Monday, May 22, 2006

Always a Godfather, Never a God ...

I have the distinct pleasure of being godfather to several of my friends' children, including all 3 of gaetanus' awesome kids, to whom I am known as Gaffer for reasons of etymology and ease of pronunciation. The older two (5 years old and below) always fascinate me with all the various ways they absorb and use language. For instance, when the second child, D, wanted to offer to the general public a gamepiece he didn't need, he announced, "Whobody needs a ....?" Sure, he could have just said "Who"--it's not like he didn't already know the word--but instead he chose to create the word "whobody" at 3 years old by analogy with words like nobody and anybody.

When I play hide-and-seek with members of my god-horde, I rarely count in English: it's a perfect opportunity to familarize them with other languages in a context that's fun, while not taking away at all from their understanding of what's going on, since they already know I'm counting. I did this recently, and while we were taking a break, I had the following exchange with the oldest, T. Oh, and keep in mind that her father, gaetanus, is a Semitics scholar.

Me: Do you guys know what language I was just counting in?
T: French!
Me: Very good! Now do you remember what language I used the first time I counted?
T: um....
Me: I'll give you a hint; this is what I said: eins, zwei, drei, vier, ... [etc.]
T: [after a moment's thought] Is it Coptic??

T is almost 5. Coptic is just more a part of her world than German is. (I promise to get out to their house more often and insert more German into her life.) :-)

One more story. T went through a phase a while back that reminded us of Tolkien's musing about why it was wrong to say "a green great dragon". Whenever she would get something new--shoes, a shirt, a jacket--she would say, "Gaffer, see my new nice shoes?" or "I got a new nice jacket!" I believe gaetanus' theory was that the adjective that we conceive of as more inherent to the nature of the thing tends to go closer to it. Hence we say "great green dragon" b/c a green dragon is a thing that may or may not be great. Greatness is more accidental, greenness is essential to what it is. So also with why we feel "new nice shoes" is "wrong": we say "nice" to indicate how we feel about the thing, not really to describe the thing, the way we use "new". But, for its part, "new" is only relatively essential; "green" is more so, so that we would say "Do you like my nice new green dragon?" (hypothetically, of course). Notice that I don't have a comma even though I have three adjectives. I think this is because a comma (replacing "and") would erroneously imply an equal footing or level of attribution for whatever words are so linked. We would never speak of a "green new nice dragon", and even T would at least have said "new nice green dragon".

The best part of the "new-nice" phase T went through came several months after we all spent a day checking out my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Somebody said something about the trip, which prompted T to add, "we got to see Gaffer's New nice York!"

That's right: It's my island! :-)

4 comments:

Hans Persson said...

Barns sätt att konstruera de ord de behöver men inte redan kan brukar vara underhållande. "öronblind" är ett ord jag hört. Häromdagen beskrev Cecilia radion som suddig när den var dåligt inställt.

Det där med adjektivens ordning är intressant. Jag har funderat lite på det någon gång när jag inte kunde komma underfund med vilken ordning de skulle vara, men utan att försöka resonera mig fram till vad det egentligen var som avgjorde hur det borde vara.

Exemplet "see my new nice shoes" tycker jag betyder någonting annat om man vänder på det till "see my nice new shoes". I det senare fallet så vill man peka på ett trevligt par nya skor. I det första fallet implicerar man även att man sedan tidigare har åtminstone något eller några andra par trevliga skor. Om det sedan är en distinktion som jag som icke-infödd talare konstruerar eller om det är en nyans som faktiskt finns i språket vet jag inte.

Gabriele C. said...

Jag är med dig, det är ganska spännande. Jag har nog aldrig tänkt på det förre. När det gjäller Englisk syntax så följer jag hellre instinkten än grammatiska böcker. Samma vid Svenskan, for den delen, bara jag har glömt några detaljer sedan jag studerade in Stockholm 1989/91. Det är nog inte ett språk en får använda mycket i Tyskland. :)

Taking German for Coptic, now, that's funny.

BTW, That meme King Alfred started has spread quite nicely. Writers are a creative bunch. *grin*

I should also join that blog translation project, after all, I have done my share of translations from and into several languages.

King Alfred said...

Man, I need to better my Swedish.

Hans, I think you've pretty much got the distinction; fine explanation. Conceived as a single item, "nice shoes" to me means shoes I wear when I have to look nice (i.e., formal), so, dress shoes--not sneakers (which itself is a concept with different words in different places: they say tennis shoes where I live now, but I still say sneakers).

Yes, Gabriele, I've been keeping track of all the permutations of the meme, and enjoying them all. Thought I didn't start the meme strictly speaking, I did enjoy answering it as my persona.

Hans Persson said...

Eftersom jag vet att du förstår svenska så passar jag naturligtvis på att kommentera på svenska. Det är alltid trevligt att få anledning att träna på språk man kan för lite av. Jag startade (ytterligare) en blogg av den anledningen för ett tag sedan, men det har tyvärr inte blivit så mycket skrivet i den än, och inte så många kommentarer heller. Men det är helt klart väldigt nyttigt att skriva där, för jag blir tvungen att tänka en väldig massa för att få ihop något vettigt.