Dog as indirect speech act

I’ve just come across a totally brilliant practice, of which I was previously unaware, among the Akan of Ghana as studied by sociolinguist Samuel Gyasi Obeng:

Like Americans, Ghanaians keep dogs as pets, for security, for hunting, and for the economic benefits derived from breeding and selling puppies. But they also keep and name dogs to create what Obeng calls “a communicative situation in which the ‘unspeakable’ may be spoken.” In such cases, Ghanaians give dogs names that address a problem or issue that cannot be addressed directly by their owners without fear of losing face in the community. “There are probably many dogs named ‘Mind Your Own Business’ in Ghana,” Obeng says, laughing. “People frequently name their dogs to call attention to a social grievance, such as ingratitude or gossip.”

In a recent paper, Obeng cites various examples of dogs with Akan names that address troubling personal issues. Many dogs cited had one- or two-word Akan names that translate into English phrases such as: “Whatever you do, people will gossip about you”; “Enough of your harassment!”; “Money matters/Life is hard!”; and the dramatically indignant, “The community must now be satisfied since the ‘evil’ it wished for me has eventually befallen me.” Sometimes the dog itself becomes a significant tool for dealing with face-threatening situations, as with the dog named “Whatever you do, people will gossip about you.” Having given his dog this name, the owner was able to show his neighbors that he was aware of and insulted by their gossip. By Akan custom, it is also acceptable to call attention to the dog’s name in the presence of the person who is indirectly addressed through the dog. “If an Akan names his dog ‘My neighbor is ungrateful,’ and he happens to pass by that neighbor’s house, he could call the dog’s name and shower it with insults,” Obeng explains. “Of course, the neighbor knows perfectly well that he is the target of these insults, but he cannot respond, because after all, it is the dog being spoken to, not him.”

Imagine shouting “EnoughofYourHarassment” across the park at the vanishing tail of your dog.

I chanced upon this as a result of reading Teju‘s piece Names are Doors 2. I have a memory that amongst the Akan, who have the tradition of naming children after the day of the week they are born on, there is a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population named for the day of the week which is considered to be of ill-omen. Unfortunately I can’t find out whether this is indeed the case, or even which day is supposed to be unlucky (although I think it might be Wednesday).

What, I wonder, is the effect on a dog of being called “The community must now be satisfied since the ‘evil’ it wished for me has eventually befallen me” and being berated and upbraided loudly when in the presence of said community. And what, I further wonder, would I have called Maizy had this device been known to me.

The former question marks me out as a typical Brit more concerned about canine well-being than non-confrontational methods of easing community tensions. So the answer to the latter would probably be “What a gorgeous dog you are”. Which is, in fact, already among her numerous noms de parc already, but most accurate and useful would be “Beware, I Bite”.

5 Replies to “Dog as indirect speech act”

  1. Wow. Reminds me, in a roundabout way, of childhood insulting practises. Don’t know if anyone else ever did this (suspect they must have) but you’d call your friend a bad name and when they challenged you, you’d say ‘I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to that tree’.

    I suspect our dog (who was already named Queen(ie) when we got her and has a certificate to prove it) would be called something along the lines of ‘the NHS, though staffed by many well meaning and more than competent people, must realised that spending money on mental healthcare provision is a better idea than spending money on administrators and studies’. Or maybe we’d just name her frustrated yelp (as in the sound, rather than the words).

  2. Heh. That would mean having to take her along to appointments though. Actually, that’s probably a good thing to do. Perhaps you could train her to bite administrators.

    Maizy could well have been called “It was a dog or a lover so be grateful it’s a dog” but I didn’t want to confess to that in the more visible main post šŸ™‚

  3. This reminds me of a very funny story from The Onion a few years back about a dysfunctional family that communicated entirely by attributing their own thoughts to the family dog.

  4. I love this, and it’s really got me thinking! But does one have to obtain a new dog every time a vexing situation arises? I’d have a vast pack by now and calling them would be very longwinded…(though Akans must evidently have much terser ways of expressing these complex situations), or can you change the dog’s name as the need arises, which would be confusing for the pooch? (but then again communicating with the dog is clearly not the main point here).
    The dysfuncional family or couple expressing its opinions, thoughts etc through the dog is a very common one I think – it cetainly is round here.

  5. Dave – your memory reminds me in turn of the only funny moment in the film “10” which is when some ancient retainer, using a tea trolly as a zimmer frame, farts loudly and the Great Dane on the hearthrug leaps up and leaves the room whimpering with its tail between its legs. “Oh we always beat the dog when Mrs SomethingOrOther farts” says one of the utterly unmemorable characters. Why on earth do we have scape goats when clearly scape dogs are so much more prevalent.

    Lucy – interesting questions to which I don’t know the answers. I would welcome any excuse to acquire more dogs. Unfortunately at the moment I can think of no useful role for them other than to rehearse the daily litany of “Get up now”, “Wash your face”, “Clean your teeth”, “Get dressed”, “Tidy your room” “Do your homework” “Don’t eat any more sweets” “Turn off the telly” “Put the GameBoy away” etc etc etc etc. But that would require several large packs and I think I’d have the council health and safety round not to mention the noise abatement society.

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