Some of you may already know what I’m on about. For everyone else, let’s dive right in to the ‘Friday’s Child’ episode of the original Star Trek series, which aired in December 1967. Transcript and video clip are below the fold.
In February I discussed a usage item that popped up in a crime novel by Michael Connelly (‘Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist’). In fact there were a couple of related items: the use of done for finished (‘I’m done eating’), and the use of done in phrases like I’m done my work, as opposed to I’ve done my work or I’m done with my work.
The first of these is really a non-issue, peeved about only by peevers who love peeving peevily. The second one is more interesting, as it’s a dialectal usage apparently little known beyond those areas where it’s perfectly normal. I’m done my homework may grate on ears unused to it, but it’s in no way wrong: it’s just nonstandard.
The next month, by complete coincidence, I encountered the construction again, this time in non-fiction. Even better, it came with lexicographic expertise and sociolinguistic commentary, because the source was Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, a writer and editor of dictionaries at Merriam-Webster.
It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:
Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.
These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):
The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.
Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella Foster, expanded from a short story published in the New Yorker in 2010, has an idiom I remember hearing in childhood and only seldom since. The book’s narrator is a young girl in an unfamiliar place, accompanied here by a woman, Mrs Kinsella, with whom she is staying temporarily:
Out in the street, the sun feels strong again, blinding. Some part of me wishes it would go away, that it would cloud over so I could see properly. We meet people the woman knows. Some of these people stare at me and ask who I am. One of them has a new baby in a pushchair. Mrs Kinsella bends down and coos and he slobbers a little and starts to cry.
‘He’s making strange,’ the mother says. ‘Pay no heed.’
The verb phrase make strange means to act up or be nervous or shy, etc., when encountering a stranger or strange situation. It’s normally said of babies or small children, but not always.
Mary Morrissy’s story ‘Two China Dogs’, from her collection A Lazy Eye, uses the expression a couple of times:
A sullen nature might have compensated, but I was a sullen child. I would sit in the playpen, the toys ranged carefully outside, staring solemnly through the bars. I remember the strange distortions of my caged world. Huge legs and feet, my mother’s mottled calves, the glint of her copper hair as she bent to pick me up, her eyes the startled green of an angry cat’s bearing down on me. She complained that I made strange with people. But it was they who made strange with me. Neighbours would not bend over cooing into this pram, or if they did, they would suddenly withdraw, uncertain and embarrassed.
Like many expressions characteristic of Hiberno-English it seems to have been loaned from Irish, where coimhthíos a dhéanamh le duine literally means ‘to make strangeness with someone’, or to be shy or aloof in their presence; coimhthíos means strangeness, shyness, aloofness or alienation.
Another phrase, bheith deoranta le duine, means essentially the same thing with a different verb (be rather than make) and, said of adults, can also mean to be distant with someone.
John Banville, in The Untouchable, points to a sinister origin in folklore:
Babbling is a key stage in language acquisition. We can see where it fits into the overall progression in the following “very rough” table taken from Jean Aitchison’s The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics:
|Language stage||Beginning age|
|Intonation patterns||8 months|
|1-word utterances||1 year|
|2-word utterances||18 months|
|Word inflections||2 years|
|Questions, negatives||2¼ years|
|Rare or complex constructions||5 years|
|Mature speech||10 years|
After the cooing or gurgling phase from which it develops, babbling has a distinctly speech-like quality because it features “sounds that are chopped up rhythmically by oral articulations into syllable-like sequences”, as Mark Liberman describes it.
The sounds most associated with babbling are mama, papa, dada, nana and slight variations thereon — as for example in the well-known video of twin babies repeating dada (and dadadadada, etc.) to each other.
This is true of a great many languages from different language families and parts of the world. The remarkable correspondence can be seen in a list included in Larry Trask’s “Where do mama/papa words come from?”, about which more below: