posts tagged with 'language'

Lijah language at two-and-a-half

Lijah is growing up—moving from toddler stage to pre-schooler in the ever finer gradations of American marketing—and he's starting to lose some of his cutest mispronunciations. He can say Ls now, for example, when he remembers; so no more "yibary" (or "Yaya" to refer to himself). I wish we were videoing him all the time.

But he does say a lot of words—talks all the time he can get a word in edgewise in our talky home—so there are still lots of language features of note. One interesting development is how he's started changing the "ah" sound at the end of polysyllabic words to more of an "aow". We hear it most in "Mamaow" and "bananaow" (hundreds of times a day each) but it also occurs in less frequently spoken words like "Dadaow".

Why does he do it? I have no idea. Generally, he tends to get less intelligible when he speaks with greater emphasis (no Lijah, talking without closing your mouth does not actually make you more persuasive), and it may be his latest quirk comes from something like that. He also seems to be pretty interested in the sound of words generally, and in the sound of his own voice, so maybe he just likes the effect.

Something else that's been amusing us lately as the weather turns is how he talks about being cold. Until recently he pronounced /k/ as /t/, like the baby polar bear in the joke ("my tail is told"), so when he copied Zion's exaggerated fake-shivering it came out as, "I'm t-t-t-told!". He's got the /k/ now, but I guess he internalized the beginning of that stock saying as /t/ so recently we've heard, several times, "I'm t-t-t-cold!". Although I laughed in delight the first time and told Leah about it, in Lijah's hearing, so it could be he's doing it on purpose now for effect. And I don't have any idea how aware he is when he adds even more emphasis: "I'm t-t-t-freezing!"

Probably pretty aware. Look out for more jokes coming soon.



No, this post isn't about catching the end of the blueberry harvest: we did one trip at the beginning of the season and were satisfied with the 17 pounds we brought home. Instead, it's about Lijah's latest demand.

Two-year-olds are interesting: they spend a lot of time expanding their independence, but when they want babying they want it now! When Harvey and Zion were that age, they asked for "uppy" when they wanted to be carried. Sometimes "I want uppy!", but mostly just "uppy!" Or "UPPY!!!" Lijah will have nothing to do with such baby-talk: with him the demand is simply, "PICK!!"

That's short for "pick me up", of course; I suppose he doesn't have the solid grounding in syntax and pragmatics to know why his shortening doesn't make sense. Though it's certainly not like he can't make perfectly respectable sentences when he's a little calmer, like "I'm drawin a knight with a sword fightin a monster with a sword". Just a couple minutes ago he was failing to go to sleep and Leah called me in to hear his joke. "Why did the chicken cross the playground?" he asked me.

I know that one! "To get to the other slide!"

"No, I was goin to say that part! Why did the chicken cross the playground?"


"Because he wanted to get to the other slide!" Or maybe he said side. It's actually impossible to distinguish, the way he talks, so that joke is maybe not the best one for him to tell. (In case you never heard it before, it's not original to him: he got it from Harvey, who got it from a book.)

In any case, all that is to say he speaks pretty well most of the time, which is why it seems all the funnier—or more infuriating, depending on circumstances—to hear him crying repeatedly, "pick! PICK!!"


Lijah's language today

I had a delightful time playing with Lijah early this morning, before the other boys were up and while Mama got some well-deserved time to exercise outside of the house. His vocabulary and sentence structure are expanding by leaps and bounds—which is just what he needs to show off his distinctive personality.

Lijah with his bike helmet on and swim goggles pushed up on his forehead

a great summer look

This morning the game was knights. A small portion went like this:

Lijah: "I put you in the dungeon with the baby dragon. Lock lock lock. You locked up!"

Me: "Oh no! The dragon will eat me!"

L: "No he won't do anything bad to you. He won't eat you or burn you with his fire or... put something on your head."

