Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Leaving our words behind

I have no idea what a treasure trove I'm living with.

Prompted by Mr. Verb's post today I just asked Buffy as she walked past me: You know that game kids play where you walk around a circle patting people on the head... Here she interrupted me: Yeah. Duck Duck Grey-duck... Why?

I was so sure she wouldn't say that. And she had no idea why my eyes grew big and my jaw dropped. She remembers hearing about duck-duck-goose but she was shocked to learn that the grey duck variation is largely a Minnesota thing.

I say the study of children's terminology is especially interesting because those are often lexical items that are learned from other children. Adults often leave their first nest but they don't spread the terms too quickly because you don't often find a bunch of adults sitting around playing duck-duck-anything. And those that do probably don't have much influence over children.

So we use our childhood argot then leave it behind as we pick up our new lingo acquired at a different time in a different place.

For this to be true we need to grant that kids learn language from kids. Makes sense. I never heard my parents call the woodlouse a potato bug. But that's what I learned as a child splitting time between Worthington Ohio and Beltsville Maryland. A few years ago that I saw an episode of Fear Factor refer to the Jerusalem cricket as a potato bug and my childhood died a little. Mostly from watching that horrible show.

Do we have a language full of lexical items abandoned on the playground waiting for the next pair of grubby little hands to pick them up?


  1. Absolutely we do. We (the greater we) also have a collection of childhood songs that were taught to us by slightly older children. ("The ants go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah ...") Adults "know" these songs, but only passively any more; they are a part of a stratum of development that children go through. ("Through" in a sort of literal sense.)

    Children do learn a lot of their language from others kids, which is why the children of immigrants can always speak "accent free" in the language of their new home. And that of course explains the incomprehensible argot of e.g. teens, which of course they did not learn from their elders.

    To expand a bit on this (with your leave), Judith Rich Harris wrote a book titled "The Nurture Assumption," the thesis of which is that far and away the strongest influence on children is that of their peers. We assume way too much influence from parents, is what she opines.

  2. Absolutely. I'm glad you touched on this topic. I've often thought about this issue with childhood jokes. It seems that some jokes live only within the walls of an elementary school. One learns a joke in the 5th grade from a schoolmate, abandons it before moving to the 6th, and never hears the joke again until they have the experience of talking to a new 5th grader. These jokes circulate in the same spot forever. Now perhaps this is because 5th grade humor will only take a person so far, but I think it's more interesting than that. As you said, kids acquire a new lingo and leave the old one behind for another round of kids to pick up.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.