Posts Tagged ‘language’

Orange peelNow that Maya has mastered the art of moving about, her next challenge is communication.  She only speaks about half a dozen words so far, but no one is worried in any official capacity because she also has learned at least 50 signs (signs, as in American Sign Language), at least twenty or so of which she uses daily.

Hold your hands in front of your face, palms facing you.  Now wiggle your fingers.  You’ve just made the sign for “wait.”  I was surprised at how quickly she took to this sign, since it’s more conceptual than most of the other signs we’ve learned, which are mostly nouns, like “daddy,” “food,” and “bath.” But she picked it up right away, repeating after us when we told her to “wait” for a snack or to have a book read.  Within a week, she was commanding Bo to “wait” at the grocery store when he asked her to hand over an orange so it could go through the check-out process.

More carrot, anyone?

More carrot, anyone?

But lately I’ve noticed a slight shift in the way that she uses “wait.”  For her, it’s no longer about… well, waiting.  Instead, she seems to be placing the emphasis on the getting.  If you think about it, “wait” can have two connotations:  one is about not getting (or not doing, etc.) right now, and the other is about getting (or having, etc.)– later.  When she asks for something and one of us tells her to “wait,” we’re not giving it to her, but neither are we saying “no.” So suddenly, Maya was using the sign for “wait” a lot– because to her, it was a way of asking for something, not asking for its delay.

I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon with the sign for “all gone” (for this one, put the heel of your hand in front of your mouth and blow across your horizontal palm.  Or, if you want to be like Maya, just put palm up against your lips and go “pppft! ppftt!”).  Because it’s rare for something (usually food) to be truly “all gone,” as in “gone forever,” Maya seems to have gathered that like “wait,” “all gone” might mean that she’s going to get whatever it is, just a bit later.  This is especially true in the case of night nursing (sorry if this is too much information– skip the rest of this paragraph if it is!).  I night-weaned her a few months ago, and now she nurses at bedtime and then not again until 6am or later.  In the few instances in which she asked to nurse in the middle of the night, I told her that the milk was “all gone.”  Now, she sometimes wakes up and makes the sign for “all gone” by way of asking to nurse.

I know I am a word nerd, having taken multiple linguistics and dead language courses in college that did not apply to any major, minor, or “area of concentration.” I just liked learning about language.  So, I spend a lot of time pondering words like “cleave,” which refers to the idea of two things being simultaneously together and separate (as in “cloven”– you can only have hoofs that are cloven if there are two of them and they are together).  Of course, I was introduced to this word while studying the metaphysical poets and have never heard or read of anyone actually using it in modern times.  But how about a word like “viscous”?  I wasn’t even sure what that word meant at first.  Does it mean something is oozy and flowing?  Or does it mean that it’s gummy and not flowing (the definition, which I eventually learned in a basic geology class, is “resistance to flow”)?  In my Homeric Greek classes, I was fascinated with the idea that a certain class of nouns had a “dual case” that was neither singular nor really plural, but applied to items that always come in pairs, like shoes or oxen.

There’s an idea that kids learn language so quickly because they have an innate sense of grammar, but now I wonder if anyone has studied kids’ language acquisition as a window into our collective psychology.  If not, I guess we’ll just have to wait.


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