Special Language for Talking to Children
I read a book called BABY TALK which recommends that you teach your baby your native language only, not some other language. Why? Because, as a native speaker of your language, you know the special talking-to-babies variatne of that language, which you will automatically deploy without conscious effort.
Reading this, I was intensely sceptical, despite having been impressed by the book as a whole. A special language for talking to babies? Not me! I'm a baby zero, know nothing about them except that you put wet stuff in at one end and take it away at the other.
Or so I thought, until, on a day very early in my daughter's life, it was stime for her to wake, and I said, quite without thinking:
And my Japanese wife, whose English is easily good enough to read the newspaper, asked: what is this wakey-wakey business? No kind of English that she knew.
And I realized that, yes, it was the special language for talking to babies, and that I had been programmed with it at a very deep level, to the point where it was automated, unthinking, a situational imperative commanding me without conscious thought.
Culturally, then, as a native speaker of English, I've been programmed to speak to babies.
Later, turning this over in my mind, I wondered where, if you were going to do a thesis on this, you would find written materials, something to quote and cite.
Well, recently, thanks to a very welcome gift made to a member of my household, I got access to a starting text, something you could quote and cite.
Not that I'm ever going to write this thesis, but someone might, some day.
The book in question, which fascinated me, is A WAS ONCE AN APPLE PIE by Edward Lear, a book which is a product of the Victorian age, the age of the twelve-child family. An alphabet book, one poem per letter.
My family, including me, likes to eat, and my mother's favorite in the collection is this one:
C was once a little cake,
Culturally, this book could almost be today. There are, however, a few Victorian era markers: U is for Urn, and P is for Pump, as in the familiar local hand pump which you use to pump ground water up into your bucket.
And Z? I expected "zoo", but, no, it's "zinc", a metal the Victorians used, I think, for a bunch of purposes for which we would use plastic: a zinc bath, for instance, rather than a plastic bath.
I think our image of the Victorians is not that of the progressive child educators, but A WAS ONCE AN APPLE PIE is quite simply genius at work, playfulness on the loose in a mode of uninhibited generosity.
The edition which has made it as far as my household is illustrate very nicely by one Julie Lacome. If your house lacks its collection of Victorian urns, the picture economically communicates the concept.
At first blush, the word "urn" does not look poetically promising, but Lear, limbered up and in an effortlessly recombinative mood, the master at work, goes to work on it, and produces this:
U was once a little urn.
A totally proportioate genius.
Urn, zinc and pump apart, not much has changed. The text dates from two centuries back, but we still have dolls for D, and, in Japan, if I ever get there, vine for V is part of the living reality of the expaded matchbox which I refer to grandly as "the lawn".
Speakig of Japan, a teaching note: having taught at elementary school in Japan, I think these poems would go down pretty well with ages six and seven, being suitably declamatory. The one hundred and fifty kids in a gym situation, and what are you going to do with them? Well, BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP and THE LITTLE TEAPOT song took me a long way, but, if elementaqry school is ever again to be a part of my doom, then I reckon I'll have Lear in my backpack along with all the other stuff.