Monday, September 24, 2012

Baby Talk
~ by Jay

This post on Motherlode made me smile. It reminded me of me.

I was one of those verbally precocious and fairly obnoxious little kids who speak like an adult. I read well beyond grade level, I read all the time, and I didn't have many friends my own age. Add to that an unusual ability to think on my feet and parents who included their children in almost all adult conversations, and you have an eight-year-old who talks in long, verbose paragraphs, with grammar and vocabulary more often employed by pretentious graduate students. My parents found it amusing and my grandfather found it gratifying. My teachers and my peers were neither amused nor proud.

When I was about 13, and "no friends my own age" was getting old, I made a conscious effort to start talking more like a kid. I never really got there, but it was enough of a change to irritate my grandfather. Mission accomplished. I stopped worrying about it in college, where most of us talked like pretentious graduate students, and I figured I'd found my tribe. Now I code-switch when I'm with patients or non-medical folk to avoid the worst of MediBabble, and the rest of the time I let my word freak flag fly.

When Eve was born, Sam and I did not stop talking in full sentences and we didn't really change our vocabularies. There was a fair amount of "widdle babeee cutieee pieee" because she was a widdle babeee cutieee pieee, but by the time she was two or three that stopped. Eve is much more interested in being one of the crowd than I ever was, so she has always talked like a kid. I didn't take the advice of one friend who suggested that we avoid Dr. Seuss until she was learning to read, and instead read to her from Shakespeare and Frost and Donne - I waited a long time to read "Green Eggs and Ham" to a child, and I intended to enjoy it (although I have to say that "Hop on Pop" goes on way too long). We found lots of other wonderful rhyming books - my favorite was Two Cool Cows  - with more sophisticated language. And we didn't curtail our vocabularies.

Cursing was different. My parents never cursed in front of us - well, no more than the occasional "damn". I heard my mother say "SHIT" precisely once in my first 20 years, and that's when she was vacuuming without her glasses and ran the machine over, yes, shit (the dog was getting old). My father thought this was so funny that he volunteered to clean the vacuum - Mom intended to throw it out. When I was a junior in college, my father commented that someone didn't know "shit from shinola". My mother said "Not in front of the child!" and my father said "She's 21. It's time, Susie". My extensive childhood vocabulary didn't extend to the "really bad words" - I didn't pick those up until college.

Once I picked them up, I had a hard time putting them down, though. I can control myself at work, since it's entirely unprofessional to curse around patients, but at home I can sound like the proverbial sailor. When Eve was born, I eliminated the very worst words but never completely extinguished "damn" and "hell". We never tried to stop her from saying them, either, and by the time she was 10, and we knew she was hearing "fuck" and "shit" on the playground every day, we stopped censoring ourselves. We told her that we didn't care if she used those words, as long as she wasn't saying them at someone. In our house, we don't use "gay" or "lame" or "retarded" as slurs. We don't say "homo" at all. We don't call women "bitches" and we don't tolerate any version of the n-word. We've told her that our standards are pretty much the opposite of other people's, and that she should watch her language at other people's houses. But when the dog tangles his leash under the refrigerator and she's the one lying on the floor trying to unsnare it while the dog licks her face, then I don't see anything wrong with a muttered "holy fuck".


Anna said...

We have two kids with extraordinary memories and recall, and my approach to speaking with them is the same as my approach to speaking with anyone: I try to find the word that best fits my meaning. I use "big" words (I hate that term, actually - they aren't big, they are just synonyms with a different connotation!), highly technical terms, give full scientific explanations when I get science questions, etc. They learn words quickly and it's really helpful for them to have at hand the ones they need to make themselves understood. Plus, this the way language is learned - words first enter one's passive vocabulary (meaning they are understood but not used) and then gradually move into the active vocabulary. Can't start speaking them if you never hear them.

But at the same time, we are a family with a lot of silly made-up family words. I grew up with that kind of high/imaginary mix and it seems totally normal to me to have a small private home vocabulary. Most amazing to me is how quickly the kids pick up on the fact that these words only exist within our foursome and wouldn't be understood by the outside world.

Swear words? Well, I don't really swear all that much anyway, but I did have to tone down my driving language since the kids started yelling out "Jesus Christ!" every time I stopped short and I didn't want them to run into someone they'd offend with that. My daughter's favorite impolite expression is "what the heck" (apparently learned in school?), which my son renders as "what the het" and I find kind of hilarious.

Jay said...

Anna, I completely agree with you about "big" words - I try to avoid medical jargon because there are usually perfectly good ways to say the same thing in English (calling something a "laceration" rather than a "cut" doesn't add much to the conversation). I use the correct terms for anatomy, though, much to my 12-year-old's disgust, which is a bonus, from my point of view.

We have some silly family words - mostly inherited from my family - and some stock joke phrases, which are holdovers from college.

When Eve was about four, she used the word "butt" in front of our Alabama-dwelling relatives, and she was reprimanded by my brother-in-law. That was not a word that ever bothered me or that I'd ever thought to comment on. At that point, I pretty much gave up on trying to predict what was going to bother people, and spent more time helping her learn how to figure out how to code-switch.

When I was a kid, my mother taught me never to use Yiddish expressions with non-Jews because it would "make them uncomfortable". I'm sure that wasn't the real reason...

lifeversiontwo said...

I skipped over that Motherlode piece when it showed up in my reader, mostly because I've never seen Shrek and didn't think I would get what the reference was. Your piece, I get.

I was that kid, too. My friends used to joke that they needed dictionaries to understand what I was saying because I was always (and still do) use words that no one knows. (I can't help it! I read it in a book and it's the PERFECT word!)

I never thought to change my language for O. I don't think my parents ever did with us, and I don't see any reason to do so with O. As a result, at 3, he has a hilariously advanced vocabulary which includes liberal use of "dammit." I'm sure this will haunt me when he starts using it at school. We also use anatomically accurate words for our bodies, which I know has confused some people (most notably his previous daycare provider who said, "Oh, so you're using the right words for his penis?" Well, yes, what else would I use, and why?). I have enormous pride that he tells people he came out of "mommy's vagina."

Jay said...

Love the hilariously advanced vocabulary!

Tmae, take a look at this

I'm going to blog about it, but I figured you didn't need to wait.

Anna said...

Nothing is funnier/cuter than a 3 year old using the right words for things. My son loves to play the who grew in whose uterus game. He finds it extra hilarious that old people were at one point babies.

I will say that I super-hate the word "urethra" and have ended up referring to my daughter's body parts as "pee hole", "poop hole", and "vagina". But yeah, my son calls it a penis also. After all, it's not really just a hole.

Anonymous said...

Is cursing around patients really unprofessional? I worked as a waitress at one stage and used cuss words when I talked to customers, it was only when they used them and most of the time it was limited only to shit.

I work as a teacher now, I mostly teach children so I don't swear at all around them but I work as a chef in another job and the swearing is a bit more regular in that world. In culinary school they discourage it but it happens in the real world.

My doctor swears sometimes... not often but occasionally, most of the time it's when he talks about politics or the media ... it doesn't really bother me much with his swearing. He once flipped the bird, not at me, but he was exemplifying a person he saw on tv... he was trying to make a point (that it was normal to be cynical ... that it comes with age).

Jay said...

Yes, I do think cursing around patients is unprofessional - then again, I don't generally discuss politics with patients, either. I've learned that a number of my patients - particularly older patients - don't even like it when I say "damn" or "hell", so "fuck" would really not go over well.

I wouldn't really like it if someone in customer service cursed in conversation with me, to be honest. I don't find the words offensive - obviously - but I do think they're inappropriate for that conversation.