Thursday, April 28, 2005

Cunning linguist

Sometimes I envy the way people in other countries have mastered multiple languages. Camilla Henrikke, for instance, blogs easily and fluently in both English and Norwegian - and I swear I've seen some German thrown in there too, from time to time. Many other people throughout the world have learned English as a second language. But in America, most of us have only learned English - and a lot of people I know aren't very fluent in that, either.

I've picked up some other languages here and there. Two years of Spanish in High School, one semester of Scientific German in college, some Greek from double-majoring in Physics and Philosophy, a little bit of Latin from my Theology classes. Most of it I've forgotten, although I can still intone "Mis cojones soy muy grande y muy peludo" in the same voice that I used to hear announce "Esta es... Telemundo!" on my TV in Delaware on one of the Philadelphia channels.*

But I do speak some things not generally recognized as languages. I am semi-fluent in Kid, for example. I also speak some dialects of Dog and a little Cat, and I'm trying to learn some Squirrel. (It's remarkable when you realize that those quacking sounds coming from the trees aren't stranded Mallards but are in fact angry squirrels.) I also speak, much to my surprise, a few words of Rhino.

I found this out on a visit to the Bronx Zoo in late October 2001. The specter of September 11th was still hanging over the entire Greater New York area, and I prayed that the wind would not bring any of the smells from Ground Zero our way. I was visiting a friend in the area, and she and her daughter and I had gone to the zoo for the afternoon. We had a great time there and saw all sorts of animals, including a spacious exhibit of ratites - large, flightless birds that include the ostrich, emu, and rhea. Douglas Adams said (in Last Chance To See) that by looking an ostrich directly in the eye, you can see that it has gone completely mad. But that wasn't the sense I got. Instead, what I could see in their eyes - particularly those of the cassowary, whose bony crest makes it look extremely dinosaurish - was something closer to a murderous, burning hatred for all things human, and possibly all things non-ratite.

As we were wrapping things up for the day, our path towards the exit took us past the compound of Rapunzel, the Sumatran Rhinoceros. Sumatran Rhinoceroses are remarkable for many reasons - in part because all rhinoceroses are inherently remarkable, in part for their small size, but mostly for their hairiness. For a few moments I thought I was looking - at a great distance - at some living relative of the extinct Wooly Rhinoceros. But it was difficult to see, because Rapunzel (I only found her name out later, courtesy of the internet**) was on the other side of her enclosure from us. We had no way of getting to her, and I wanted to see her before we left. So I did the only reasonable thing in such a situation: I tried my luck with a rhino call.

"Here, rhino rhino rhino," I called. "Heeere, rhino rhino rhino!"

And, damned if Rapunzel didn't raise her head from the patch of grass she was cropping, look at me, and cross the compound directly to us. I was astonished. It was amazing.

OK, it's probably not that amazing. Rapunzel was a fixture at the zoo for many years before I met her, and she had probably heard that call hundreds of thousands of times. Still, it's pretty weird to have a rhinoceros come when you call it.

* Yes, I know Telemundo is a big huge network. I'm just sayin' that I first knew about it from the broadcasts coming out of Philadelphia.

**A lack of current references on the internet leads me to believe that Rapunzel has since died. However, Emi the Sumatran Rhino is still alive and well at the Cincinnati Zoo.)

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