Gobble, Growl, Grunt: The First Alphabets of Animal Noises

Peter Spier. Gobble, Growl, Grunt. Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday and Company, Inc., c1971. Cotsen 85048.

Reading any book of animal noises to the baby, where it is obligatory to squeal like a pig or roar like a lion, is one of the most enjoyable assignments of parenthood.  It can chase away the fog of sleep deprivation, while it stealthily educates baby to connect pictures of creatures with their names and the characteristic sounds they make.  This is “instruction with delight” that twenty-first century sophisticates can believe in after watching the pill go down practically by itself.

Johann Amos Comenius, Orbis Sensualium Pictus. Second English edition. London: Printed by T. R. [i.e. Thomas Roycroft] for S. Mearne, 1672. Cotsen 127, copy 2, liberally marked up by former owners.

Who was the first to think up such a clever strategy?  The credit should go to Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670), one of the greats in the history of Western education. The way he yoked the power of words and pictures in his masterpiece, the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Nuremberg: J. Endter, 1658), reveals how seriously he took the earliest and least appreciated stage of education.

Comenius insisted that “whatever is taught and learned be not obscure or confused, but apparent, distinct, and articulate, as the fingers on the hands.”  This could be accomplished by  introducing new ideas through the senses, “the main Guide of Childhood, because therein the mind doth not as yet raise up itself an abstracted contemplation of things.”  Beginning with actual objects children already know will capture their wandering attentions so that  they  “grow merry, wax lively, and willingly suffer themselves to be fastened upon them, till the thing be sufficiently discerned.”

He directed educators to begin at the beginning  and teach the student “the Plain sounds, of which mans speech consisteth, which living Creatures know how to make” with a “Symbolical Alphabet,” or what we would call much less grandly, an alphabet of animal noises.   By engaging the eyes and ears of the “young A b c scholar,” the “lively and vocal” alphabet would create mental connections with pictures, words, and letters.  “By looking upon the Creatures, till the imagination being strengthened by use,” the child would be ready to graduate to the next challenge, making sense of  pictures keyed to the descriptions: “And thus the whole Book being gone over by the bare Titles of the Pictures, Reading cannot but be learned; and indeed too, which thing is to be noted, without using any ordinary tedious spelling[ [i.e. recitation of tables of syllables] that most troublesome torture of wits, which may be wholly avoided by this Method.”  Comenius suggested that teachers encourage children to identify things they saw around them or to use the illustrations as models for drawing to reinforce the book lessons.  This “School of Things obvious to the senses,” he declared, would be “an Entrance to the School Intellectual.”

The “Symbolical Alphabet” was not perfect, however, as the translator Charles Hoole, himself a highly regarded schoolmaster, pointed out.  Animals did not speak a universal language, for one thing.  Ducks may say “kha kha” in Latin (or German, which was the second language in the original edition), but in English they have said “quack, quack” at least since 1570, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Dogs do growl “Rrrrr,” but  they make other sounds as well.  How many seventeenth-century English children had seen as much as a picture of a hoopoe, a showy bird that ranges across Africa and Asia?  Another problem is the sloppy typesetting–the spacing and placement of the captions for the letters I through M, for example, are noticeably out of alignment.

Comenius’s “Symbolic Alphabet” was retooled by another schoolmaster in the 1690s.   Like any teacher trying to use a colleague’s lesson plan, Joseph Aickin felt it necessary to make modifications.  He simplified the concept by adapting it for instruction in one, not two languages in his English Grammar ( London: Printed for the author by J. Lawrence, 1693). He also tinkered with the presentation.  He rewrote the bilingual picture caption as a question and set it to the left of the picture, which he had moved to the center of the page. To the right of it was the letter representing the animal’s cry and a phonetic transcription in two separate columns.  He also improved  some of the examples:  Comenius had the hare cry “va” for the letter W, while Aickin substituted, “What’s French for yea? wWw Wee” (admittedly the link between that and the cut of a man playing bowls is confusing).  He replaced the letter I symbolized by the mouse chirping “I I I” in Comenius with “What do we see with? i I i  Eye” accompanied by a cut of a beam of light shooting out from an wide open eyeball.

Reproduced from the Thomason copy on Early English Books On Line.

Some people in the mid-eighteenth century may have recalled the “Symbolic Alphabet” with nostalgia.   It was revived with little modifications and illustrated with rather elegant engravings printed in red and black, as “The Sound of the Letters represented by sensible Objects”  in The Pretty Play-thing for Children of all Denominations (Alexandria [i.e. London]: Printed for the Booksellers of Egypt and Palmyra [i.e. John Newbery], ca. 1759).   Here are the pages for the letters A-D and W-Z:

I recognized Comenius’ “Symbolical Alphabet” in its new dress a few weeks ago after dipping into the Orbis Sensualism Pictus for a different reason.   What is most striking is the way the systematic sequence of links in Comenius between thing with picture, the picture with the thing’s sound, the thing’s sound with the letter of the alphabet, and the letter with its pronunciation has been broken and replaced with something much simpler in the Newbery adapatation.  Comenius’s brilliant strategy was perhaps too complicated to prove as “distinct and articulate as the fingers on the hand:”  Newbery’s clever repackaging showed the way for future pictorial alphabets for very young learners.

Learning Table Manners Can be Hilarious!

