Saturday, 21 April 2012

Toddler Speak

I never intended to be a lawyer.  My undergraduate degree was in English Language and Linguistics and I also did a M.St in General Linguistics and Comparative Philology.

And no, I don’t really have much idea what that means even now.  That might have something to do with the fact that I very rarely attended classes – well, except my tutorials which were about 100 yards away as my tutor lived on the other side of my college quad and didn’t mind me rocking up in my pyjamas.  On one course (very complicated theoretical syntax thingumybob), I turned up for the exam and someone asked me who I was.  (Fortunately it was multiple choice and I am good at those.)  I was actually a little offended, as I had been fondly imagining myself as a sort of non-conformist philologist, the maverick of the Oxford Linguistics Faculty – a rebel without a clause.  [pauses for self-congratulatory snigger at own joke]  Clearly there is a fine line between bucking the establishment by subversive non-attendance and no-one noticing because, by definition, you are never there.

I was somewhat mollified when my college friend and fellow faculty member was asked to find three sensible and respectable linguistics postgrads to attend dinner with an extremely eminent visiting lecture who co-authored with the uber-eminent Noam Chomsky.  He invited me on the basis that he could only find two sensible and respectable people at short notice so I would have to do.  Fortunately, the honoured guest appeared to be delighted to have been given a night off from being eminent and within five minutes was animatedly discussing the etymology of the word “fuck”, despite the best efforts of Sensible and Respectable to turn the conversation to medieval morphology or other safe subjects.  He then drank a vast amount and insisted on being taken to the cheesiest club in Oxford where he danced the night away before rocking up to his lecture in a slightly sorry state.

During my postgrad course I worked as an etymologist and proof-reader for a new dictionary.  I should at this point issue a bit of a warning – if you have a large, black dictionary published around 1999 I would view some of the entries beginning with ‘s’ with a certain degree of caution.  Just saying….

Anyway, it was all about language.  Somewhere along the line I got hugely sidetracked and woke up one day to find that I was a criminal lawyer.  I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time. 

But I still like words.  He Who Shall Not Be Named would probably say that I like them a little too much.  These days I don’t study historical language development, or contemplate the theory of proto-IndoEuropean or the Great Vowel Shift (although to be honest I never gave them that much head-space in the first place), but I have noted an interesting linguistic phenomenon which I think needs further study – it is the effect that a toddler has upon the ability of other family members to talk like adults.

If my memory of historical language change serves me correctly, when pronunciation or word-construction changed, it was often because a more prestigious (often foreign) form was preferred.  Where toddler language is concerned, it is not so much that we choose the new form, but that it gets bludgeoned into us by being repeated over and over and over and over again, usually accompanied by screams of “Nonononono” if we suggest that the correct pronunciation is anything other than the one that is being shrieked at us.

No-one in the extended Chaos family goes for a nap anymore – the accepted term is “to nooze”.  This is one of those highly unusual constructions as the noun, verb and adjectival forms are identical.  I am going for a nooze.  You are going to nooze.  He is nooze.

When someone hasn’t eaten for a while, they are “bungy”.  He’s gone bungy.

“Wimming” is the accepted way to discuss the popular aquatic activity.  It is performed, if you are male, in “wimming shrubs”.  The loss of an initial consonant is a common feature of toddler-speak.  It does render some words entirely incomprehensible, but then again when you have two children under the age of three, you probably don’t have much to say other than incoherent gibber anyway.

The imperative form is the accepted way to address someone, and is no longer considered rude.  Man!  Where have all the sheep gone?  Lady on horse!  What you doing?

All plurals are formed by the simple addition of an “s”.  Mans.  Sheeps.  And it is absolutely accepted that everyone shall refer to themselves in the third person.  And it is absolutely accepted that everyone shall refer to themselves in the third person.  Mummy is going nooze.

We have fingers and “lums” on our hands.  We consume “cakey”.  We put tomato “dipdip” on our chips.  The list goes on.

Toddler language change doesn’t just affect individual words.  Its effect can also be noted in relation to phrases and colloquialisms.  A recent introduction to the Chaos family phraseology followed my admission that I recently shouted at Thomas so loud that I thought a little bit of wee was going to escape.  Some people are incandescent with anger, others are speechless with fury.  In this family we are “incontinent with rage”.

This is all very well until you lose the ability to converse in a normal way, and find yourself in a shop saying “Man!  Mummy is bungy.  Cakey!  Before I become incontinent with rage!”

There is also the problem of trying to discourage undesirable linguistic forms.  Thomas produced a wooden screwdriver today and rotated it on my head while shouting “screw you, mummy!” before repeating the action on the baby’s tummy with a cry of “And screw Ben too.”

I’m pretty sure part of my postgrad was concerned with how to artificially influence language change.  Unfortunately I skived that lecture. 

Oh dear.


  1. Ha - join the club - I never wanted to be a lawyer either. I was going to sort out the European Union singlehandedly, and woke up one day to discover I was an employment lawyer - how does that happen? Anyway, I'm not any more - but nor did I sort out the EU although I did write a little bit of a Directive once. I always found that motherhood equipped me better to deal with work (treat recalcitrant managers like small children and you're generally on to a winner, although the bribes (sorry, positive behaviour reinforcement) have to be different) rather than my earlier studies helping me to do anything these days, although I can still write a damn fine letter (if I do say so myself)

  2. I'm glad it's not just me who fell into lawyering!