Colonel Cornpone and Whiny Little Alfie

By Bill Hall

Alfie is apparently a castrato. He is a fully grown male cat with a high-pitched, unintentionally whiny voice that he uses repeatedly until you want to put a sock in his face.

You’ve probably heard of the original human castrati, the European boys who were castrated up until the middle of the 19th century to preserve their high choir voices into adulthood. In fact, one of the last of them, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), who sang in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, was recorded early in the 20th century. The recording is still available. It’s a little hard to gauge the voice because the recording quality if so low that any of us might sound strange given the rudimentary technology. Nonetheless, the voice has an eerie, unearthly quality, kind of male and female at the same time, with overtones of Martian.

Something similar apparently happened to the voice of our Alfie, a borderline Siamese, who was neutered early in life at a time no different from the age of other cats we have had adjusted. But those cats didn’t get stuck vocally in kitten gear. The other cats developed normal mature cat voices.

Maybe this is Alfie’s normal male cat voice, but it is strangely immature nonetheless. This grown male cat has the high, thin voice of a kitten -- and the annoying habit of using it constantly.

When he enters a room and meows repeatedly -- "talking," as Siamese are inclined to do -- it takes on the sound of a child whining over and over again, something like the incessant "Are we there yet?" of kids in a car on a long trip.

However, I don’t think Alfie is actually whining. I think he’s just meowing repeatedly, the way Siamese do. And usually, with a lower pitch, that can be a hoot. I have known several Siamese who would meow each time you provided a pause. You could say something and wait a moment and they would meow. Say something else and wait again and they would meow again.

It sounds like a conversation with a short, hairy guy who mumbles so much you can’t quite make out the words.

I think Siamese talking is all Alfie is doing and he has no idea that he sounds like a whiner. That’s just his particular accent. And of course, that reminds me of Lyndon Johnson and British people.

Human accents can also send false signals. For instance, Lyndon Johnson had that sort of Texas accent that sounds to people from other places like the stereotypical hick accent, an impression probably put in our heads by the movies. In fact, some people used to call Johnson Colonel Cornpone because of his smarmy drawl.

He did have a crude social edge to him, hiking up his shirt and showing an operation scar to one and all, things like that. But Lyndon was no dummy. He was a former elementary school teacher, exceedingly well read and smart as a whip in most respects, if not always wise.

To make matters worse for him, he had adopted the habit of many politicians of trying to slip into the everyday vernacular of the people he represented. He could throw in an "ain’t" now and then and knock the G’s off "ing" endings -- "fishin’ and huntin’." And he would kind of slur his words in ways he imagined to be common speak.

Peter Lisagor, the late Washington reporter for the Chicago Daily News, once referred to Johnson as "that bogus hick." He meant Johnson was trying to hide his brains under simplified language to avoid any indications he might have a high and mighty opinion of himself.

Nonetheless, his natural drawl, which he came by honestly from childhood, made him sound dumber to a bigoted ear than he was.

On the other hand, I have known people with upscale British accents who created a false impression of high intelligence and great learning. For instance, I know one man who sounds quite a bit like Tony Blair, the British prime minister, with overtones of Sir Laurence Olivier. It is the fancy accent of his family.

But he is a person of ordinary tastes. He would run shrieking in horror from Shakespeare and would rather read a magazine on hotrods than anything else. This snooty sounding man with the British accent enjoys nothing more than kicking up his heels in a honky tonk to some twangy country music. He’s a good ol’ beer boy with a cognac voice.

Alfie is like that. We’ve got a lion but he sings with the catstrati.



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