‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’ – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Susan Richardson

 

1.

 

If a lion could speak,

we’d hear how Kruger has flattened his vowels,

how Longleat’s left him with a lisp,

how he’s zoo-mute,

and how his tamer wields a whip

then delves between his jaws

to extract the stammer.

 

If a lion could speak,

we’d correct his grammar,

purge his syntactical savannah

of herds of double negatives,

then wince if he ripped

apart just one infinitive.

 

If a lion could speak

he’d sphinx-talk about the thorn in his paw,

how MGM lip-synced his roar

and how Albert gave him heartburn for weeks.

 

If a lion could speak,

we may deign to reply,

though very loud and slow,

like a lion’s really a scarecrow in disguise.

 

If a lion could speak,

we’d insist he use English

but he’d cleave to Lionese.

The few of us who’d learnt Leopard

might grasp the lack of past and future tense,

while the rest would be baffled,

more concerned to learn

how to order a beer in Giraffe.

 

If a lion could speak,

we’d tire of his whinges of wardrobes and witches,

of how Richard filched his heart

and how his rampant act on flags

has knackered his hips.

In time, we’d surely ignore him,

drawn to the wit of warthogs,

and antelope banter instead.

 

If a lion could speak, he’d say Take a degree

in my language of strangling ungulates

and wrangling with vultures for the meat.

Then we’ll talk.

 

2.

 

Wardrobes lack wit.

Warthogs insist on the use of a disguise.

We’d whip the rampant scarecrow if we could,

then, flattened, he’d rest with the lion he’d just filched.

For if his savannah-heart could grasp a lion’s paw

who’d then speak of a grammar?

 

In the past, a baffled Albert gave the flags

a degree of order, while in future,

he could act like a giraffe.

How slow and how correct and how very English.

 

We’ll speak to more ungulates

and wince with the vultures.

Kruger has a language of negatives but, in time,

his mute lion-hips could learn to talk.

 

How about a lion? Might a lion say how?

Witches would double-take if one really knackered lion

could ignore his thorn and tire of his infinitive.

We’d speak of his meat and we’d speak

of strangling him instead – him! him!

 

If ripped Richard has a Lionese lisp in his beer,

he’d cleave to his syntactical antelope for weeks.

How tense. How could he!

 

Vowels apart, surely we’d purge the lion

of his heartburn if lip-synced wrangling

between Longleat’s jaws could be concerned.

Though tamer, his leopard delves

in his stammer and wields a roar.

 

If few reply to a left lion extract

and if herds learnt a loud sphinx of whinges

then how may my if-zoo deign to talk?

 

Speak, speak, speak –

we’d hear his MGM banter.

He’s drawn to us – and how.

 

3.

 

I, alone. Cold. Bleak.

Wed her now. Nougat is fattened with owls –

so wrong. Pete’s laughing – it’s Alice

(oh, she’s too cute!)

Anne’s cow is famous – fields unzip

themselves, as green as yours.

Go – unpack this summer.

 

In an iron hood, creak –

bleed, infect sick grandmas.

Urgent, impractical caravans

of words have troubled relatives.

Head winds have been tipped

to start. Trust cunning primitives.

 

Misaligned woods – specks,

seeds, lynx, hawks are out, reborn of this whore-

house. Energy in whips sinks this sore

land. Now all hurt paving can’t learn to shriek.

 

Is our crying good? Weak

tea, they claim, could repel

those scary-sounding hose-

pipes. Our crying’s merely a shadow in these eyes.

 

Whiffy loins. Cod-piece.

Please desist. Refusing swish

butties, we got Chinese.

A blue office would spurn Leonard’s

tights. Clasp a slack oaf, blast a few chairs, then

smile. At best, Ruby’s raffles

are upturned, so burn

now too, border on fear of bar graphs.

 

Ivy lines old cheeks.

Weeds spiral in spring’s onward probe. Banned wishes

have now stitched up rich wizards

around this lamp and baton. Flans

as lacquered as ships

win bindweed. Poorly pigs snore in

dawn’s other pit. If bored dogs

stand on the slope, panda skin’s red.

 

With a fine food geek, we may make a green pea

on rye sandwich. If handling young shallots,

add sand. Bring six sculptured forks, then eat

ten peeled stalks.

