Transcending Words: The Real Fantasy of Human-Animal Communication

I’ve been reading a number of books lately that feature telepathic animal companions. In all of them, the animals communicate with humans in words. They may not have the physical capability for speech, but when they speak mind to mind, it is speech. Words. Concepts expressed in ways that humans can understand.

That’s the fantasy. That if we’re born with the talent, or magically endowed with it, we can finally, fully communicate with our animals. They’ll tell us what they want and what they mean. We’ll finally interact as equals.

But will we? Or are we demanding that animals meet us in our territory, on our terms?

Words are a human thing. Animals can learn them. Any dog who comes when called, any horse who stops at Whoa, is responding to a verbal cue. But on their own, in their own worlds, animals occupy a different space.

Humans have a habit of treating that space as somehow lesser. Speech requires a bigger brain, they say. The language of words is sophisticated; it’s advanced. It defines a superior being.

Therefore, in fantasies written by humans who love animals, the animals do a human thing, with special bonus magical superpowers. What’s missing is a sense that maybe humans could ask more of themselves and less of their animals.

A horse or a dog or a cat is not physically equipped to speak a human language, but each species has a wide variety of ways in which it expresses itself. Dogs bark and whine, cats meow and purr and hiss, horses whinny and nicker and squeal—but that’s a human-centric view, too. It assumes that every animal must define itself by its vocalizations, because that’s what humans do.

If you pay close attention to your dog or cat or horse, you realize fairly soon that vocal sounds are only a very small part of their range of communication. Cats don’t meow to each other. They may hiss or yowl, but when they’re interacting peacefully, they’re speaking with their bodies. Position of ears and whiskers and head, movement or stillness of tail, eyes open wide or narrowed or blinking slowly.

Horses are even more expressive with their bodies. Their whole world is movement. They live in herds, where every individual is aware of every other.

Humans can’t come close to that physical or spatial awareness. If a horse is “inferior” to us because they can’t form human speech, a human is just as much so on the deeply physical level.

Leaving aside questions of relative intelligence—brain capacity, processing power—if we’re talking about communication, and we’re only asking the horse to interact with us using words, there’s no equality there. If we truly want to meet the horse halfway, we have to be far more spatially and physically aware. We have to quiet our busy brains, and shut off the words. Then we can start to live in the horse’s world.

Telepathy in the sense of words passing back and forth may be more fantasy than reality. But deep communication between human and animal is quite real and quite possible. Our animals are speaking to us all the time, if we can only bring ourselves to realize it.

A truly accurate telepathic-animal story, in my mind, would be one in which the interaction transcends words. The human tunes in to the animal’s body language and its emotional affect, the way the animal has been doing since long before the human was aware of it. The fantasy would be that that communication is less ambiguous than it usually is in the real world, because humans miss so much. We wouldn’t miss it. We would listen deeply, and understand. We would truly meet the animal halfway, and give it the same level of respect that we demand for ourselves.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks. She’s written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.


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