O tasty Tweety! O Tweety, my prey!

… What a delicious Tweety you are!

The 7/24 Mother Goose and Grimm strip, with a police line-up of cartoon cats, for little Tweety to pick out the threatening pussy cat that he thought he saw:

(#1) The potential pussy predator perps on parade, left to right: 1 the Cat in the Hat (Dr. Seuss picture book), 2 Stimpy (Ren & Stimpy tv animation), 3 Sylvester (Looney Tunes film animation), 4 Catbert (Dilbert strip), 5 Attila (MGG strip — note self-reference), 6 Garfield (Garfield strip)

The number of domestic cats in cartoons is mind-boggling — there are tons of lists on the net — and then there are all those other cartoon felines: tigers, panthers, lions, leopards, and so on. Out of these thousands, the cops rounded up the six guys above — all male, as nearly all cartoon cats are, despite the general cultural default that dogs are male, cats female — as the miscreant. (It might be that male is the unmarked sex for anthropomorphic creatures in cartoons as for human beings in many contexts; females appear only when their sex is somehow especially relevant to the cartoon.) And that miscreant, the smirking Sylvester, is the only one of the six known as a predator on birds, though in real life, domestic cats are stunningly effective avian predators, killing billions of birds annually.

A characteristic encounter between Sylvester and Tweety:

(#2) From an episode of The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries (Wikipedia link  to the 1990s Warner Bros. tv series): Sylvester proposing to snack on Tweety

About Tweety (and his pairing with Sylvester). An anthropomorphic canary, male, but just a little kid. With a lot of stereotypical child phonology. From Wikipedia:

Tweety is a yellow canary in the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of animated cartoons. The name “Tweety” is a play on words, as it originally meant “sweetie”, along with “tweet” being an English onomatopoeia for the sounds of birds. His characteristics are based on Red Skelton’s famous “Junior the Mean Widdle Kid.” He appeared in 46 cartoons during the golden age, made between 1942 and 1962.

Despite the perceptions that people may hold, owing to the long eyelashes and high-pitched voice (which Mel Blanc provided), Tweety is male although his ambiguity was played with.

… Many of Mel Blanc’s characters are known for speech impediments. One of Tweety’s most noticeable is that /s/, /k/, and /g/ are changed to /t/, /d/, or (final s) /θ/; for example, “pussy cat” comes out as “putty tat”, later rendered “puddy tat”, “Granny” comes out as “Dwanny” and “sweetie pie” comes out as “tweetie pie” …, hence his name. He also has trouble with liquid consonants: as with Elmer Fudd, /l/ and /r/ come out as /w/. In Canary Row and Putty Tat Trouble, he begins the cartoon by singing a song about himself, “I’m a tweet wittow biwd in a diwded tage; Tweety’th my name but I don’t know my age, I don’t have to wuwy and dat is dat; I’m tafe in hewe fwom dat ol’ putty tat.” (Translation: “I’m a sweet little bird in a gilded cage…”) Aside from this speech challenge, Tweety’s voice is that of Bugs Bunny’s, one speed up

… Sylvester and Tweety proved to be one of the most notable pairings in animation history. Most of their cartoons followed a standard formula:

— Sylvester wanting to catch and eat Tweety, but some major obstacle stands in his way – usually Granny or her bulldog Hector (or occasionally, numerous bulldogs, or another cat who also wants to catch and eat Tweety).

— Tweety saying his signature lines “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!” and “I did! I did taw a puddy tat!” (Originally “I did! I taw a puddy tat!”, but the extra “did” got inserted somehow). Eventually, someone must have commented on the grammar of “…did taw…”; in later cartoons, Tweety says “I did! I did tee a puddy tat!”.

(#3) In my 9/16/12 posting “Cartoon diagramming”, some dscussion of Tweety Bird and Sylvester and “I tawt I taw a puddy tat”; and, yes, that’s a non-standard Reed-Kellogg sentence diagram

— Sylvester spending the entire film using progressively more elaborate schemes or devices to catch Tweety, similar to Wile E. Coyote in his ongoing efforts to catch the Road Runner, Tom’s attempts to catch Jerry, and the Aardvark’s attempts to catch the Ant. Of course, each of his tricks fail, either due to their flaws or, more often than not, because of intervention by either Hector the Bulldog or an indignant Granny (voiced by Bea Benaderet and later June Foray), or after Tweety steers the enemy toward them or another device (such as off the ledge of a tall building or an oncoming train).

Predator-prey note: cats and birds. From the abstract of “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States” by Scott R. Loss, Tom Will & Peter P. Marra, Nature Communications vol. 4, article 1396 (published 1/29/13):

We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually. Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought

Cats really love birds … to eat. See #2 above.

Meanwhile, in the land where the Bong-Tree grows. My title is the verse of a (male) cat (Sylvester) predator pursuing a (male) bird (Tweety) prey:

O tasty Tweety! O Tweety, my prey, / What a delicious Tweety you are!

But this is a parody, of a song addressed by a (male) bird (Owl) suitor to the (female) cat (Pussy) object of his adoration:

O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love, / What a beautiful Pussy you are!

This is a bird that really loves a cat … to be his romantic partner. In Edward Lear’s illustration:

(#4) The owl and the pussy-cat, illustration by Edward Lear from his Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets (1871) (image © Dover Publications); note the honey, and plenty of money

Edward Lear was of course not unaware of cats’ predatory nature — that a real cat (of either sex) would happily eviscerate any owl they could get their claws into, and no ballad on the guitar would avert the carnage — but “The Owl and the Pussycat” comes not from the real world, but from Lear’s dream world, in which many things are transformed and reversed, while the strangest things — going to sea for a year and a day in a pea-green boat, with the honey and money; buying as a wedding ring the ring from the end of a pig’s nose; getting married by a turkey; the wedding dinner of mince and quince, eaten with a runcible spoon — are treated as normal, everyday, routine.

So one way to read the poem is as a tale of courtship (by a male, of a female, as in the conventional real world) and marriage, with all the details remarkable — a bird suitor of a cat, who adores the bird in return (“Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl! /   How charmingly sweet you sing!”) and urges their marriage, and so on — but everything treated as if it  were, oh I don’t know, a report on What We Did On Our Summer Vacation.

Then it turns out that there might be a further twist in this story. For which I turn to an Adam Gopnik piece in The New Yorker‘s 4/23/18 issue, “The sense beneath Edward Lear’s nonsense: For the artist, parody was a vehicle for the renewal of feeling” (a long essay-review of Jenny Uglow’s Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense) — a sympathetic and perceptive treatment of Lear’s art (his drawings and paintings) and his nonsense, treating him as a consummate insider (he associated, both socially and professionally, with pretty much everybody of significance in Victorian England) who was also secretly very much an outsider, and a restless traveler, especially in Italy and Greece (and who suffered from epilepsy and melancholia through all of this).

(#4) The Road to the Pyramids at Giza,” by Edward Lear (photo: Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty)

From early in Gopnik’s piece:

What is eloquent and astonishing in Uglow’s biography is her demonstration of how embedded Lear was in Victorian art and culture.

And much later, a recognition that Lear’s affective and sexual attachments were to other men, which might have been managed through his travels abroad. But, Gopnik tells us:

Abroad, it was possible for men to live more or less openly as homosexuals — if not “out” as lovers, then certainly enjoying the kind of intimate male friendship that was so much a part of Victorian values, the kind that Tennyson had celebrated in his relationship with Arthur Henry Hallam in the most famous of all Victorian poems, “In Memoriam.” Lear tried repeatedly to make that kind of lasting connection with a male companion, and seems always to have failed.

Frank Lushington, a Cambridge-educated young man who became a successful lawyer, was one of the most intense of these amours. On an 1855 trip to Corfu, which Lear clearly intended as a courting expedition, Lushington relegated Lear to the friend zone, seeing him only, Uglow says, as “an older, kindly, amusing mentor.” It must have been agonizing, and it nearly broke Lear’s heart.

So we might also see #4 as depicting Lear serenading Lushington (or someone like him).

2 Responses to “O tasty Tweety! O Tweety, my prey!”

  1. Michael Newman Says:

    That’s quite a voyage from Looney Toons to Edward Lear’s unrequited loves.

  2. Michael Newman Says:

    Actually, linguistically the most interesting thing to me is Mel Blanc’s use of old school NYCE pronunciations (well not old school in his day, but still quite marked). Especially interesting is the backed PRICE nucleus in “I.” This is an example of a Canadian raising type phenomenon that Labov missed in his Lower East Side study. He never realized that it was limited to vowels in non-CR positions (not before voiceless obstruents) such as “I.” In words like ‘rice,” “Mike” or “fight” (along with ‘spider,’ don’t ask) the nucleus remains central. The probable reason is because the front nucleus pair MOUTH has no such split. Jonathan Kaye has a phonological analysis of this split, and I observed that it has been replaced by a more typical CR configuration with the nucleus of segments affected actually raised as is common throughout much of the northern US. Among the youngest speakers, I’ve noticed the MOUTH set is also being affected. So we’re all turning Canadian.

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