give voice
6 November 1999
Picture a youngish couple strolling through a small tourist town on a warm Labor Day weekend, feeling relaxed and indolent. Not talking. The man has a four month old infant strapped to his chest. The infant says, very clearly, "nee-nay."

"Ah," the mom says, "that means he needs a diaper change."

"You’ve got to be kidding."


He needs a diaper change.

How can a four month old assign a sound to the need? The mind boggles.

Nee-nay meant "change me" for a month or two and then drifted out of favor as his brain was overwhelmed with the burning need to learn to sit upright.

Wipe that image from your retina. A new one fades up. Sharp, contrasty. A too-bright summer afternoon. A sixteen month old in tiny jeans and a bright green t-shirt, standing stock still in our driveway. Staring fixedly at our neighbor’s fence. Admiring the purple gardenias? Spotting the bumblebees as they zip and sip? None of the above. "Kiggey!"

"There’s no kitty here, love."

"Kiggey." Very insistent.

So I bend down to look from his eyeline. And see a flash of tan and a feathery tail.

"Good eyes, kid, that’s a kitty all right." But which cat? It’s too intense an orange for the benighted tailless moocher next door. Not to mention I’m fairly certain cats don’t regenerate missing parts. A new neighborhood prowler?

Damian waits patiently while I put two and two together. Grownups can be awfully slow sometimes.

Damn. It’s our cat. He’s not supposed to be out! I dive for the bushes, grab that fluff of a tail, yank the miscreant back to the safety of the house.

I feel strangely proud that my little boy, so recently wordless, told me something I needed to know. Communicated when it counted.

Language is such an odd thing. How do we learn it? I feel like such an idiot sometimes, just repeating words over and over in a kind of drill, waiting to see if he catches on. I get self-conscious, as if he’s sitting there thinking, "Jeez Louise, give it a rest, lady. I know cows say ‘moo.’ What does she think I am, a baby?"

I’ve always heard that only a parent can interpret a toddler’s babbling. Not this parent. Maybe I missed that week in child prep 101, didn’t get the secret decoder ring they handed out at the start of class, but most of the time his babble is just... babble. One evening he started saying "duck" very clearly. Over and over. Seemed happy about it, too. Whatever duck meant, it was a good thing. Duck = rubber ducky? Logical, right? But he ignores it most of the time, preferring racier tub toys like his boat and sailor weeble people. Okay, then maybe duck = truck? Could be. He’s truck obsessed. Or maybe duck = dog. He’s dog obsessed too. Who knows? He’s definitely not duck obsessed, though. When is a duck not a duck? When an eighteen month old tells you it is.

When my brother was Damian’s age or younger, we were all sitting around the kitchen table one afternoon. All of a sudden, Aaron piped up from the high chair with his very first word. Not mama or dada or even Gumar (his early name for me). No, his first word was "Nana."


We pointed to each other: maybe it was a pet name. Nope. Maybe he’s saying he’s thirsty. Here, kid, want some milk? Nope. Finally someone brought out his stuffed Humpty Dumpty. Arms reach out: "Nana!" (translation: "finally! Don’t you fools know anything? I told you I wanted my Nana! Sheesh." ) What sequence of synapse-jumping electrons in his brain made Humpty Dumpty = Nana?

Damian’s got one of those weird twists on object identification. Ball is "da." No reason. Just is. So we have these long discussions. I hold the ball: "ball," I say in a very serious voice.

"Da," he replies, equally serious.

"Ball." The corners of my mouth twitch.

"Da." He’s outright smirking now.

"Ball." And we both crack up. It’s an in joke. A running gag. His first crack at verbal humor.

Even normal words don’t quite have the same meaning in a small child’s brain. Kitty is his favorite word these days. All day long, kitty, kiggey, kiyyey, keekee, kitkat. And on like that. Verbal wallpaper. I was shocked the other day when I realized that "key" wasn’t yet another iteration of kitty, it was... drumroll... key. He wanted that enticingly shiny key on the sidetable. Makes me wonder what other real words I’m missing in the endless verbal experimentation.

And experimentation it is. He talks in his sleep now. Middle of his nap yesterday, he said "duck" clear as a bell and then started snoring again. Dreaming of ducks? Or dogs? Or just dreaming of abstract words floating around in space, drifting near enough to grab onto for a shimmering instant and then dissolving in a swirl of vowels, ultimately unknowable and out of reach?

I think that’s how it must be to be learning to speak. You hear and understand so much, but when you try to say it yourself it comes out garbled with spiky consonants and elongated vowels, like shadows of words without the substance. Endlessly frustrating. I think that’s why kids this age have such short fuses. They spend the whole day trying -- and failing -- to be understood.

I’ve heard you don’t retain memories from before you had speech. It’s an odd thought, that Damian won’t remember anything we do now. If we moved from this house tomorrow, he’d stare blankly as we point the place out in pictures -- that’s where you were almost born, that’s where you lived your first year and a half, you played on that porch, climbed those stairs in back... Yeah, sure, mom, whatever, can I go play now? It’s sad to me, that he won’t remember nursing and rocking except in some vestigial way, some flutter of nostalgia tickling the underbelly of his mind. His pre-memory memories.

Saying you don’t have memories is like saying you don’t have thought. And I know that’s not true. He thinks all the time. Switching a toy from one hand to the other so I can put his hand in his sleeve, then switching back. Fetching a toy to torment the cat. That’s reasoning, thinking ahead. Planning a strategy, even.

Is it that once we learn to talk in complete sentences, it effectively erases the preverbal coding? Overlaying it with something so much more powerful, so much more precise? My father says some people think in pictures, some in words. He says he literally remembers events as if they’re stories told in his mind’s ear. Me, I remember in color and sound and image flashes. So you’d think I’d have preverbal memories. But I don’t.

So something shifts, some level of human awareness. I can see it developing in Damian’s eyes, in his words -- as fluid and changeable as they are right now, they’re solidifying and expanding into a genuine vocabulary, a sharper understanding of how the world works as he codifies and defines.

I wonder a little what’s lost when we narrow the world to the words we use to describe it. But there’s so much to be gained when we can sit down and talk, when he can describe his day for me and tell me his problems. Or simply when he can say "I’m hungry, Mommy," or "I want a hug" instead of whining or reaching up. Or will he say it while he holds his arms out wide for me? Maybe we don’t lose, maybe we simply give voice to body language.

last // home // next

current log / Damian essay archive / other essays archive / what's all this, then?

copyright 2001 Tamar