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COMMITMENTS : The 'Uhhs' and 'Murrs' of Everyday Pillow Talk


Everybody's talking about talking.

There are books about how men and women communicate at work, how we communicate in relationships, even how we communicate during sex. (On this last, I'd like to stick with "thumbs up, thumbs down," but I digress.)

Amazingly, no one has written anything about how couples communicate unconsciously.

I don't mean sub consciously, I mean un consciously--as in sound asleep.

My girlfriend and I have lived together for almost two years. We're both typical overworked, overbooked, careering urbanites, yet we manage to spend about 11 hours a day together.

Unfortunately, during about 9 1/2 of those 11 hours, one or both of us is sleeping, trying to get to sleep or trying to wake up.

We either had to learn to communicate in our sleep or spend all our waking hours managing the mundane affairs of the household, leaving no time at all to debate the important issues of the day. ("What do you want for dinner?" "I don't care. Whatever you want." "Why is it always up to me?" Et cetera.)

For example, every night, we have this call-and-response, where the one of us who is already asleep interviews the one who is just coming to bed. The entire interview is conducted in sleep language.

"Jock door?" the sleeping one asks.

"Yes, the back door is locked."


"Yes, dear, I brought the dog in."


"I don't know if he did or not. It's dark outside."

The next morning, the conversation goes something like this:

"Tie zit?"

"About 8."

"Ga gup."

"Yes, it's time for you to get up."


"In the dining room."

The longer you are together, the more sophisticated your sleep vocabulary becomes.

My girlfriend likes to read in bed, but if she reads for too long, she'll get a grumpy "Turn on th' light" from somewhere under my pillow.

Sure, this may sound like I'm saying, "Turn on the light." But what I'm actually saying is, "Turn off the light."

You see, saying the word off would require a major exhalation of breath, which a nodding-off person isn't capable of performing without waking up completely.

Therefore, since the light is already on, I trust my partner will understand that I'm asking her to turn it off. Really, in a good relationship, the only word that has to be somewhat intelligible is light.

Some of our sleep language isn't intelligible at all, just mutually agreed-upon, representational sounds.

"Murr" is our agreed-upon sound for "I love you," while "Uhh" can either mean "I love you too," or "I heartily concur," depending on the context.

We're getting pretty good at this. Soon, I expect we will be able to plan our vacations, revise our budget and name our children without either of us actually having to wake up.

I doubt, however, if we'll ever get as good as my parents. They came to stay with us a few weeks ago, and I marveled at their vast lexicon, the subtle nuances of their sleep-grunts, slurs and murmurs. After 30 years of marriage, my parents can have entire, witty conversations in their sleep.

Dad, napping on the couch: "Murnah gon get a serr onnet?" ("Do you realize we are the only couple we know that isn't on the Internet?")

Mom, dozing on the other couch: "Svurr ga norg murf attack." ("We'll have to trade in our eight-track.")

Occasionally, of course, even sleep communication can break down.

The other night I told my girlfriend, "Dan dog dome ga morn," by which I meant, "If that damn dog doesn't stop messing in the house, I'm going to get him a catheter and hang it out the window."

She replied: "Murr."

Clearly, there was nothing for me to say except: "Uhh."

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