Saturday, February 6, 2010

How do you say "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" in linguisticsese?

Today, Grace wanted to go to sleep "camped out" on her bedroom floor. She then decided the whole family should come, and she moved over for me. This was a remarkable event -- usually when Grace comes to our bed she takes over my side and insists that I sleep on the bottom of the bed (I don't actually give in to this demand, for what it's worth). Thus, Grace thought that her moving over tonight was worth repeated comment, which made it pretty easy to tell what she was saying:

"Mine moved over daddy" (standardized spelling).

Which means: "I moved over for daddy"

Which she pronounced, roughly: "mine mov-uhduh ovuh daddy"

This would be the first regular past tense I've definitely observed in Gracese!

What's particularly cool is that her pronunciation of "-ed" looks a heck of a lot like her pronunciation of "did", which is one of the (albeit disputed) theories of the origin of the suffix in English (see Paraphrastic Theory of Origin here). Regardless of the similarity to "did", her pronunciation does look more like Old English weak verb endings (-ede and -ode) than like modern English.

You might think "uhduh" was a word for something like "for", which we would expect in her sentence ("I moved over ____ Daddy"), but as far as I can tell, Grace only has a subset of the prepositions (up, on, down, over etc.) which she tends to use on their own as verbs or as so-called "prepositional verbs". She omits the prepositions "for", "to" and "with" everywhere we would expect them. So, you can analyze this sentence (and countless others like it) either with "Daddy" being in something like a dative case or with "move/move over" having a slightly different semantics in her language (with similar usage to a phrase like "give into"). Other verbs with interesting semantics in Gracese are "play", which is used transitively in the play-with-toys sense, whereas in standard English the transitive play is only used for the play-an-instrument sense. This is a particularly charming one since it comes up hundreds of times a day ("Mine play it", "Mine play those", "Mine play it more right now", "Daddy play it too right now", etc.).

The other reason I'm thinking this new "uhduh" is a past tense suffix is that I've been watching her engage more with the past tense (as a concept) over the past month or so. On other nights, for example, I've noticed her self-correcting to get irregular past tense verbs right. For example, the other night when Katharine worked late and then made a much-celebrated return home at bedtime, we kept retelling the story of "mommy come home." On the thirtieth retelling or so, Grace switched over to "mommy came home" (pronounced something like "Mommy tame home", since she still doesn't really have a "k" sound). The point being she definitely understands the concept of past tense verbs.

Of course, the proof will be when she first produces the sentence "Mommy come-uhduh home" (with the newly mastered ending overriding the correct irregular form) which I am eagerly looking forward to!

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