A Man’s “Hmmm” and a Dog’s “Aaaaaarrooo”
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Voices are fascinating: they mean as they sound and they sound as they mean. We readily associate human voice with language – but dogs’ voices? Not so much. Whether verbal or non-verbal, though, both communicate. Even where human – and animal – voices ‘say’ nothing at all, they can sound sense:
“Daddy?” I said. “Hmmm,” he said back. “Daddy, do you know how you always tell me that we should help those less fortunate than ourselves?” “Mmmmmm-hmmm,” he said. He rubbed his nose and looked around at his papers. (DiCamillo 16)
Opal, the young heroine of Kate DiCamillo’s novel Because of Winn-Dixie (2000), has just been “sent […] to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes” by her father, “the preacher,” and “came back with a dog” (7). Winn-Dixie, a stray. She wants to keep him, her father is preoccupied. So she begins gently with a question, her pitch rising, and – though there is no actual description of it – we can safely assume her tone to be pleading. Her father answers not in words, but utters an interjecton: “Hmmm.” Though “hm” is not strictly speaking a word – it only has a ghost entry referring to “hum” and “hem” in The Oxford English Dictionary –, it does have implications: “An inarticulate exclamation uttered with the lips closed, either in a pause of hesitation or embarrassment, or as expressing slight dissatisfaction, dissent, etc.” (OED, “hum, int.”). This clearly is not a moment of “embarrassment” for Opal’s father, but “slight dissatisfaction” may be part of his emotional sound-colouring. Even, perhaps, “warning” (OED, “hem, int.” A.): he is working, not to be disturbed, and his daughter only slowly manages to bring him back into the real world. That he speaks “back” to her, however, might still imply some active engagement on his part. He does not only ‘say’ something, he specifically says something to her. Possibly, he (somewhat mockingly?) picks up her tone – and then hands the stage right over to his daughter. He may be annoyed, but he is ready to listen.
And he does not need to say a word to communicate this.
Opal then leads up to her request, cleverly reminding her father of his own words and principles. Again, he answers with an interjection: “Mmmmmm-hmmm.” But this time, he does not speak “back” to her. He elongates the sound, another interjection, which cannot be found in the OED in this form at all, but is related to the originally American colloquialism “uh-huh”: “Used to express assent or agreement, or as a non-committal response to a question or remark” (OED, “uh-huh, adv.”). Both meanings make some sense here – the first, in case Opal’s father is actually listening by now, implicates his weariness of what is to come. He “agree[s],” but the elongation of the sounds, the hesitation, suggests that he does so only in principle, not necessarily in every individual case. It is a ‘yes, but’ rather than a decisive ‘yes’; it’s a “non-committal” answer to her "question." As to the second sense, it is not unlikely, of course, that Opal's father is still not really listening, imitating a conversation rather than having it. If this were the case, however, he might have stuck with ‘hm’ rather than signalling assent and hesitation. In any case, he seems to ‘wake up’ and emerge from his work at this point, again non-verbally: “He rubbed his nose and looked around at his papers.” Opal has made conversation possible, opened the floor, and yet the two of them have already communicated: pleaded, signaled attention – though slightly grudgingly –, petitioned, hesitatingly and cautiously agreed (or ignored).
Opal’s father, though, is not the only character in DiCamillo’s book who speaks without words:
And he wasn’t but two or three words into his sermon when there was a terrible howl coming from outside. The preacher tried to ignore it. “Today,” he said. “Aaaaaarrooo,” said Winn-Dixie. “Please,” said the preacher. “Arrrroooowwww,” said Winn-Dixie back. “Friends,” said the preacher. “Arrruiiiiipppp,” wailed Winn-Dixie. Everyone turned in their lawn chairs and foldup chairs and looked at one another. “Opal,” said the preacher. “Owwwwwww,” said Winn-Dixie. “Yes, sir?” I said. “Go get that dog!” he yelled. “Yes sir!” I yelled back. (34)
As Opal’s father before, Winn-Dixie makes use of variation in his ‘utterances.’ The dog’s wailing gets longer (“Aaaaaarrooo” to “Arrrroooowwww”) and higher (“Arrruiiiiipppp”; my emphasis) and more urgent. The way the dialogue is designed, he seemingly engages in direct conversation with the preacher: word for word he speaks “back” to him. Winn-Dixie only wants one thing: to “Please” be with his “Friends” “Today.” Human and animal sense and sound intermingle. The humans echo Winn-Dixies distress as they, too, eventually raise their voices and “yell[…]” over the dog’s “Owwwwwww.” Though the dog does not speak, he vocally and sucessfully communicates his emotions – his needs – and by communicating makes the human church service impossible. His communication, his plea, is a speech act in its most radical sense, acting speech, speech that does. With or without words, voice sounds as it means and means as it sounds.
DiCamillo, Kate. Because of Winn-Dixie. 2000. Candlewick Press, 2009.
“hem, int.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/85782. Accessed 21 June 2019.
“hum, int.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/89269. Accessed 21 June 2019.
“uh-huh, adv.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/208576. Accessed 21 June 2019.