Posted by: laughs4dads | December 20, 2010

“That Was a Word! I Know That Was a Word!”

All of us, while growing up, experienced the feeling at one time or another, if not continuously, that our parents did not understand us.

I’m sure that’s nothing compared to the frustration a baby must have.

Imagine having as your sole means of communication a variety of cries with which you must convey everything from “hungry” to “wet” to “tired” to “please change the channel; this is boring.”

Of course, this is just as frustrating for the parent, who has a mental checklist called “Reasons for Crying” and tends to respond to the baby’s wailing by becoming a whirlwind and trying to discover, by process of elimination, and as quickly as possible, why the kid is screaming.  It is something like being on the old game show “Beat the Clock.”

When the baby does begin to communicate effectively, it has only its self-interest in mind.  Casey began by taking our hand and tugging us into the kitchen, where she would point out what she wanted, usually a cookie.

As she started to babble incessantly, Barbara and I played this game in which we struggled to discern something which could remotely be called a word, hopefully something in a dialect of the English language:

CASEY: trtrgfhfgiytituyfghfghedrtstrwer egitg
ME: She said “daddy.”  Did you hear it?

We encouraged her vocal output by pretending to understand her and upholding our part of the conversation:

CASEY: grtrtguffyityuttssdfgsgsdsjkgh
BARB:  Oh, really?  And then what happened?

When she had achieved a couple of real words, Casey even called our bluff on this:

CASEY: jhfgfuyrtydfgffghjtutufgf
ME: Oh, really?
CASEY: Yes.

After awhile, we realized that Casey’s mumbling wasn’t at all random, that she actually thought she was saying something.  If, after she mumbled awhile, we said “What?” she would repeat her babbles verbatim.  We thought about tape recording her and playing it back for her in ten years or so.  “Casey,” we’d say, “What exactly did you mean by this?” 

Soon came her first word which was, not surprisingly, “cookie.”  Within weeks, her vocabulary had expanded to include “pretzel,” “juice,” and “cracker,” and I figured that by the time she was two, I’d be able to send her out to work in a diner.

Meanwhile, she also learned the word “more.”  She figured out she could use it whenever we were doing something she wanted to continue doing.  Occasionally, however, we’d be sitting around and she’d say “more” and since we hadn’t been doing anything, we had no idea what she wanted.  I decided she was taking after her mother, who can seamlessly pick up a conversation that had been interrupted hours or even days earlier (and expects you to know what she’s talking about), and was asking for more of something we had been doing at some time in the past.

I also noticed that, as quickly as she picked up the word “more,” she was decidedly slower in learning how to say, or even decipher the meaning of, “no more.” 

She did learn “no.”  And its counterpart, which was an up and down nod of the head.  Now we could have conversations if Barb and I were careful to keep all our comments in the form of yes-no questions.  It was like talking to one of those old arcade fortune telling machines.  I had a hunch, however, that while Casey knew what “no” meant, she would nod “yes” not only if it was something she did want, but also if it was something she did not understand.  I proved this theory by asking her, outright, if she agreed with existentialist philosophy.  She said yes.

It is obvious here that the early stages of talking are motivated almost entirely by greed.  I suspect that if we had never uttered the word “cookie” in her presence she would have somehow learned it.  Nevertheless, Barb and I followed in the tradition of generations of parents and began spelling things, on the assumption that anything we said more than once would instantly enter Casey’s vocabulary.  In addition, since Casey could understand a lot more than she could say, there was the danger of triggering a response mechanism, like, say, a sudden undeniable desire for ice cream, simply by mentioning the words.  The result of this was that, while Casey was communicating more effectively with us, Barb and I were communicating less effectively with each other.

Now, excuse the generalization, but artistic types are notoriously bad spellers.  Barb is an artistic type, and does nothing whatsoever to dispel that stereotype.  Conversations would stop cold when I spelled something out, and you could almost see the wheels spinning as Barbara mouthed the letters to herself.

ME:  So what do you want to do today?
BARB: I don’t know, what do you want to do?
(Our conversations tended to start this way even before we had Casey.)
ME:  Casey’s got a cold.  Should we take her O-U-T-S-I-D-E?
(Long pause) 
BARB: We’ll go crazy if we stay in all day.
ME: We could take her to the zoo to see the A-N-I-M-A-L-S.
(Long pause)
BARB: It’s too hot.  Let’s just go to a R-E-S-T…er, R-E-S-T-A-R, er…
ME: Restaurant?
BARB: Yeah, for lunch.
(Casey, having heard the word “restaurant,” has now begun to pay attention)
ME: Okay.  Where? 
BARB: Just someplace for burgers.
CASEY: Hamburg?  Fries?
ME: Now you’ve done it.
CASEY: Hamburg?  Fries?
ME: It’s only ten o’clock.  What are we gonna do, drive around in the car for two hours telling her we’re headed for McDonalds?
CASEY:  Car?  Side? (that meant “outside”)
ME: Maybe we should go to T-O-Y-S-R-U-S first.
(VERY long pause)
BARB: What’s a toysrus?
ME: Not “toysrus.”  Toys R Us.
CASEY: Toys?  Car?  Side?  Hamburg?  Fries?

Incredibly, Barb and I still have conversations like this, only now it’s because of our dog, whose ears will perk up when one his favorite words is mentioned.

Only problem is, I think he spells better than Barbara does.

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