Friday, 20 April 2012

Out of the Mouth of Babes and Sucklings



I'm posting this for the seven or so individuals on the planet who have just been released from solitary and haven't seen it yet. I think it is important to see this kid while she's utterly, utterly adorable, because it looks like you could be wishing she'd shut her insufferably opinionated gap some twenty years from now. All toddlers go through a babbling stage when they try out various sound combinations, but few, I suspect, do it with this degree of intensity. This is not mere babble, it's rant.

She produces only one recognisable phrase: 'da ba' for 'the bath'. Do you know what your first identifiable utterance was? Mine, at 18 months or so, was 'so long'. My mum was with a bunch of friends, one of whom took her leave.

'Right. I'm off. So long.'

I said: 'So long'.

'Did that bleddy kid just say 'so long'?

Objects were waved in front of me, pictures, bendy toys and God knows what, and their names elicited. My second recorded utterance was 'Popeye'.

I cannot remember a time when my niece wasn't highly articulate. When she was but a babe in arms she could say what you were merely thinking. After a shopping expedition my sister, Danielle on one arm and a bag of groceries on the other, would be struggling to unlock the recalcitrant front door, the baby snarling 'bleddy door. Bleddy 'ell. Bleddy rotten door' on her behalf. Once, aged about two, she indicated to me in passing my nephew's carry-cot on the dining-room table and said casually 'sodding cat's been in that.'  

Like all kids, my niece went through that stage of over-generalising the rules of grammar that results in the rather sensible ironing out of irregularity: 'we goed', 'two mans', that sort of thing. The same over-generalising of meaning can apply to vocabulary items. When I cooked Danielle a Chinese dish with stir-fried chicken and peppers, we weren't sure if this would be appreciated or not. It met with approval, slightly tempered: 'it's nice, but can I rub them green things out?' A potentially embarrassing over-generalisation was her interpretation of the word 'doggy'. My parents had at the time a large, boisterous and slightly deranged mongrel which was confined behind a gate in the back garden whenever my niece was at their house. Danielle saw only his black face peering at her from the bottom of the garden steps and would designate him 'doggy' every time he barked at her. Soon she began to say 'doggy' when people passed by the living room window, and it soon became clear that she was applying the term only to Pakistanis and Jamaicans. It seems then that in her mind 'doggy' meant 'anything with a black face'.

My nephew's first attempt at 'spider' came out as 'pie-pice', and since I come from a family that is sickeningly sentimental about animals and routinely addresses them with baby-talk, I still find myself every spidery September coaxing arachnids under wineglasses with 'come on, pie-pice, so's I can put you outside...' Then I suffer agonies of guilt when I slide a piece of paper under the glass and slice its legs off.

'I know what vowels are, Nana,' my six year-old nephew told my mum.

'Oh yeah? What are they?'

'Them little round things behind yer willy.'

When Danielle was about three, I was once asking her why she had, without provocation, nearly knocked her small brother unconscious by braining him with a heavy toy train. 'Cos when he's a big boy,' she said reasonably, 'he'll hit me.' The nephew and niece are now in their early and mid-twenties respectively, he a PhD student, she a teacher, so the language manglings are unfortunately no more, nor has Danielle's prediction of fraternal violence come true.

Kids do come up with some very odd justifications for belting one another. In Kalamata one of my students aged 11 was called to account for having decked a small female classmate.

'It's OK,' he said. 'We're related.'

5 comments:

Candy said...

Watching this little girl is a joy. And your post is just delightful. I cannot recall my first word, but I DO recall saying "boy stuck" when I could heft my brother's pram over the doorstep. It's been one of my stock remarks ever since. My own children were fairly articulate, but the only thing worth repeating was Pam's attempt at "dog": "God", she kept saying.

Scarlet's mum said...

My friend's six-year-old daughter said to her paternal grandmother: "My mummy says she doesn't understand why you have to rule our lives."

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks apiece for commenting. You've both reminded me of other stuff to bung in this post!

Sarah said...

Great post!

My senior niece, who is now 18 and Officially Too Cool for Everything produced this aged about 3.

Me:Where did you go?
Nell: We did go to the park.

A fine medieval ring to it, no?

Plus, of course:

Nell (pointing): Gimme a sandwich.
Me (good middleclass training): What's the magic word?
Nell: Abracadabra?

Vilges Suola said...

Great - I like the 'magic word' bit. I knew a couple of kids in Greece who were brought up bilingual, and both of them used the 'do' auxiliary for present simple: 'I did play tavli [= backgammon] with my daddy and I did win.'

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