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
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.