Monday, July 20, 2015

What's the Singular of Clothes?--According to Two Girls

"Pink Dresses & Accessories" by Karen Arnold
This is a guest post from Susann Tate. She has studied and taught English in the US and abroad.

The very concept of language is amazing to me. The process by which a thought or an idea originating in the mind of one person can be conveyed into the mind of a second person with all of its nuances and complexities is truly wondrous. It is this unique and crowning human ability (even more so, I believe, than the opposable thumb) that has elevated mankind to the heights of civilization. Throughout history the conveyance of ideas and the resultant actions has both lifted some to their highest aspirations and nobilities as well as twisted others to the worst and lowest of degradations and malevolencies as can be imagined.

Beginning of Understanding

Language development begins in our earliest formative stages. Even before we are able to control the shapes and sounds of our utterances we begin to understand their meanings. Then, guided by those around us, we begin to utter and model those sounds which will one day become “communication.” We practice these essential skills – Sound and Meaning, Meaning and Syntax, Acceptance and Understanding, as well as Error and Frustration – until we are gradually able to make ourselves understood and to understand.

I was witness to this marvelous developmental process myself as I raised my two daughters. They are very close in age – only 11 months apart. As they grew and became increasingly verbal, they spent a lot of time together and developed some interesting language quirks between themselves. I have heard of the phenomenon of “twin” languages (“twin-speak” often called cryptophasia or idioglossia) where twins or young children close in age have frequently developed their own “language” – mysterious and unintelligible to all but themselves.  My daughters never developed their own communications anywhere near this degree; however, they did come up with some interesting language constructs and words or word usages made up between them to fill in gaps they had not yet gleaned from their natural – or model – language.

The most memorable of these was:

 “The Clo.” 

When they were about four years old, Barbie Dolls were a favorite plaything. They often spent hours together tucked away in their room surrounded by their imagined stories, dressing, playing acted out roles and redressing their Barbie Dolls. Occasionally (as with any two children that age) there would be conflicts requiring mom to come resolve the issue and smooth the ruffled feathers.

One day, they were suddenly in a real state of crisis and yelling loudly at each other and at me as they were each certain that they were being unjustly treated by the other. The conversation as I entered their room went something like this:

“She took my clo!”
“No, it’s my clo!”
“What is the matter? What ‘clo’ – What did she take?”
“It’s my clo.”
“What is a clo?”
“No, it’s my clo – my Barbie clo and she took it.”
“No, it’s my Barbie clo – I had it first.”
“She took my Barbie clo!”
“No, it’s my Barbie clo!”
 [Ad infinitum…]

At this point, I was at a loss for words; I was stumped. I had not calmed anyone down nor lessened the noise level or the tension in the room. I didn’t even understand the CAUSE of the crisis.

After physically removing both of them from the room (and from all things “Barbie”) followed by several minutes of holding each of them and using soothing tones, I was able to determine the problem.

It seems that a “Clo” was their agreed upon term for a single item of clothing (the item of contention had been a single Barbie dress). They didn’t seem to know the word “clothing” yet and, you see, it can’t be “clothes” because it’s only ONE thing. Everyone knows that words that end in “s” mean more than one… 

They explained this to me with varying degrees of frustration, irritation and even anger that I didn’t seem to know this simple rule of language. They completely unwilling to accept my explanation that an item of “clothes” could mean just “one.”

I laughed as we re-affirmed which Barbie clothes (plural) were assigned to each girl for that day, and the offending “clo” was banished to the drawer for the time being (much to their joint aggravation). Things calmed down and the Barbie dressing games gradually resumed in peace and eventually into girlish giggling. 

After another laugh to myself in the next room, I considered their language development faux pas. After all, being a college graduate – and an English Major at that – how could l not know that an “s” sound at the end of a noun makes it plural?

The Complexities of Language Acquisition

Ah – The complexities of language… the English language in particular – having been thrown together, a jigsaw of words and language patterns from so many others.  It is indeed remarkable that we can assimilate and negotiate all the rules and exceptions to the rules – turning this hodgepodge language into what a native speaker feels like an easy and ordered flow of sound and meaning. 

I need to wonder then, when remembering my two young daughters struggling with one of the “simplest” constructs of their own native tongue – how can we expect others (immigrants for instance) to master this remarkable language with all its nuances in a year? Or even in several years of living among us?

Tell us your thoughts below.