A momentary grammar

Our youngest daughter has been very vocal for the past couple of months and I’ve been meaning to write about it because she’s doing something that is, if not downright unusual, at least very interesting to me. She has developed her own method of saying two-syllable words.

I started noticing this with the words and names that she was very familiar with, like “cracker” and “apple” and “Togy” (our male cat), the words she was hearing all the time. But now she is doing it with any old word that reaches her ears on the wind, the very first time she hears it.

What’s fascinating to me is not simply the fact that Emilia is speaking words in a unique way — I guess every kid does at first — but that the simple grammatical rule she applies to the pronunciation of each word is so consistent. It’s such a reliable grammar that we can, when she says something we don’t understand, pause and reverse-engineer the word in our minds by applying her rule backwards.

Here’s the rule: say the first syllable twice and end with the most interesting consonant. In this grammar, “apple” becomes “ah-ahp”, “cracker” becomes “cah-cahk”, “Grandma” becomes “ga-gam”, “carrot” becomes “cah-cad”, “Togy” becomes “toh-toge”, “waffle” becomes “wah-waff” and my friend Jeremy is called “Je-jem”. “Mah-mok” is Millie’s word for “marker”, “teh-teb” is her word for “table”, and “be-beth” is how she refers to Jeremy’s wife Bethany.

A sunny morning brings new opportunities for saying exactly what she means.

Emilian grammar has a fine point or two. Her first syllable is always very simple even if the input is not. She does not pronounce the first ‘r’ in cracker or Grandma, and Jeremy and Bethany’s daughter Gwyneth is referred to as “gi-geth”, not “gwi-geth”. Angela notes that if she says “horse”, Millie will say “horse” too, but if she says “horsie” Millie says “hoh-horse”. The letter ‘l’ is altered; she does not pronounce our other cat Tillie’s name “ti-til” as you might expect, but simply “ti-di”. Also, the rule applies to the occasional three-syllable word, such as “ah-aff” for “elephant”.

Tonight we were watching a movie as a family and at one point I commented on the action, “here comes trouble”. Millie wasn’t even watching, she was playing on the floor and looking the other way but she absentmindedly and automatically applied her grammar to the last thing she heard. “Tuh-tub”.

The first word I noticed Millie’s grammar on was “coffee”, which of course came over as “cah-caff”. I heard it every morning when I sipped my joe and then started realizing that she used similar repetition with other words.

bunny = “buh-bun”
sippy = “si-sip”
diaper = “dah-dap”
pencil = “peh-pes”
tower = “tah-tow”

We have used this grammar to decode dozens of Emilia’s words, and it follows that you can even anticipate how she will say words of a certain kind. She would say “hah-ham” for “hammer”, I’m sure. The grammar also applies in the new two-word and three-word sentences she’s practicing. Yesterday we took the girls to Ravenna Park to play in the playground, and afterwards we set off up the trail that borders the restored creek running through the ravine. Angela cheerily announced “here we go on our nature walk!” and as Millie trotted after her I heard her say “neh-netch…wahk”.

The thought has crossed my mind to worry that this very durable grammar might be a kind of dyslexia, but I don’t really have any reason to believe that and I know how hyperactive my imagination can be when running in the shadows.

In any case, I find it not only adorable but also very helpful. If we hadn’t noticed this rule I’m sure we’d be missing a lot of what she’s saying. I don’t remember Mara using any such consistent rules, though she certainly had her own interesting turns of phrase and she used a wider vocabulary of signs before she had verbal language than did Millie, who still uses a few signs but never took to signing with the same enthusiasm.

Millie about to set out on a neh-netch walk.

This usage will vanish soon, which is why I wanted to write it down. Someday it will seem impossible, we will remember only the fact of it, not the actual sound of it in our ears, even though we will tell Millie years from now that she used to speak this way. Mara does not remember saying “paahtu” for “pasta”. She didn’t believe it until we showed her a movie clip of her as a toddler in which we asked her what her favorite food was.

To me there’s a sadness in this. There are so many things now that we ask Mara whether she remembers, things she used to do every day or things we used to do with her, how we used to play a chasing game we called Hunting Dog and how, when she was only three, she would study Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever in bed at night and fall asleep with the huge book over her head like a tent. When the answer is no, she doesn’t remember, we feel a little sting of melancholy, as though we had thought she were there with us and she wasn’t.

She has only our word that things really were that way, and that word is what is passed on, that’s what she’ll remember. For our daughters these things that we cherish from their earliest days become legends rather than memories. They become the family stories we tell, like a collection of shells on the mantel — no longer inhabited by the things that made them and gave them their original shapes, but imbued with a later, oral, assigned and handed-down magic and charged with the task of constituting and holding together our history as a family.

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4 Responses to “A momentary grammar”


  1. 1 Mom April 16, 2012 at 11:19

    Very interesting. I wonder what a speech therapist would say about this??

    Gramma

    • 2 Matt April 16, 2012 at 11:39

      I suspect it would turn out that three out of seven kids do it this way and that I’ve just never paid that much attention before. :)

  2. 3 Jeni April 16, 2012 at 13:35

    She’ll probably be a stellar linguist like her cousins Joelle and Justin!!

    • 4 Matt April 16, 2012 at 13:45

      I can just see myself at 70 stuffing pie in my mouth at fam-gatherings and listening to Emilia discuss alveolar fricatives with J2.


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