Of course, I've standardized the spelling—his language may be sparkling, but his speech is still a little impenetrable! But the grammar and everything else is all his. It's very impressive; too bad no one else can understand him!


formal "T"

Zion's language is vastly more conventional than it was when he was two—as you'd expect! Except when he's using his cutesy baby voice (which isn't more than half the time) his speech pretty much follows the normal patterns of American English (since we're in Boston he doesn't lose points for dropping his Rs). As he adapts to conventional language, it's interesting to notice examples of hypercorrection he makes—most notably his use of /t/ to replace /d/ when he wants to sound official. "Here comes Spiterman!", as he pronounced very distinctly in his announcer voice this morning.

It makes perfect sense as a replacement. Clearly, he's noticed that our dialect effectively has a /d/ /t/ merger in many cases: in an intervocalic position the two sound exactly the same. He knows when we say "butter" it sounds like there's a D in the middle of the word, but also that it's really a T: a T that one might pronounce when one was being particularly formal. His "Spiterman" T replaces an identical sound—one that just happens to be spelled with a D.

If I were to draw a larger point from his little mix-up, its that we sometimes give kids too little credit: we point out all the things they do "wrong" without very often noticing why they're making a particular mistake—or realizing the tremendous amount of processing and development they're doing in order to come up with a way to systematize the craziness around them.

But never mind that, the real point is that Zion is awesome and I wish I could record everything he says to enjoy later. The things he says when he's not whining, that is.


more than one roof

I spent most of today in a first grade classroom, and one of the things I helped the kids with was developing a programmatic understanding of pluralization in English. You know, s after most words; when a word ends with consonant-y "drop the y and add ies"; and the rule for when you need to add es. The style in schools now is to teach things like that explicitly, which is fine—there was a penguin on the printed sheet to provide a minimal amount of fun, and I don't think anyone felt their time was too much wasted. But in real life, pluralization is pretty automatic (see "wug test"). We don't really need to remember that es follows x, s, or ch... it just seems to make sense.

Of course, we learn those patterns automatically as young people, and it's possible for language learners to overgeneralize. Zion does! And when I think about it, I totally agree with him. He hears "batches" and thinks, fine, how about "pathes"? And if th, why not f as well? I'm a big fan of "roofes" (pronounced roofiz), which I think is yards better than the current confusion. Is it "roofs"? "rooves"? Horses have "hooves", right? Hmm, what was that I said about automatic pluralization? I take it all back. Can I have some direct instruction please?


toddler etymologies

Harvey and Zion—especially Zion—are in love with explaining compound words and two-word phrases. It started with pancakes: Zion asked one day a couple months ago, "Why they called pancakes?", and I told him it was because they're like cakes and they're cooked in a pan. He continues to delight in the knowledge, and every Saturday I get to hear that "They called pancakes cause they cakes, an they in a pan!!"—only text can't convey the glee with which he pronounces those words.

But he doesn't limit himself to repeating explanations that I told him. He took the pattern and ran with it: "Iss called dog food cause iss food, an iss for a dog!"; "they called rain boots cause they boots, an you wear them in the rain!"; and so on and so forth. It's pretty charming.

You see I make some attempt to reproduce Zion's speech in "eye dialect" form, but I could go still further: for example, he doesn't really pronounce /th/ so "them" is really more like /dem/. Which leads to another amusing point of Zion language that I noticed the other day: the fact that he's mis-analyzed "dessert" as "the zert", and so says things like "after my carrots can I have some zert?"

All this goes to show how much hard serious work is going on in his toddler brain all the time as he tries to figure out this crazy language of ours. Tries, and does: folks have been remarking lately on how much more he's talking, and we've noticed it too. He's more confident with language in the last couple months, both in the range and variety of his sentences and the range and variety of other people he's willing to talk to. Language learning is working! And if he's still working hard, just imagine how much processing is going on in Elijah's brain right now... no wonder he sleeps so much!


multipurpose sound

I mentioned earlier that Zion says his "s"s as /w/. That remains the case in almost every instance. But really it's not just "s" that gets the /w/ treatment: he uses /w/ for lots of sounds, including "sh", "r", and "f". Thus in Zion language "I saw that fox and that rabbit" becomes "I waw dat wox an dat wabbit." "Shoes" are "woos". "Finger" is "wingew". It's a wonder we can understand him at all! But we're kind of used to it by now.

