Friday, October 28, 2011

Toddler-speak: A Language All Its Own

If you've ever been in the presence of a toddler delivering one of those ridiculously cute monologues in which only the toddler in question seems to have a clear idea of what s/he is saying, you've literally been watching language take root in a forming mind. Over time, though, toddlers quickly start to pick up real words and turn their unintelligible gibberish into somewhat-intelligible gibberish. In fact, the pace at which toddlers begin to pick up words is downright dizzying. Imagine learning, speaking and comprehending dozens of new words each day without even making a concerted effort--it's enough to give even the brightest mind a headache. To the contrary, we're probably forgetting as many words every day as they're learning. Well, some of us, anyway.

Max is in that stage now, and every day he supplies us with head-turning moments, like today when he and I returned to the Oakland Zoo's parking lot (don't worry--no Occupy protesters are camping out there) and as we approached my car, he said to me, clear as day, "daddy's car." I almost spit soda all over his face.

That said, toddlers don't typically get words right the first time--it's more of an evolutionary process in which a sound becomes a couple of rough syllables which then become a toddler-ized version of the word. Case in point, Max's pronunciation of the word "clock." He learned this word probably two months ago, and yet he still is completely unable to incorporate the "l", leading to many hilariously embarrassing scenes--such as walking through Costco and listening as Max, believing the round thermometer in every fridge to be a time-keeping device, blurts out "COCK!" at the top of his lungs over and over again.

It's pretty clear toddlers get a free pass for this sort of thing, as Max gets nothing but smiles from even the most stone-faced old women. I think you can picture what what happen if I blurted the word cock out loud repeatedly in a store. Suffice it to say, handcuffs would probably be involved.

Another example is "bodadda", which as any person with half a brain can surely figure out is toddler for "motorcycle." It's amazing how quickly the adult brain adapts to hearing "bodadda," calmly handing the child his prized motorcycle with each utterance of bodadda, as if it's the most natural pronunciation imaginable.

One of my favorites is "Eddie," which happens to be the name of Max's grandpa, my dad. Surely by now you've deduced that this actually means "airplane"--what else? But given that my dad is known to be a bit, uh, spacey, watching Max look to the sky and excitedly chant "Eddie!" is an endless source of amusement for me. He has no idea how apropos this particular toddlerization is.

What really gets me, though, is that even as Sarah and I are constantly entertained by the various Maxisms we're treated to each day, it's the words he says correctly that end up wearing out their welcome. In a recent post, I regaled you about Max's use of the word "apple." Sadly, that hasn't stopped--it remains a stand-in for expressing general hunger, or identifying foods he doesn't know the names of. But at least his universe of food words is constantly expanding--the list now includes cheese ("tees"), animal cookies ("ammo COO-kie", with the "COO" being emphasized with a big rise in his voice), avocado ("a-doh-a-doh", or the like) and orange ("oh-gee").

Getting back to his worn-out words, I could do without ever hearing the word "car" again. He says it with such relentless regularity that I try to ignore it--naturally, with little success. Toddlers do not take ignoring well. In any case, we must have about 93 toy cars of varying types around the house, and every time he picks one up--no, make that every time he sees one--no, make that every time he THINKS about one--he says "car" repeatedly until Sarah or I give him proper recognition. There's a demon-father inside of me who'd love to pull a Sid (from Toy Story) and blow up one toy car every time Max says the word. But that would be cruel. At least, that's what people tell me.

So for the time being, I'll have to resign myself to attempting (again, unsuccessfully) to block out these toddler mantras, and focus on those golden moments when, for the first time, he attempts to say a word--or manages to say it perfectly. But you'll have to excuse me now--the cock is telling me it's time for some apple.