The proclamation was made just as we were pulling into the garage after a trip to Target one afternoon last week. I turned around, half-expecting to be confronted by a 1930s street urchin selling newspapers out of the back of my car. But it was just Mini, smiling back at me, resting comfortably in his car seat, and shaking his sippy cup up and down like it was a can of soda he hoped to con me into opening later.
“Dude, did you just say, ‘NUTS!’?”
“Seriously? You said, ‘nuts’?”
“I don’t want to be overly critical, Mini, it’s just, where on earth did you pick that up?”
” . . . ”
“Are you saying it in the place of an expletive? Like, ‘Oh, nuts! I’m out of cheesy poofs!’ Or is it more of a request, like . . . ‘Give me some nuts!’?”
” . . . ”
“I mean, I never say ‘nuts,’ do I? I don’t even eat them usually. How often could they possibly come up in conversation?”
” . . . ”
“And it’s not as if we’ve been watching old gumshoe detective film noir movies recently. Or . . . I don’t know, who says ‘nuts’ anymore? Mr. Rogers?”
“Ohchekulakakakakaka . . . THIS!”
“What? Are you doing Bea Arthur now?”
“Okay, okay. I’m coming.”
Language is weird. The process of language acquisition is even weirder. This is hardly the most profound observation I’ve made recently, but watching my son develop his language skills is really astonishing at times. And I mean beyond the obvious ways, like the miracle that he has yet to say the words “cocksucker” or “asshat.” Although statistically speaking, that is pretty amazing, because even though Mr. Right-Click and I have theoretically been trying to clean up our language around Mini, the sad reality is that we haven’t quite learned to recognize him for the linguistic sponge that he is. We still think of him as a little baby whose brain is only halfway turned on, even though at 18 months, he wears 3T and has done things like wrestle with Mr. Right-Click for the TV remote, saying, “I WANT THIS.”
So when he came up to me with a board book and said, “read THIS,” I was not sure if he was really speaking to me, or if it was a coincidence that he arrived at those particular sounds in exactly the correct context at that moment. You know, like when you have a newborn that’s making all their weird newborn noises, and then all of a sudden they happen upon a real word, but obviously they’re not really saying that word, because they can’t talk yet.
Like the time when Mini was about two months old and we were driving along, and we hear something out of the back seat that sounds like, “Himmahommameeobajezza–ANAL,” and Mr. Right-Click and I look at each other like, “Dude, did he just say, ‘ANAL’?”
But now sometimes Mini really says words, like the obvious Mama and Dada, NO!, ‘night (Goodnight), Bah (Bath), THIS (one of his favorites), hah da (hot dog, only used a few times), dah (either that, cat, or anything he sees and likes, and wants to go get), and, of course, “Nice!”. These are among the words that we know he is saying with intentionality, but there are many others that we aren’t so sure about. And he’ll say one, or a string of them together, and the two of us are always looking at him like, “Seriously? Did you really just say that?”
I mean sure there are the times where he says something like, “BANAL,” and I’ll be like, “Look, I may be a pretentious asshole, but no way have I said ‘banal’ enough around you for you to pick it up. Try again, funny man.”
But there are other times where it’s not clear how much of it is actually intentional talk, and how much of it is just him happening upon combinations of words that sound like full sentences. I remember explaining to the pediatrician at the twelve-month appointment that he used “mama” to connote me, but also when he was tired or wanted to be soothed, and “dada” to refer to Mr. Right-Click, but also when he was doing something fun or exciting, wild and crazy. And she was like, “OK, well, we don’t have to psychoanalyze his use of every word . . .”
So yeah, maybe I’m overthinking it. But sometimes I wonder about that mind that is being shaped in that cutie pie melon of his–sometimes I look at him and am amazed by what I see. Like, how does he know to catch my eye and then try to fill up a cup with bathwater, and pretend to drink it? How does he know that will make me freak out? How does he already know that actually drinking the bathwater is not necessary, as long as he is convincing in his pretend drinking? And where does that laugh come from? How old is this kid anyway? Nuts!