The Loom of Early Childhood
… in thy voice I catch/ The language of my former heart, and read/ My former pleasures in the shooting lights/ Of thy wild eyes.
- Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth
After so much heavy stuff, and with as yet unpublished material in the realms of aphasias and fairy tales still in progress on the Loom, it’s a relief to weave on it an altogether lighter material: the verbal tics, slips and games of my baby daughter over the past few years – which you may call cognitive development if you like, though it is too much of a random and sporadic walk through one child’s mind to warrant any such serious description.
Quite a few of my examples here are from her I Spy games, though sometimes with skewed rules, words or logic made up on the spot. Regarding the A1 type (same form, same meaning), she asks ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with J.’ After many unsuccessful guesses, it turns out to be ‘Juck’: her guileless neologism which is apparently ‘a kind of bus.’ Elsewhere, I’ve called this A1 type of activity Adam’s Game: the primal naming of objects, in which the word comes into being and matches its meaning ‘by definition’ just because she says it does.
As a four year-old she played Quotation Games. This isn’t the same as using a quotation and meaning something different, adding a common (B1) or a surprising hidden, ironic or personal layer (C1) on to the meaning. Instead, this game is re-using a known expression for the same purpose as the original: my infant daughter saying ‘Hello, I know you’re in there,’ while knocking on the bathroom door where her older sister is inside; ‘What?’ in exaggerated disbelief at an unexpected turn of events; or on climbing out of the car on a cold day, ‘The cold doesn’t bother me anyway.’ All are direct and very apt quotations from Disney’s Frozen (2013). She’s not using them to make a point or allusion, unless it is simply to demonstrate mastery and comprehension of a phrase by using it at face value.
Some verbal tics are passed over without really affecting the meaning at all: ‘I hatted to do it’ instead of ‘I had to do it’ goes almost unnoticed as an A2 type (similar form, same meaning) modification, as does her pronunciation of half as ‘harf,’ breakfast as ‘breakfirst,’ and only as ‘orly.’
A prelapsarian upbringing free from organised religion, in a sceptical household within a Muslim country, has left telltale gaps in her vocabulary. Faced with a silhouette of a steepled church in an English home study book, and given the task of describing it with a word beginning with ‘ch’ eventually produces ‘chastle’ as an answer, which from her perspective is an A2 type approximation, not even being able to distinguish the referent as a church, but only as a type of medieval-looking castle.
Using ‘diarrhoea’ for ‘diary’ is more conspicuous, and though it may be an A2 type approximation from the unwitting speaker’s perspective, if the listener is unable to overlook it we’re left with a C2 type (similar form, different meaning) substitution.
A refusal to be addressed by any terms of endearment, and only by her unshortened proper name, is another example of A1 type inclinations, while the opposite tendency at other times to want only to be addressed as ‘Princess,’ or another favourite name of the moment such as Elsa, is A3 type (different form, same meaning) behaviour.
I Spy games where ‘something beginning with key’ is a door, ‘something beginning with pencil’ is a shopping list, and ‘something beginning with T’ is time (and a watch is where you can ‘see time’) are B1 type (same form, similar meaning) constructions because of their metonymic nature – the first two where key and door, pencil and shopping list are two parts of a larger inclusive form (a lockable door, a list in progress), the last through time’s association with the timepiece (function-for-form metonymy).
In the early stages of learning to read, sometimes she’d read a picture book from the pictures alone, including sounding out phonetics when she pretended to slowly read a word one letter at a time. Each reading might produce slightly different but related B1 type interpretations of the same pictures.
In the same early stages, letters were identified by names of friends or classmates starting with that same initial letter, in a B2 type (similar form, similar meaning) family of similar types of words used for the whole alphabet: R for Reya, I for Ifan.
In a more structured B3 type (different form, similar meaning) naming game, for a while she was ‘rabbit’ and her best friend was ‘bunny’ because (as her older sister perceived) they wanted to be ‘likey likey’ with analogous names.
