ITM readers: Jeffrey posted about the "Burnable Books" blog earlier, and I wanted to bring your attention to a fun experiment unfolding there: the idea is the use social media to practice talking about our work! (Check out the writeup on the blog and on twitter - use the hashtag #3tweetsmax)
In the spirit of sharing, here's a half-completed essay that I've been working on (as Frankenstorm approaches...)
Sounds of nonhuman things: De voces variae animacium
St Gallen Stiftsbiblothek Codex Sang. 225 p. 132
[Embiggen or flip through the entire manuscript HERE]
I'm currently completing an article on medieval animal-sound wordlists (often under the Latin title heading such as voces variae animantium, which translates literally as “the different voices of animate things”) for a forthcoming essay collection. These lists took many forms, but the one thing they have in common is (at the very least) a list of animals with the appropriate Latin verb denoting the sound each one produces. For example, this page above transmits one such list (flip through the entire manuscript HERE – and thanks to Chris Piuma for bringing this link to my attention!); see also a transcription HERE [If you don’t read Latin, the first items on the left column read “Ovis bobat / Canis latrat / Lupus ululat…” which means something like “the sheep bleats / the dog barks / the wolf howls …” etc.] These lists are interesting for many reasons; among other things, they often break open our (modern and Western) ideas of exactly constitutes an “animate” honhuman agent in the first place; for instance, fire and running water among things that make sound. Adding to this complexity, some other Latin wordlists are accompanied by parallel translations of the verbs into other languages. In thinking about these lists, I want to concentrate just on the human/animal interface here, and take these lists seriously as modes of enacting animal-to-human translations. These lists, all their variety and complexity, provide exciting venues for considering a range of medieval language-crossings – movements across species boundaries, and movements across (human) cultures.
If you’ve ever compared animal sounds with someone who speaks another language, it can be surprising to find out that an animal “sounds different” in a different cultural environment – to an English speaker, a dog goes woof woof (or bow wow); to a Chinese speaker this same animal goes 汪汪 (wang wang). Some of the broad similarities among animal sounds across languages could suggest a certain pan-cultural onomatopoeia, inviting us to ask whether there is some universal or deeply ingrained capacity for humans to mimic animal sounds in similar ways. I would take the information on this page with a grain of salt, but assuming most of its entries are more or less correct it does nicely illustrate how even non-related languages can share similar sonic strategies for animal-sound mimicry: cats across human cultures utter something remarkably like meow; snakes invariably use some sort of sibilance (S-sounds); the rooster makes some sort of multisyllabic sound full of voiceless velar stops (i.e. consonant K). (Cross-linguistic research in the field of linguistic anthropology can, at times, support possible points of connection between animal mimicry and sonic features cutting across human languages; for instance, the frequent occurrence of “r” and “g” sounds in frog names across two hundred languages in New Guinea might be a case of a frog-imitating cross-linguistic feature.)
These medieval wordlists readily reveal the sheer complexity of this messy zoo-anthro-linguistic soundscape we inhabit. The phrase “lupus ululat” (the wolf howls), for instance, is a formulation that appears in many Latin lists like these, and translating such a statement actually poses a bit of a challenge; in this phrase, the verb actually denotes two things at once – the creature’s action, and a mild imitation of the sound the creature produces. In “lupus ululat,” the assonance of “u” sounds in the verb paired with the noun “lupus” strongly reinforces the aooooo!!! sound. But “ululat” is also employed (elsewhere in other lists) to denote the utterance-and-sound of an owl, so one might say the verb is something like mimetic homonym: the Latin “ululat” splinters into two different the modern English verbs “hoots” (in the case of an owl) or “howls” (in the case of a wolf).
I’m dwelling on this multivalent sound-action “ululat” as an invitation to think more closely about the relationship between animal vocalization (as ventriloquized via human language) and bilingualism, and to more carefully consider the role that animal sounds themselves actually play as didactic strategy for second-language acquisition. Contemporary social science research is quite interesting in this regard: one study on French contexts reveals that onomatopoeia (including animal mimicry) can play a key role in language instruction. To draw from a different cultural environment, Japanese researchers have suggested that verbs that have onomatopoeic patterns – including ones that imitate animals – may actually facilitate their mastery by schoolchildren.
