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Language and (Bovine) Loss: The joys of searching for one’s cow

rtistic works contained within other artistic works have a long tradition. India claims to have invented many things first (and while on that topic, do search Youtube for clips from Goodness Gracious Me of the 'Everything is Indian' uncle), but in this particular field it is quite possible that we actually did get there first. The Panchatantra and the Jataka tales are stories within stories, or stories about stories. It was almost two millennia later that Shakespeare came up with the plays within Hamlet and A Midsummer's Night Dream. Woody Allen's movies about movies had to wait for the birth of the movie camera – and of Woody Allen, for that matter.

A couple of weeks ago, a German grammar exercise about questions with positive and negative answers made me remember another example: Terry Pratchett's Where's My Cow?, which is a book about a book called Where's My Cow? To add to the confusion, Where's My Cow (the inner one, not the outer one) was first mentioned in another Pratchett book, Thud!, where it forms a major plot point. (The exclamation mark is part of the title, but it is in fact a dark work of fiction, and not a breezy American self-help book.) To keep things sorted out, I'll refer to the fictional Where's My Cow? as WMC from this point forward.

WMC is about someone who has lost their cow, and then tries to locate it by a process of elimination. For example: ‘Where’s my cow? Is that my cow? It goes “Baaaa.” It is a sheep! That’s not my cow!’ That’s not my cow!’

Where's My Cow was released as a companion book to Thud!, and is written and drawn in the style of a young reader, but is full of textual and visual references to existing characters from Pratchett's Discworld books for adults. The book is about Commander Sam Vimes, the head of the police force of the city of Ankh Morpork. Every evening at six, he reads WMC out loud to his son Young Sam, who loves it so much that it has become 'the most chewed book in the nursery.'

MC is about someone who has lost their cow, and then tries to locate it by a process of elimination. For example: 'Where's my cow? Is that my cow? It goes "Baaaa." It is a sheep! That's not my cow!' But also – and with the leap of logic you'd expect from a Terry Pratchett book – 'Where's my cow? Is that my cow? It goes "Hruuugh!" It is a hippopotamus! That's not my cow!'

Vimes sees no point in telling Young Sam about animals who we will only hear going 'sizzle, sizzle' on his dinner plate, so he adapts the story to a search for a missing father on similar lines: 'Where's my daddy? Is that my daddy? It goes "I fink, derefore I am. I fink." It is Sergeant Detritus the troll!'

In Thud!, Vimes finds himself involved in political intrigues, and towards the climax of the book, kidnapped and sequestered in a cave system shortly before six in the evening. Driven into blind fury at being separated from his beloved son, he charges his abductors, bellowing the book's passages so passionately that cosmic resonances carry his reading out to Young Sam, miles away. This means that Thud! has possibly one of the oddest action catchphrases ever: 'THAT! IS!! NOT!!! MY!!!! COW!!!!!' And I say this sincerely: in context, it sounds far more badass than any 'Hasta la vista, baby!'

Returning to what started all this – the German exercise – 'That is not my cow!' translates to 'Das ist nicht meine Kuh!', which sounds badass even without the context of mortal rage and demonic possession.

To my great delight, there is an official German translation called Wo ist meine Kuh? Nine lessons of German are not enough to translate 'hippopotamus', so it was a relief that someone had already done it. That particular passage goes: 'Wo ist meine Kuh? Ist das meine Kuh? Es macht "Hruuuah!" Das ist ein Flußpferd! Das ist nicht meine Kuh!"

Where's My Cow is published by Doubleday.

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