 

4.

 

rrrrrraaaaaw

raarrghgh [          ]

hffngh  hffnggh hffngggh

rraaw rraaw rraagh

rraaaw [          ]  raaaaghgh

rrgh rrgh rrrghhhh

 

rrrrrrraaaaaw

hffn hffngh rraaa hffn hffn hffn

[          ]

rwaaaarrw      rwaa      rwarrw

hff rrrr rrrr rrrr hraaaa

rraaaaghhh

 

rrrrrrraaaaaw

raaaaaaooowwrrrrrr [          ]

aaaarr aarr aaaaarrrr

 

rrrrrrraaaaaw

rrr rrr rrrrrr

hff hffngggh

 

rrrrrrraaaaaw

grrauuuw

rrrraaaaaaawwwr raaaaaawr

hfffnghgggh hff [          ]

rrgh rrgh rrgh rrrrrghghgh

 

rrrrrrraaaaaw

[          ]

 

rrrrrrraaaaaw

aaaaaoowrr aaaaawr aaaaaaaaooooowrrrrrrrrrr

 

A Note on the Lionese Translation

For those less than familiar with Lionese, it will come as a surprise to see that Emeritus Professor Ross Sorenson’s translation of the poem is significantly shorter than the English original. This is principally due to the fact that many of the concepts expressed in the poem are outside the realm of lions’ experience and therefore have no direct Lionese equivalent; square brackets within the text indicate sections for which there is not even a distant approximation. In addition, some of the nuances of the translation are, of necessity, based on assumption[1], albeit assumption gleaned from Professor Sorenson’s lifelong field research – studying, transcribing and translating the language of lions in every practicable context, from pre-hunt to post-coitus.

In addition to having no past or future tenses, Lionese has no passive voice and no conditional. It employs a surprisingly wide vocabulary[2] and there is manifest evidence of leonine self-awareness, as demonstrated by the use of both the first person singular[3] and first person plural[4] pronouns.

Although other languages in the Big Cats family, including Leopard and Jaguar, are notable for their frequent utilisation of the roar, the lion’s is by far the most complex, ‘arguably conveying more meaning, layers and intent than a Shakespearian soliloquy’[5]. Sixty-three different Lionese dialects have been identified by Professor Sorenson and although the lexicon of this poem approximates standard Lionese, it also bears some characteristics of the dialect of the Ngonyama pride of South Africa’s Eastern Cape[6].

As for the current and future status of Lionese, the language is, at present, classified as vulnerable due to substantial population decline[7]; however, unlike certain other languages, such as Quagga and Pyrenean Ibex, it is unlikely to fall out of use in the foreseeable future. Interestingly, members of the UK’s immigrant lion community continue to utilise their first language and resist acquiring even the rudiments of English[8]. Zoo residents, however, speak, at best, a diluted version of Lionese, drawing on a much-reduced vocabulary. Inhabitants of safari parks display a broader range of articulations but this still represents a fraction of that which they employ in their native land.

Further information about Lionese may be found in the quarterly Journal of Leolinguistic Studies, of which Professor Sorenson is Executive Academic Editor. Lionese is now offered as a module on a number of undergraduate Animal Studies degrees and although it is not yet available in the Teach Yourself series of books and downloads, the first certified intensive TLFL course is currently recruiting.

[1] Sorenson, Ross – personal communication, 15 November 2013
[2] The first Lionese-English dictionary is forthcoming from Dēor Press in 2016
[3] ‘hffn’, as used exclusively by the male lion
[4] ‘hffngh’, as used by lionesses
[5] Sorenson, Ross (ed) Exit, Pursued by a Lion, p 862 (Warminster University Press, 2007)
[6] Sorenson, Ross – personal communication, 22 May 2014
[7] Animal Languages of the World, p 31 (Bestia Books, 2011)
[8] Ibid., pp 98-114

 

Susan Richardson is a poet, performer and educator based in Wales. Her third poetry collection, skindancing, themed around human-animal metamorphosis and exploring our dys/functional relationship with the wild and our animal selves, will be published in 2015. She is currently poet-in-residence with the Marine Conservation Society. www.susanrichardsonwriter.co.uk

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