In a medieval context, this animal-human interface plays a role in language learning as well. In Aelfric's Grammar, for instance, the translation of Latin animal sounds into Old English becomes a pivot point that establishes a shared grammatical feature across languages while also opening an opportunity for creative translation. The text translates a sequence of third-person Latin verbs expressing the actions of nonhuman agents (e.g. Latin pluit becomes rinþ, “it rains”); in the case of animal utterances the inherent sounds of the relevant third-person Latin verbs only haphazardly “carry over” into their Anglo-Saxon verb equivalents. Some of the Latin/Anglo-Saxon pairs read as follows (and, once again, translation into modern English is admittedly tricky): ouis balat / scep blaet = the sheep bleats (says baaa); bos mugit / oxa hlewð = the cow says moo (the ox lows); equus hinnit / hors hnægð = the horse neighs (whinnies, goes hinhnignnnh). What sort of imaginative work are these bilingual animal sounds are performing? Rather than thinking of these pairings as instances of the same animal vocalization replicated divergently in Latin or in the vernacular, I’d like to entertain the possibility that the reader (medieval or modern) is actually invited to process these disparate linguistic units concurrently, approximating in one’s memory to arrive at a zoo-vocalization that can never be transcribed (in any human language or writing system).
Dwelling on these bilingual examples from Aelfric's Grammar allows us to approach the voces variae animantium wordlists in new ways. Rather than thinking of a “one way street” of translation from animal sound to human imitation, I would like to imagine medieval people entertaining the possibility of mutual interspecies exchange or convergence, or uttering two species-marked languages at once. I might suggest that each of these verbal vocalizations – rather than providing inadequate anthro-imitations of animal sounds – are best construed as ambilingual utterances that resonate across species difference.
All of this is just to say that we need not necessarily follow the lead of Priscian and other medieval Latin grammarians by segregating the “inarticulate” animal vox (voice, utterance) from rational human speech that can be set to writing. It's precisely the dynamic interface between species utterances – these near and partial modes of understanding, and the perceived gap between inarticulate sound and proximal modes of (human) articulation – that I find most worth pursuing. 
These animal-sound wordlists are just one avenue for exploring the contours of inter-species communication. A literary text like Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale offers the fantasy of a “queynte ryng” which (worn on the finger) allows a Tartar princess to understand the “leden” (speech or utterance) of a “faucoun peregryn [o]f fremde land” (peregrine falcon from a foreign land) (435, 428-429). In this text, though, the bird’s “leden” is fully rendered as Middle English discourse, and we actually don’t get any hint of the sounds of bird vocalization through the text. Other literary texts do find ways to more pointedly explore I might call a concurrent trans-species language processing that entails an overt mimicry of bird sounds. In Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale, the god Phoebus teaches his pet bird how to speak (or to imitate human speech – the text is a bit unclear about the distinction). The bird witnesses Phoebus’s wife having an affair with another man, and when the bird reveals the news to Phoebus the bird’s utterance is recorded as “Cokkow, cokkow, cukkow!” (243). This moment is a “joke” on many levels. First of all, in Middle English, this would have registered as a near-pun with the utterance “Cuckold! Cuckold! Cuckold!” Second, the bird conspicuously speaks Middle English here, breaking any fiction that this exchange is happening in ancient Greek or whatever Phoebus would have actually spoken “back in the day” with his bird. Third, the bird could be interpreted as simply “being a bird” at this point in narrative – i.e., the bird is making ordinary avian squawks that accidentally sound as if it is speaking in Middle English. At this moment in the story, Chaucer provides an onomatopoeic transcription of bird vocalization that simultaneously conveys meaning in a human language.
Other literary texts find inventive means to encode intra-species avian communication as well. In John Clanvowe’s The Boke of Cupide, a cuckoo and nightingale engage in an extended debate, and the literary discourses employed by these two different birds are differentially encoded as if through two different human vernaculars – or at least two distinct sociolinguistic registers within a single language (Middle English). Throughout this text, the cuckoo asserts that his language is clear and plain, and his simple English diction conveys this effect; the nightingale – whose sonic performance considered much more sophisticated – utters a “nyse, queynt crie” (strange, unfamiliar cry) that employs obscure forms of French-inflected vocabulary (133). She (the nightingale) utters “Ocy! Ocy!” – a common way of transcribing birdsong in French, enacting a longstanding literary French-language pun on the imperative form of occrire: “Kill! Kill!” The simple (English) cuckoo does not understand what this (French) nightingale-vocalization means, and he requires verbal translation (126-135). In this case, two different types of bird vocalization awkwardly clash across two languages within a single literary text.