‘Ouch, my earballs,’ she remarked once about some loud music, her novel phrase forming a B3 type analogy between the organs of sight and hearing.
Her amusement at puns is tireless. She calls out every use of the word but: ‘Did you say butt?’ This continues even after she learned to spell and discovered it’s only a homophone, and not a homonym – from her perspective it’s the same form, with an amusingly different meaning: a C1 type (same form, different meaning) joke.
Rote repetition of a dad joke, without understanding and with inadvertent minor variation, can result in a C2 type (similar form, different meaning) error which completely misses the point of the original: ‘What do you call a fish with four eyes?’ ‘Fiiiish.’ This becomes, in her botched retelling: ‘What do you call a fish with one eye?’
She asks: ‘When is it a good time to go to the dentist?’ Two thirty will not do as an answer. It’s wrong. It must be clearly pronounced as ‘tooth hurtee.’ It’s still a C2 type joke playing on a near-homophone, but switching the punchline for the explanation, and her pedantic insistence on a specific and unambiguous articulation becomes funny in itself.
More I Spy games where ‘something beginning with car’ becomes Carrefour or carpet are C2 type guesses, because of the shared syllable, but journey is a B1 type guess (function-for-form metonymy).
Reading aloud Julia Donaldson’s What the Ladybird Heard (2009), she has a mischievous insistence on continuing to pronounce Hugh as hung, an error she refuses to correct even in the knowledge that it’s wrong, just to get a rise out of me. It’s a C2 type joke using a similar but deliberately wrong form, with a different meaning.
On another occasion, exploring B3 type task/location pairs such as haircut/barber shop, book borrowing/library, shoe repairs/cobbler, she’s asked ‘where do some people go to pray?’ ‘A mosque.’ ‘Yes, and where else? What about Christians?’ She needs a further prompt ‘ch… ch…’ before guessing, with triumphant confidence, ‘China’ – a disjunction so far from the hoped for answer that it’s a C2 type surprise, since at least it is a place beginning with ‘ch’ as required.
Misheard song lyrics (mondegreens) are C2 type errors: Rachel Platten singing ‘This is my fart song’ is one which is hard to unhear once it’s been pointed out, alongside the related C1 type reinterpretations of the same song which it invites (‘I might only have one match but I can make an explosion.’).
C3 type (different form, different meaning) jokes result from her completely mixing up punchlines, but sometimes result in weirdly viable alternatives: ‘Doctor, doctor. I keep thinking I’m invisible.’ ‘One at a time please.’ (The original punchline ‘I’m sorry, I can’t see you now’ being replaced by one from another joke: ‘Doctor, doctor. I keep thinking there are two of me.’)
As usual, though the collection of this material happened literally over years, organising it finally on the Loom raised some interesting questions. Not about the Loom itself in this case, but about its relationship to metonymy, the nature of metonymy itself, and in particular, why we classify metonymic substitutions as having the ‘same form’ on the Loom. The answer lies in the contiguity of the elements within a larger whole which can be thought of as the same form, which is obvious in part-for-whole and whole-for-part substitutions, but also true in cause-for-effect substitutions which are both part of a larger event (‘he’s a heartthrob’), material-for-made (brass for ‘brass instruments’, threads for ‘clothes’), form-for-function (hand for ‘help’), and so on.
This observational excursion into early childhood, on the trail of homonymy and synonymy, metonymy and metaphor, recontextualisation and representation, has been entirely synchronic. But if early childhood of former times were to be reconstructed from its scant traces, like distant etymologies and proto-languages, would we not find the same features made in the shape of their own times? Direct experience of it, hers, theirs, and even ours, is lost to us forever. But this at least remember: on the banks of this delightful stream we, all of us, have stood together, once.
Though nothing can bring back the hour/ of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;/ We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind.
- Intimations of Immortality, William Wordsworth