three years, tells me many words in Mandarin are like that.

Time, of course, eventually took care of the language problem; as was foretold, when I was a child I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things. Becoming an ecologist requires that you study animal behavior, and I learned that most animal languages donít have patterns of syntax that are comparable to human languages (the jury is still out on a few cases, such as apes and dolphins). In addition to sounds (many of which are inaudible to us), animals communicate by posture, threats, submission, facial expression, odorsÖ.

So there I was, on the first day of spring, standing in the yard with pruners in one hand and a saw in the other, gazing at the fallen plum tree but actually seeing scenes from childhood, while my mind tried to make a list of the forms of animal communication. I always was a bit of a daydreamer, and aging has taken it to extremes. I think what brought me back to consciousness was a cardinal, which was perched by the feeder and singing "whatCHEER whatCHEER whatCHEER" at the top of its voice. Translated into English, he was saying, "Itís spring and I feel absolutely great! This is my territory and you guys better stay out of it if you know whatís good for you! Ladies, come and look me overÖ you wonít find a better companion for the summer!" Somewhere in the other direction a Carolina wren was sending the same message in Wren-ese, except that it sounded like "CHIRPITY CHIRPITY CHIRPITY." From further off I could hear mourning doves cooing, crows cawing, and blue jays and chickadees pronouncing their own names. Each was going at it in his own native tongue, and it would have sounded like the Tower of Babel to the untrained ear; but the message was the same in every case, and it was coming through loud and clear to the intended audience.

I wasnít wearing my hearing aid, so I could barely hear the voice of a white-throated sparrow; he was singing "OldÖ SamÖ Peabody Peabody Peabody." Part of it was the same expression of exuberance and machismo as the cardinalís song, but there is an added reminder: "Get the suitcases packed, folks; itís almost time to be heading north again." It wonít be long before all of them will be singing: "Get a move on with those worms, Albert; another egg just hatched!"

Winter is grudgingly trying to hang on; but spring is here, and if you watch and listen, everybody is celebrating. While I was standing there, the black squirrel appeared, and he was singing too, in the squirrel version of sign languageÖ wagging his tail up and down and sending the message, "Look me over, Gals, Iím the best that ever was!" Seeing and hearing that message in all those different languages is the best way Iíve found for slowing down the aging process. Get out there and try it.

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