Saturday, May 14, 2011

Semantic Innovation Starts Early

Clara's language has been exploding since I last blogged, more in how much and how persistently she uses it than in how many words, but really in all ways.

This morning, Clara wanted me to read to her but needed a diaper change. I asked if I could read to her after she got a new diaper and she said "mo mo" and pointed at her book a couple of times, then happily went off to get a new diaper.

It's hard to convey in text why these things are so clear, but what was crystal clear from the way she uttered the word and the way she subsequently behaved was that Clara was using "more" to mean "in a little bit," and then emphatically repeating it to make sure I would do it.

The concepts aren't actually that different. You could use both "a little bit" and "more" to mean "I want more cereal", so why not use both to mean "in a little more time."

Of course, these kinds of innovation are incredibly common (and useful), especially when you're dealing with a tiny vocabulary like Clara's at present, but I still think they're neat. One of the most common questions I get from students as a language teacher is why words have multiple meanings. This usually comes up when some common word is revealed to have a new meaning they didn't know or when a word in Spanish has two meanings they need to learn (every new turn in a foreign language is perceived as a personal affront). Watching kids learn language I always think is the sort of linguistic version of "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," the point being, if you want to know why words have multiple meanings, just watch kids talk. They're constantly mapping new meanings onto words, expanding the territory they cover. Of course, we only tend to notice the mappings that aren't (yet?) part of standard English, like Clara's use of "more" this morning -- the mappings that are in keeping with our language tend to go unnoticed entirely.

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