Of all the rules of life’s road,  table manners are probably among the most valuable ones we learn.  A meal is a social situation that is most pleasant when participants are mindful of monitoring self-expression.  However, when a small person in a high chair next to the table is present, everyone else must stifle their heartfelt wish to be enjoy their meal in peace and quiet a safe distance away.  But how to teach the small person that flinging pureed peas from a spoon makes a disagreeable mess no one wants to clean up while the lemon chicken grows cold?  Some public-minded picture book artists have ridden to the rescue by pairing clearly expressed standards with funny illustrations.

Diane Goode’s inspiration for Mind Your Manners! (2005) was The Child’s Spelling Book (4th ed.: Hartford: Increase Cooke & Co., 1802), which includes a section of thirty-five explicit prohibitions for good behavior at meals, such as “Throw not any thing under the table” or “Take not the salt with a greesy knife.”  Goode puts courtesy into action by imagining that a well-mannered family has accepted an invitation to dine at the Abbotts.  She teases a narrative out of a cleverly chosen sample of prohibitions that demonstrate how the hosts cheerfully embarrassed their guests. The dining room table extends across the double-page spread, which provides ample room to show the various things four adults, four children, two dogs and one cat ought not have done that evening.

Dinner is well underway.  On the left, Mr. Abbott and his son are shouting over the person in the middle, who, with a pained expression on her face, remains silent, remembering that “If thy superiors be discoursing, meddle not with the matter; but be silent, except thou art spoken unto.”  On the right, Mrs. Abbott is holding forth even though she should know that a polite person ought to “Drink not, nor speak with any thing in thy mouth.”  On the floor there is a stand-off between the spaniel and the cat, who don’t care if they are breaking the rule “Stare not in the face of any one (especially thy superiors) nor fix thine eye on the plate of another.”
The puzzle picture with a test is central to the pedagogical strategy of the husband and wife team Caralyn and Mark Buehner (she’s the writer, he’s the illustrator) in It’s a Spoon not a Shovel (1995).  Each full-page illustration shows a set of characters negotiating sticky social situation.  On the facing page, the problem is posed as a question with three possible answers.  After choosing the one he or she thinks is best answer, the reader can check to see if the letter he chose is hidden in the picture, along with teeny pictures of a dinosaur, rabbit, cat, and bee which were added just for fun.  Here is the dilemma of Wolfgang the Wolf when he introduces to his brothers his buddy Lambert the Lamb, who will be staying for dinner.

Should Wolfgang say:

a. “Lambert, this is Howler, Snarler, and Fang.”

b. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”

c. “Hubba Bubba!”

“Pleased to meet you,” Lambert bleats, and the very hunger wolves politely growl:

d. “Mother’s red pajamas.”

e. “Where’s the salt and pepper?”

f. “We’re so glad to have you for dinner, Lambert.”

If one fails to find the letter(s) of the right answers (and they are not very easy to find) there is a key with the locations of the letters in the pictures printed upside down on the final page.  Try the tailpiece if the previous picture stumped you.

For pure verbal and visual ingenuity, Table Manners, the edifying Story of two Friends whose Discovery of good Manners Promises them a glorious Future ( 2001) by Chris Raschka and Vladimir Radunsky, takes the cake. The two friends are Chester, the tall, thin, green-complexioned alter ego of Rashka, and Dudunya, the squatty, slow-witted, round-faced orange fellow who channels Radunsky.

The process of civilization begins when Chester gently, affectionately says to his smutty-faced friend,  “Dudunya, if I may say so, you look like a pig.”  Chester shows Dudunya that the importance of the place setting–plate, glass, and napkin–lies in its power to prevent a human being from eating like a wild animal.  With a knife and fork, it is possible to  divide a big baked potato into sixteen cubes  “small enough to fit into your mouth.”  Chewing is essential to good digestion, but not at the expense of spraying the members of your dear family with bits of candy sprinkles, bread crumbs, schwarma or drops of cream sauce.  “This,” notes Chester sagely, “I learned from my father’s father’s father.  One day you will pass this on to your children’s children’s children’s.”   But when Chester lays out of a schedule of meal times and what is typically served when, Dudunya is rapt: “Oh wow.  What a busy day of eating.”

The most critical question of them all is addressed in this colorful, dynamic double-page spread.   Provisions have been made at the bottom for the eater to select the sweet of her or his choice… 

Chester demonstrates how to eat messy foods like roast duck dripping with sauce without soiling his hands or shirt, but Dudunya needs a few more lessons before passing the test with flying colors (yes, this picture book also features a multiple-choice test to measure mastery).  Alas, he draws the wrong lesson from his education in manners, but luckily Chester sets him straight and prevents him from starvation!How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea (2017) by Kate Hosford and illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska teaches something just as important as remembering that a spoon is not a shovel. The spoiled queen goes around the world in search of the best of the best, when she can no longer tolerate the slop being offered her at breakfast.  It turns out that it is not the method of making the tea that matters, although she enjoys the cups of tea Noriko in Japan, Sumil in India, and Rana in Turkey brew using completely different equipment and recipes.  The queen takes the secret back home with her and invites her new friends to a royal tea party.

The truly charming and not alarming person knows that extending warm hospitality to the people around the table will make them feel more welcome than the most exquisite tea served in the most beautiful china cup with pinkies up!