Further collision of animal sounds across languages can be enacted through versified animal-sound lists as well. For instance, Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz sets out to teach the reader how to speak French; within this work, a versified list of the sounds of animals in French (“la naturele noise des toutes manere des bestes”) is recorded alongside marginal gloss “cribs” written out in Middle English. Reading across these glosses, one can discern cases when some aspect of onomatopoeia is preserved (“louwe oule” = “wolfe yollez,” 256); in other cases consonant clusters are slightly transmuted (“gruue groule” = “crane crekez,” 250), or the strategies of animal mimicry are transmuted (the French “vache mugist” – with an implicit “moo” sound in the verb – gives way to a repetition of vowels in the English “cow lowes,” 250).
In the bilingual (bird/English) episode in Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale, the inter-linguistic (French/English) translation of birdsong enacted by Clanvowe’s nightingale, and the glosses in a bilingual versified wordlist, animal utterances serve as a disruptive and generative force that tests the very limits of language and mobilizes expanding strategies of (human) vocalization. Rather than conceiving human and nonhuman utterances as operating on separate tracks – or thinking of animal vocalizations by means of analogy to human linguistic utterances – we can entertain a collaborative processing of languages: the human and (with, alongside) the nonhuman.
In concentrating on sonic phenomena as the privileged mode of interaction between species, it may be the case I’m “on the wrong track” (trailing a “red herring,” or “off the scent” perhaps?). As anyone who has pets (or interacts frequently with animals) would know, much inter-species communication is non-verbal and also non-sonic – facial expressions, somatic mimicry, physical contact (aggressive or playful), biting, motion (e.g. pointing, blocking one's path), sniffing (and emitting pheromones), leaving excrement or other internal fluids where one should not, among other modes of interaction.
As a gesture to an inter-species world of interaction beyond the sonic, I’ll just end by suggesting one medieval venue for human mimicry of animals that is enacted through somatic, nonverbal expression. In his fascinating study of the practices and social meanings of silence in medieval monastic communities, Scott Bruce traces the nuanced role of (deliberately minimalist) systems of gestures; since monastic communities were obliged to take a vow of silence, a very rudimentary form of nonverbal communication was permitted – and only in limited contexts – as a substitute for speech. In a discussion of one medieval Latin record of the Cluniac sign lexicon, Bruce notes that the acknowledged (permitted) “sign for a book written by a pagan author involved a gesture that mimicked a dog scratching its ear because, as the author of the sign lexicon explained, people without faith were comparable with dogs” (64). In this suggestive system of codified gestures, those who are “not like us” – those who inhabit an existence across a boundary of religious difference – are equated with animals. While this exclusionary sentiment effectively dehumanizes other people, this compound sign requires a humbling form of embodied mimicry: a human must enact a silent becoming-animal gesture.
I am still sorting out where essay is going, but in the end I hope to get us out of the false dichotomy of meaningless, inarticulate animal sound vs. rational, transcribable human speech. Rather than reifying species difference or even stabilizing one cultural mode for encoding animal sounds, medieval wordlists and literary texts encourage us to think more creatively about inhabiting that blurry and fuzzy communicative zone where anthropocentric and zoocentric worlds meet, shape, and transform one another.
 For an overview of this medieval list tradition, see D. Thomas Benediktson, “Polemius Silvius’ ‘Voces Varie Animacium’ and Related Documents of Animal Sounds.” Mnemosyne LIII, I (2000): 70-79; see also D. Thomas Benediktson, “Cambridge University Library L1 1 14, F. 46r-v: A Late Medieval Natural Scientist at Work.” Neophilologus 86 (2002): 171-177. For an important early study, see Wilhelm Wackernagel, Voces variae animantium. Ein Beitrag zur Naturkunde und zur Geschichte der Sprache (Basel: Bahnmaier, 1869).
 Bottom of right hand column: “Ignis crepitat” [fire crackles], “Cursus aquarum murmurat” [running water murmurs].
 Although it’s more accurate and nuanced to refer to a distinction between “human and nonhuman animals,” I will simply refer (for the purposes of this venue) to the categories of the “animal” and the “human.” In my usage of these terms I’m more or less trying to follow the lead of Karl Steel, How To Make A Human (Ohio State UP, 2011), 19-20.
