What Did You Say? Remembered Words

Article excerpt

ONE afternoon when we were eight or nine, still of an age when curiosity can over-ride kindness, my friend John McGuinness and I spent longer than we should have done proving that his dog was word-deaf. Ho was a boisterously friendly Irish terrier whose good nature allowed our experiment to proceed without disaster.

'Good dog, Flo, you're a good dog', John would yell in the angriest, most threatening tone and loudest volume he could muster. We watched with glee as Ho cowered and whimpered before us, sometimes turning on her back in abject submission. Then we'd invert things -- 'Bad dog, Ho, you're a bad, bad dog'. This spurious scolding, delivered in our most unctuously coaxing tones, resulted in Ho wagging her tail, jumping up and trying to lick us enthusiastically. We repeated our experiment more often than was necessary to prove the point. We tried some variations, but essentially the pattern was 'Good dog' in a cross voice and 'Bad dog' in a friendly one. Eventually, Ho tired of it and ran off to seek refuge in the garden, but not before demonstrating conclusively what we really knew already -- that dogs listen more to the affective tone rather than the verbal content of what we say to them. One or two words are recognised (their names, 'walkies', 'dinner', 'bone') but these are exceptions that prove the rule. Overwh elmingly, canine intelligence seems geared to decoding not what is actually said but the feelings that accompany utterance. Fond though we were of her, John and I came away from our childish experiment with Flo diminished in our eyes. We felt superior. 'Dumb bitch', said John nastily, trying out a prohibited word.

I found myself remembering Ho when I was thinking recently about the way in which I hear what people say to me. At an immediate face-to-face level, naturally, I listen to the meaning of what is said. The words bear their cargo across my threshold without obstruction. I unload it and respond in kind, engaging automatically, effortlessly, in the great trade of talk that does so much to knit our networks of relationship together. This often involved and intricate wordplay, which we take so much for granted that the commerce of communication it affords has become commonplace, is quite beyond the horizons of canine intelligence. At another level, though, I suspect my ear is much more closely attuned to Flo's wavelength than my eight-year-old self would have liked to admit.

If I cast my mind back (a nice locution that, its swish of association resonant with the easy elegance of fly-fishing), try to recall what people said to me, the line comes back with very few if any of their spoken phrases caught on the hook of remembrance. I don't mean to suggest by this that I have a poor memory (in fact I have an excellent one). It's just that people's actual words seem immunised against verbatim remembering across more than the briefest stretch of time. This may sound more alarming than it is. I don't mean that daily discourse as it happens moment by moment somehow doesn't work, as if every time someone throws a sentence to me I drop it and just stand there looking dumb. Nor does my identifying with Flo apply in professional exchanges, which create their own disciplines of recall, or in situations where written words come into play (this introduces a new dimension altogether). It is not in these situations that my listening seems dog-like, but when I try to recall what those closest to me have said across a span of years that must have generated millions of words in total, enough to fill whole volumes.

In these circumstances, trying to remember what intimates have said to me, no words come back. Here, I find that in answer to the question 'What did such and such say to me?' almost nothing remains exactly as it was spoken. Instead of any words there is a sense of the person concerned, a feeling of their presence and personality, a remembrance of their tone and pitch of voice, an image, rather a whole amalgam of images -- the way they walked, smiled, kissed, touched - but of anything approaching an exact word-for-word record of what they actually said in any conversation over the days of accumulated dialogue that closeness generates, almost nothing remains. …