And of course I should have written the title of this post as "muhtipuhpus wownd". I don't know if that would have been clear, though.

Addendum, Oct. 25: Without making a whole new post I wanted to describe a little bit more of Zion language. When "l" appears at the end of the word he makes it into almost a /d/ sound, and also changes the vowel value preceding it a little bit to compensate; thus "bowl" comes out as something like "bood". I was noticing this evening that on words like "full" he manages to replace every single normal English sound with pure Zionese, so it sounds like "woohd" (I add the "h" to make sure you know that the "oo" is long like in "spoon", and not just "wood"... stupid English orthography).


affirmative variation

Zion in the darkish bedroom looking at the camera

as he is now

For quite a while after he started talking, Zion didn't say "yes". Not that he only said no to everything, but when he wanted to express his assent he'd invariably use "ah" instead. Or maybe I should render in "ahn"; it's pretty nasal, like the first syllable of "uh-huh". We got used to it pretty quickly; the only problem was how hard it proved to be to distinguish a teary overwhelmed "ah" from any of the other "ahhhh"s involved in his expressions of violent unhappiness. But he cries less now than he once did (and isn't very good at faking it yet), and also has improved in his diction. For a few days his affirmative of chose was "wah", but he's been working on his consonants and now can produce a very convincing "yeah". It's a big milestone!

Speaking of consonants, I seem never to have mentioned in these pages how he tends to pronounce "s" as /w/. When it's in a cluster he leaves it out altogether, of course, so "stop" sounds like /top/ and "spit" like /pit/, but in isolation it comes out entirely w-like. "Wofa" and "wailboat" and, my personal favorite, "woop!" for soup. But even that will soon be a thing of the past; today, playing with his felt Simon the Zealot toy figure (featured—and explained—in this post), he couldn't remember his "wolder's" name (Simon has a sword and shield). When I reminded him, he said, "yeah, Simon the Wolder." 50% accuracy! (on that one phoneme, that is; I won't vouch for the precise accuracy of his /th/ or /l/).

Also somewhat language related, but on a much higher level, he's finally recognized my existence as a caregiver. The other day he was playing by himself and had some difficulty with a toy. "Dada!" he called. "Mama! Dada or Mama!" Be still, my heart.


"I can't!"

Zion is a very capable child. He can do many things, and he tries gamely to do many things for himself that he can't actually manage. Despite that, one of the phrases we hear most often from him is "I can't!". I wish I had audio to give you the full effect; it's kind of a whine, in that the vowel sound is drawn out, but given the context it's generally not annoying, because mostly it's true. He is very small, after all. It's often rather endearing, actually.

Even better than the plain version are some recent extensions. Food he prefers not to eat? "I can't like it!" Would rather not have sunblock on? "I can't want it!" I'm not sure if he's aware of any semantic distinction between his speech patterns and a more traditional formulation—using "don't", probably—but it does make me wonder if there's any psychological insight to be gained from analysis of his unique syntax.

go big or go home

We haven't said as much as we should have in these pages about Zion's language, which is really coming into its own lately. As is fitting for a small younger brother, one of his most significant concerns is for bigness. Naturally he compares the size of things with words and appropriate intonation—"leetew neigh, BIG BIG neigh!"—but he also uses big to make sure he gets his due. "Me wan BIG coffee!", for example, or "No not littew juice, BIG juice!" (in both cases big refers not to the absolute size of the beverage but the relative concentration of his valued ingredient to the fillers we insist on foisting on him). Or "Moe wibbot! Me wan BIG wibbot!" (and only the close association of that last word with our breakfast of pancakes allows us any chance at understanding it!). Yes, this little boy knows what he deserves, and in almost all cases it's big—unless it's the bottle he's still clinging to: "no, me littew littew bottew!"