Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Nick Impersonates Charlie

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2010

Doug and Adam like visiting their Aunt Carrie and Uncle Mark, because they have a flat-coated black retriever named Charlie that Doug and Adam like to play with. They’ll usually bring him a new toy, and Charlie is always eager to get it. He comes bounding up to the car, sniffing at us as we get out. My wife will pull the new toy out of the bag it’s in, and throw it into the yard for Charlie. He’s so used to the routine that it caused a problem one time when we didn’t bring a new toy — but did bring one of Doug and Adam’s stuffed animals. Charlie was so excited and so eager to get to work on that stuffed animal that we had to hide it in a bedroom drawer.

“Aw, Charlie,” the wife and sons were saying, “That’s not a toy!”

“Ooh, goody, let me have my new toy!” Carrie was saying, speaking as Charlie. Doug, Adam, my wife, and I sometimes put words into Charlie’s mouth, too. The Charlie voice is somewhat like the voice of the Abominable Snowman in the Looney Toons cartoons, the one who picks up Daffy Duck and says, “I will hug him and squeeze him, and call him George.”

I was reminded of this when I listened to Deborah Tannen’s invited talk at the LSA conference. She’s done a study on how family members will use other family members in order to change the tone of a tense interaction. For example, I’ve sometimes asked Doug or Adam, “What would your mother say if she knew you were walking around in the cold house with no socks or slippers on?” It’s kind of a weenie’s way out to fob off the sock requirement on my wife, but hey, it makes me look a little less like the bad guy. And besides, she really would tell them to put on socks or slippers!

Other times, people will actually imitate the other person’s voice, instead of just invoking them like I did. And it turns out that a really popular target of this kind of ventriloquizing is the family pet. Tannen had several examples of people doing this, and even wrote a separate paper just on this more specific topic, called “Talking the Dog”.

One of Tannen’s main points about talking in another person’s (or animal’s) voice is that along with the voice comes a whole set of personality traits belonging to the voice’s owner, traits that a speaker can temporarily assume in order to change the power dynamic between them and who they’re speaking to.

It was the point about a voice coming along with certain personality traits that reminded me of the Charlie voice. Trouble comes when we’re back at home, and Doug has the occasion to speak as our cat Nick. When he ventriloquizes Nick, he uses the Charlie voice. My wife can’t abide this. Nick and Charlie have two such different personalities that giving them the same voice is simply unacceptable. It bugged her so much that she even had me create separate voices for Nick and our four other cats. But Doug can’t do the Nick voice, so he’ll still sometimes use the Charlie voice for Nick. “No Charlie voice!” my wife tells him.

Well, maybe he’s not giving Nick Charlie’s voice. Maybe when he imitates Nick, he’s imitating a Nick who’s imitating Charlie! I’ll have to drop this suggestion to Doug and see how it goes over with his mother.

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7 Responses to “Nick Impersonates Charlie”

  1. Bridget said

    Hilarious. I almost thought this was going to be a post about the motherese-like intonation people often use to talk to animals, but this is even better. I’m in total agreement with your wife — the thought of using a dog voice for a cat is unthinkable! (Though I’m sure the Charlie voice would be equally unsuitable for my Pomeranian, who is normally voiced as a Valley Girl in our household.)

  2. The Ridger said

    Hmmm. Why “they have a flat-coated black retriever” instead of “they have a black flat-coated retriever”?

    • Neal said

      Hmm, you’re right: flat-coated retriever is more of a lexical item than black retriever. I attribute it to my getting the different pieces of information at different times during the revision process. The only part I knew for sure at the beginning was black. Doug was able to give me the retriever part, and a day later my wife gave me the flat-coated part, and I put it in without thinking too hard about its position relative to black.

  3. The Ridger said

    PS – I can think of cats that voice would suit. But I think it’s interesting that Doug doesn’t double up one of the cat voices he can do, preferring to do an absent animal instead.

  4. [...] Comments Neal on Nick Impersonates CharlieNeal on Nick Impersonates CharlieNeal on January LinksThe Ridger on Nick [...]

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