Ambiguity and Toddlers

Ambiguity is not something a toddler understands. Addie and I were playing with one of her toys that has a lot of gizmos that whizz, turn, and make noise. One of them is a lion whose nose turns around like an old rotary dial telephone (for those under 55, go look it up). She thought it was hilarious. “Nose go ‘ound.” “Yes.” I said, “it does.” “Does your nose go around?” She gave me a serious look that meant she was thinking it over. She then stood up and turned in a complete circle, then sat back down. You know what, her nose did go around.

We both laughed, but probably for different reasons. She was quite chuffed with herself for coming up with the answer. I laughed, because she made me look downright silly. I didn’t qualify my question with a phrase that asked if her nose turned around like the lion. Had I done that, perhaps she wouldn’t have figured out how to make her nose go around, because, like most early language speakers, she is quite literal in her concepts of communication. I know the understood ambiguity doesn’t kick in until they are a bit older than toddler age. However, in today’s world, ambiguity is fast becoming the premier communication form.

I am not bashing technology, but as a retired English teacher, I find it bizarre that we have a whole generation that communicates with one letter words, anachronisms, and emoticons. They text each other, and due to short hand communication, they must be able to make a leap from three letters, LOL, to three words, laughing out loud. I know that each generation tends to have their own slang, most of which drove their parents crazy, but we had whole word slang. When I was a kid, for a while, the phrase “super-coolie-mojoe” was popular (it meant something was extraordinary or very good). Today, it would be shortened to SCM, LOL. And the thing is, the folks who use social media and cell phones would know exactly what it meant. How the heck did that happen?

Language changes, words change meaning and their placement in the sentence structure. Not just English, but every language goes through a constant reinvention. Those who spoke English in the days of Queen Elizabeth I, would have a hard time understanding much of anything someone in the days of Queen Elizabeth II would say – and vice versa. Today one world can be a noun, verb, participle, adverb, and adjective depending on its placement in the sentence structure and intonation derived from those placements. I really think I would rather speak Old English rather than modern text speak.

I know most of the world loathes diagramming sentences. I quite like it, because it gives order to my thoughts. Can you imagine trying to diagram a sentence written in text speak? “R U LOL at Joe’s new cut? Interrogative. Hummm. R is not a word. U is not a word. LOL is not a phrase, and Joe’s new cut is an incomplete sentence because the writer does not say what kind of cut. It could be a hair cut, an insult, decapitation, self harm, ditching class, or any number of things that go with the word cut.

Speaking of incomplete sentences, social media (the new buzz word for communication with friends and family) has brought the use of them to a high art. Or to a new low, depending on your point of view. I keep waiting for the rest of the sentence when I see something like, “Just sayin’.” You are just saying, WHAT? It isn’t even short hand speak, it is an incomplete sentence! One has to make that mental leap to modern slang and from there to what the topic is about, in one fell swoop. And one can
still get it all wrong if they make the wrong intuitive leap.

I thought it was awful when my boys would use words like “rad” and “bad” for things that were good or extraordinary when they were kids. Today people use English words in combinations that make absolutely no sense if the sentence is broken down. There is, of course, a whole new lexicon of words that didn’t exist until the advent of the age of technology. Although, that lexicon is in constant flux because of the ever changing nature of technology and science. I over heard a young man say to his friend, “You should YouTube that dude.” If you came from a place that didn’t have the computer site, YouTube, would you understand what he said? Oh, and the “dude” was a girl. In my day, “dude” meant a male who though he was the gift of the gods to the world. In my grandparent’s day, the word “dude” was applied to an effeminate male or what we would call a metrosexual guy today. While in my son’s world, “dude” was a male friend or person who generally sounded like he was a surfer dude who had one too many tokes from the blunt that was passed around at school.

I love the old time colloquialisms and “sayings” that my grandparents and writers of old used. Like Aesop’s Fables, a story could be told and a lesson learned in a few sentences. “Keep crossing your eyes like that, and they will get stuck.” always made me wonder why that would happen, leading all sorts of bizarre scenarios in my mind. (I know, weird, get past it.) I wonder what my, many times, great grandchildren will have as wise sayings from their grandparents. “Yo, Dude, not cool to dis your old lady. Ain’t gonna get no love dat way.” I think, “Son, treat a woman with respect, it is the only way you will ever get one to marry you,” is clearer and any English speaker ought to be able to understand the meaning of the sentence and sentiment therein.

Toddlers do not deal with ambiguity in their world of words. It is going to be interesting to watch our Addie learn to communicate in the world she will inherit. I am thinking, however, that she will have a more varied vocabulary than most kids her age.

Modern English is going to evolve into a homogeneous glob of single letters, anachronisms, and grunts. And one day the pendulum will swing back and one day, our progeny will look back on this era and laugh out loud as they say, “Doest thou believeth the language of thine fathers?” Or, they could just as easily be speaking Alpha Centarian too.

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