Overgeneralisation: the Girl strips English of excess words



I loved essay writing – in school, at uni – but I was never very good at handling “constructive criticism”. I would always get defensive and want to explain and justify myself so the teacher/tutor would understand that really I was brilliant and beyond reproach. (Hm I wonder why I write a blog…?)

A recurring theme in my feedback was overgeneralising and hyperbole. I’d make sweeping statements for effect and claim that ‘everyone felt the same fear of death’ (for instance). A piece of feedback that I have treasured for both the compliment and its cutting wit, called my analysis of Plato’s theory of forms: “A marvellous essay, marred only by a tendency to pointless overstatement.” I like to think of this as a tagline for the story of my life.

Now, my 16 month old daughter is experimenting with sweeping statements. I know that overgeneralisation is a natural stage in child language acquisition, but she is taking it to a whole new level. As soon as she discovers a new word, she goes in search of what else you can do with it. Rather than finding out how we, experienced speakers of the English language, define this new word, she sets about delimiting it herself, expecting us to keep up as she rewrites the dictionary. Or rather, rips most of the pages out to slim it down a little.

After her first word (Daddy), she discovered ‘down’. This meant: “I want to get down” but was soon expanded to mean “pick me up”, “get me out of these straps”, “lift me out of the cot” and “I want to go downstairs and watch television”. Perhaps this word is best summed up as: “Move me to where I want to be.”

Her favourite word must be “zhuzh”. This was first said with great delight while pointing at her own shoes, and later when carrying Daddy’s shoes to him to indicate that he must come on the outing too. Then it was said pointing at boots and wellies. Then it turned out to mean socks, feet and toes as well.

I kept nodding and thinking: this is textbook stuff. She is learning to assign characteristics to words. For example, “Teddy” to her means anything inanimate and huggable. She will hug any soft toy – rabbit, raccoon, pony – and say “Teddy!” What is supposed to happen next is that she will start to notice that the people around her limit the word to the bear only and have different names for the other cuddly toys. Then she might add a further note to her internal lexicon:

Teddy: inanimate, huggable, bear shaped

Also cheezh

Also cheezh

But I got a bit suspicious when the word “juuzh” showed up. It rhymed with “zhuzh”, which perhaps explained its appeal. “Juice” has been said while pointing at any bottle, any carton, any jug, any glass (full or empty), her sippy cup, water, milk, cups of tea, wine… Then came “cheezh”. She first said it while hunting through the food cupboard – which is most definitely not where I keep the cheese. I thought: maybe she means Shreddies? Cheerios? But I was soon set straight: she greets any food with a joyful shout of “cheezh!”

This is overgeneralisation taken to a bit of an extreme. I’m sure the Boy used quite a few, if not most of his words at this age, for fairly specific things.

Perhaps she is just not a details-girl. Perhaps the Girl is quite happy to paint life in broad brush strokes. She is not learning words. She is learning categories.

Even “mama” is not for me alone. I was overjoyed when she started using the name to call for me over the Christmas holidays, but when the Lodger returned from a visit to her family, she was greeted with “mama” as well, and so was my friend who looks after her on a Friday. It is clearly the umbrella term for “female who can provide me with soothing cuddles who has nice long hair I can twizzle”.

Her latest category was a source of great delight to the Boy. She pointed at a number in one of his endless number books and shouted: “Eight!”

“YES!” the Boy exclaimed, “Eight! Haha! A. is saying eight!”

Then she pointed at a 4: “Eight!” And a 9: “Eight!” Number 2 was also eight. The Boy thought it was hilarious. But she wasn’t done there. The alphabet puzzle got the “eight” treatment as well, and Surrogate Friday Mama reported that the Girl had been pointing at a handwritten note saying “eight”. We concluded it must mean “squiggle”.

It is just Daddy who gets exclusive rights to his name. She stops in her tracks when there is a sound at the front door. “Daddy!” If we walk past the study after her lunch time nap and the door is ajar, she will peek inside: “Daddy?”

I comfort myself with the thought that at least it sounds a lot like “teddy”, so there can be just as many embarrassing no-that-was-not-who-i-wanted mix ups.

Sixteen months into life, 5 months or so into discovering words, our marvellous Girl sweeps through life using only a handful of words. She doesn’t need any more. She defines them. The world is hers to shape and control.

And that is most definitely not pointless overstatement.

Definitely cheezh

Definitely cheezh



14 responses

  1. Go Girl! She sounds full of confidence and like she is enjoying her words and applying them to whatever she encounters, a lovely read as always – thank you for giving me a brief moment of respite from my second sickness bug in about as many weeks!

  2. I take my hat off to the Girl. What a fabulous way to communicate. When I write bids I often have very very strict word limits, so I’m thinking of asking the Girl to write them for me. Just a couple of her words and we should be done!
    Roh was the same with numbers and Oh used to fall about laughing just like the Boy. Once she cottoned on she could make him laugh, she just wouldn’t stop.
    Wonderful post Judith, as always. And not a pointless overstatement in sight xxx

    • Thank you! I tried very hard to avoid them. I love seeing them make each other laugh – always a welcome change from the Boy squashing the Girl with overenthusiastic hugs… And let me know next time you’re writing a bid and I’ll send her over. She is also very good at scribbling with big chunky pencils, so she can write it by hand for you.

  3. Brilliant post, Judith! It struck us (once again) that you’re a perfect mix of your parents’ genes: a tendency to pointless overstatement combined with not being good at handling constructive criticism….

  4. Beautifully written and not remotely overstated. Do you have some kind of qualification in linguistics or language acquisition? You write so perceptively and in such fine detail about it. It’s wonderful to read.

    • I do! *cue credentials* I have an MA in English Language and Literature and an advanced diploma in teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Aside from that, I just love language and am thrilled at the opportunity to watch bilingual language acquisition in action, at close quarters, twice. Love it. Are your kids bilingual?

  5. Lovely post. It all sounds very sensible to me. She obviously knows the meaning of the words and is able to sort them into categories – pretty advanced stuff really.
    It’s often the case that younger children develop their language later or more slowly than their siblings because they just don’t need language as much (they have a big brother to help them). My boys were both early talkers, my daughter hardly spoke until she was 2. When she shouted ‘Wait me baba’ at her brother around her 2nd birthday it was a real breakthrough (her brother’s name sounds nothing like ‘baba’, but that’s what she called him).

    • Brilliant! Maybe she was just having a prolonged silent period… I think you get it both ways, a long silence or an early start. I also know an older brother who you’d catch sitting in a corner with his baby sister teaching her to talk. She spoke very early and very fluently.

      • It’s interesting how children in a family acquire language and speech differently. My second child needed speech therapy before starting school. It wasn’t until my eldest had gone to school full time that I realised that she was the only one who fully understood him and that she translated much of what he said for me. He had full comprehension but didn’t form some of his sounds properly and she seemlessly filled in the gaps, without her there, it was very difficult for me to understand him but as they had always been together, I’d never really noticed before – terrible mother!!

      • That is very interesting. I can see how you wouldn’t notice, it just moves so seemlessly from the ‘baby’ not being able to talk and the older one interpreting to them just interpreting all the time!

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