Sunday, 8 November 2009

Of Whupticks and Nunnies

Professor Geoffrey Pullum over at Language Log links to this article about kids, Lego, and the human need to have names for all objects in the immediate environment. If a specific Lego shape has no hitherto agreed-upon name that you know of, you can give it one: ‘one of those four-er flat hinge-y bits’ will designate it perfectly well.

Reading this reminded me of my niece when she was two. If she lacked the word for an object or action, she simply coined one. Once, when she was sitting on the floor poking holes into a lump of plasticine with a drum stick, she told me ‘this is a chommer.’

‘What do you do with a chommer?’ I asked

Dumb question. ‘I chom fings wiv it,’ she said, indulgently.

On another occasion she had invented a mode of progression involving linking the hands behind the knees, descending into a squat, and from this position, leaping forwards across the dining room. This is easy when you are two.

‘I’m whupticking’ she said. ‘Mummy, you whuptick over there, and I’ll whuptick over here.’

Another little girl of my acquaintance, who always had her Linus blanket trailing behind her, had a habit of rubbing all four of its satin edges in rotation over her mouth and nose. This was especially necessary if the blanket had been washed or replaced. ‘I’ve nunnied it now,’ she’d say, on completion of the process. The blanket was now impregnated with her essence, among other things, and thus truly hers.

I had a private vocabulary as a kid, now largely forgotten, probably because it was never spoken aloud. There’s a smell, one that develops in those noisy party blow-outs after they get a bit damp with saliva, and I must have been about five when I christened this smell ‘min’. It is instantly recognisable to me still as the smell of a sneeze or certain damp, plastic kiddies’ bath toys. It also explains my dislike of the name ‘Minnie’ as a diminutive of Jasmine, unfortunately applied to another little kid I know.

Anyway. In January I shall probably be forced to listen yet again to Greeks telling me how the boorish nations of the north (and the Albanians, that barbarian breed of criminal Untermenschen) ‘stole’ words from Greek because the concepts enshrined in those words would otherwise be inexpressible and inaccessible to them. I shall have a go at presenting this evidence from children’s linguistic creativity in support of the view that concepts must exist first or there would be no need for language at all. Language does not shape your mind, your mind shapes language, and some people are simply better equipped than others to mould it, regardless of ethnicity.


Mediterranean kiwi said...

my daughter is 7, and she still makes up words (in greek) when she can't think of the word she needs when she's speaking!

vilges suola said...

Brilliant! Have you got any examples? I'd like to see how it's done in Greek.

Michael said...

First, your niece sounds like a charm.

I didn't know Minnie was a diminution of Jasmine. Thanks for enlightening me.

I will think of you at every drunken party where there's a horrible min.

Do you hate it too?
"If you're going through Hell, keep going."

vilges suola said...

She is. I don't think she'd thank me for publishing this now she's 23though.

Maybe 'min' will find itself in the OED now the millions of readers of this blog know what it means.

Still have not managed to post a link on a comment yet - don't know what I am doing wrong.

Michael said...

This is what I put at the end of all of my comments:

Just use my signature at the bottom of this comment as reference to see where to insert your information instead. It's trial and error.

Do you hate it too?
"If you're going through Hell, keep going."

vilges suola said...

Ok, thanks, Michael, I'll try it.


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