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Language from the mouths of children

By on September 28, 2020 in Columnist with 1 Comment

By Lief Carlsen

I’m no linguist. I speak English well enough, Spanish passably well, and German just a little. Nothing remarkable there. 

But what I do have is a fascination for words, specifically with the way young children use them and acquire them. 

Looking back, I can see many examples of how all my life my ears have perked up at the humorous and endearing way children use and abuse language.

My younger brother, Kurt, provided me with a host of these linguistic delicacies. My favorite was the “cigarette should” episode. 

Back in the early 1960s, when we were kids, Winston cigarettes were advertised on television with a catchy jingle that included the lyrics “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” 

Understood, but not actually uttered in this jingle, was the verb “taste” at the end of that line. 

Mimicry of famous people and television personalities being a favorite pastime in our family, and Kurt being an ardent participant in this pastime, he would sometimes strike a pose of faux sophistication like a TV celebrity by holding an imaginary cigarette dangling in his fingers. He would inform his audience that he was smoking a “Cigarette Should.” 

We all thought this was hilarious, but six-year-old Kurt, it dawned on me, believed that a “Cigarette Should” was an actual entity, the understood component of the predicate having escaped him.

Another younger brother, Hans, once presented a fine example of the limitations of child speak. (I should add that I am not proud of my role in this episode.) Hans was quite young when this occurred. My memory of it has him still sitting in a high chair.

The precipitating event on this occasion involved me standing in front of my captive little brother, contorting my face in various gruesome expressions which elicited howls of protest from Hans, all to my delight. 

Mom was standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes, her back to us. When Hans desperately and tearfully appealed to Mom with the words “Mommy, Lief is looking at me!” Mom innocently replied something to the effect that there was nothing wrong with one person looking at another — to which I gleefully continued to pepper little Hans with more gruesome expressions and Hans continued to beg for mercy.

Word mangling is commonplace among young children. Every family has their examples. An abbreviated list of examples from my family includes:

“tratcher” = tractor

“rivo” = river

“cerdor” = cereal

“munkchip” = chipmunk

“mosp” = wasp or moth

One of my nephews had trouble pronouncing the “r” sound when he was young. The closest he could come was the “w” sound. Predictably, this resulted in his sister, Irene, known in the family as Reenie, being tagged as “Weenie.”

Does “urine” sound like “your name”? Apparently our son Matthew thought so. 

He was probably 12 years old and sitting at the dining room table dutifully doing his homework one evening when his younger sister, Rachel, aged about five, proudly walked up to him and asked “Do you know what urine is?” 

She had just learned this new word. (I don’t remember the circumstances for that.) Matthew, somewhat perplexed by such an off-the-wall inquiry, replied “What?”

Rachel then gleefully informed him that it means “pee!” 

To this, and with considerable indignation, Matthew replied “Well your name is poo!”

It took me a moment to decipher the line of thinking that was behind Matthew’s indignation.

The story of my own acquisition of language is not without twists and turns. 

According to family legend, I was unusually late learning to speak. (So was Albert Einstein, I should add). I was non-verbal so late into my childhood that my parents feared I was mentally retarded. 

When I eventually did begin to speak, they tell me, I didn’t venture forth with single words like “Momma” or “doggie.” I amazed everyone by all of a sudden speaking in complete sentences. 

To my parents it seemed I had been secretly practicing all along, waiting for the perfect moment to spring my accomplishment on the world. 

The process was to repeat itself when I learned to read. After getting off to a very slow start (two years in the lowest reading group), I suddenly rocketed to the head of the class in third grade.

Our youngest son, Nicholas, may have inherited some of my unusual approach to language. 

Nicholas is now an accomplished man of the world but when he was first venturing into language, he had the peculiar habit of speaking a phrase aloud and then repeating the phrase to himself in a whisper. 

Was he checking himself for error? Did he simply enjoy the sound of his own words? No one knows. He has no memory of it.

Nicholas has partial color blindness, something we began to suspect when he was asked about his “wannie.” Wannie was his word for a small comfort blanket that he carried everywhere as a toddler. 

 “What color is your wannie?” I asked.

 “Me wannie wed. Me wannie bwue. Me wike it,” was his response. His wannie was green and white.

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  1. Rachel says:

    Ahhhhh, you had me laughing out loud on that article!

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