 It is interesting that this instance of onomatopoeia is polysemic; the “water” radical in the character 汪 is an indication of its use in literary contexts to refer to the sound of water (especially when its broad and deep).
 Terence E. Hays, “Sound Symbolism, Onomatopoeia, and New Guinea Frog Names.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 4, 2 (1994): 153-174.
 Brunet, Jean-Paul. “L’Onomatopee dans la classe de français (Otomatopoeia in the French Class).” Canadian Modern Language Review 45, 1 (October 1988): 139-145.
 Imai, Mutsumi, Sotaro Kita, Miho Nagumo, and Hiroyuki Okada. “Sound symbolism facilitates early verb learning.” Cognition 109 (2008): 54-65.
 Full passage: “Manega word synd, þe ne magon habban þa twegen forman hadas, ac habbað þonne þriddan: tinnit swegð, pluit rinþ, tonat ðunrað, fulminat hit liht […]. Ealswa be nytenum: canis latrat hunt byreð, lupus ululat wulf ðytt, equus hinnit hors hnaegð, bos mugit oxa hlewð, ouis balat scep bleat, sus grunnit sing runað” [There are many verbs that may not have the first two persons but have the third one: it sounds, it rains, it thunders, it lightens (i.e. lightning strikes) … It is the same way with animals: the dog barks, the dog wolf howls, the horse neighs, the ox lows, the sheep bleats, the pig grunts]. J. Zupitza, Aelfrics Grammatik (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1880), 128-129.
 This is a tangent, but for the voces variae animantium as a memory tool, see Carruthers, Book of Memory, 138, 158-160.
 At this point let me just note that I’m well aware that there is a rich scholastic discussion how vox is defined, particularly along the lines of human/animal difference; see for instance Karl’s discussion on ITM a few years ago; see for instance Karl’s book at 20 (note 69) and 49 (note 40); see also Eco, Umberto, R. Lambertini, C. Marmo, and A. Tabarroni. “On animal language in the medieval classification of signs.” In On the Medieval Theory of Signs, ed. Umberto Eco and Costantino Marmo (Philadelphia: Johns Benjamins, 1989), 1-41. At this point, though, I'm trying to avoid scholastic taxonomies of vox articulata and vox inarticulata etc. as I feel that “buying into” such vocabulary too soon can constrain how think about these medieval lists and prevent us from imagining what sort of sonic or sensory worlds such lists might seek to inhabit.
 The meaning of “leden” is disputed; in the Riverside Chaucer, 3rd Edn (gen. ed. Benson, Oxford UP, 2008) this word is glossed as “language.” The Middle English Dictionary additionally provides a slightly broader meaning of “speech, utterance” (def. 2a) or an additional definition of birdsong or animal noise (def. 3a and 3b). Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor (The Canterbury Tales, Broadview, 2008) capitalize the word “Leden” with this explanation: “The term “Latin” here can be taken to mean ‘foreign language,’ since in the Middle Ages Latin was the universal second language” (232, note 2). In this literary context, of course, this polysemic term could mean all of these things simultaneously.
 The narrator states that Phebus “taught it [the crowe] speke as men teche a jay … And countrefete the speche of every man/He koude, whan he sholde telle a tale” (132-135).
 V.J. Scattergood, The Complete Works of John Clanvowe (Cambridge: Brewer, 1975), 84n124-135. See also Elizabeth Eva Leach, Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell, 2007), 244; on “oci” as the stylized song of the nightingale in medieval French culture, see 91.
 William Rothwell, ed. Walter de Bibbesworth: Le Tretiz (Aberystwyth: The Anglo-Norman Hub, 2009). In the longer version I will also engage with an excellent article by William Sayers, “Animal vocalization and human polyglossia in Walter of Bibbesworth’s thirteenth-century domestic treatise in Anglo-Norman French and Middle English.” Sign Systems Studies 37, 3/4 (2009): 525-541.
 Scott G. Bruce, Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition c. 1900-1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
 Transcribed in Bruce, footnote 43 (Cluny, no. 73): “Pro signo libri secularis, quem aliquis paganus conposuit, premisso generali signo libri adde, ut aurem cum digito tanga, sicut canis cum peed pruriens solute, quia nec inmerito infidelis tali animanti conparatur” [quoting Signa Loquendi, ed. Jarecki, 134].