The cow says…”OINK!”

OK, so occasionally I come across something in my web travels that manages to combine several of my interests into one neat little package, e.g. ridiculously cute bunnies, snow and time-wasting games, or maybe super-nerdy linguistical analysis, Star Wars and manufactured languages, or even, yes, timely news of the day’s events, ridiculously complicated clip-art flight maps, and the radiant incarnation of Eos, goddess of the dawn.

Today, however, I encountered something that not only amused and informed me, but brought back a flood of memories as well. That’s right, kids, it’s time for another sepia-toned visit to Claire’s Mysterious Past™!

I am, as it may have been mentioned elsewhere, much older than my youngest sister, Kait – fourteen years older, as a matter of fact. So, while she was trying to master the arts of walking, speech and voluntary bowel control, I was already a nerdish High Schooler with a penchant for linguistics and a love for my baby sister that, while strong, did not necessarily preclude subjecting her to scientific inquiry in the name of my Prime Directive, i.e., trying to learn everything until either I succeeded or my head exploded. Kait was no more than 2 when The Farm Experiment began. Now, lest your mind conjure fiendish visions of The Island of Dr. Moreau, please remember that my interest was solely linguistic in nature, and my experiment designed to answer one question, namely:

Could a young child, if intentionally misinformed about select pieces of information and vocabulary, incorporate this incorrect information into his or her behavior and mindset?

(The answer, of course, is yes. Otherwise, no one would ever eat Circus Peanuts or try to convince the populace that ketchup is a vegetable.)

The experiment was simple. Kait was learning to talk, and despite some difficulties with her r’s and w’s due to eustachian tube issues, she was picking up words and phrases with alacrity. Hoping that Kait was, like myself at a similar age, a budding nerd of nerdiness, I was in the habit of pointing to objects and naming them, then looking at her expectantly while she rattled off an approximation (or, more correctly, “appwoximashun”) of what I’d just told her. It was in this way that she learned about the “wo-wo” (railroad), breakfast foods (“Mow toast, pweese. And pass da butta!”), and, of course, the onomatopoeic sounds of the world around us…and it was the last of these that formed the basis of my fiendish linguistic experiment.

In the course of our travels, we would often pass one of the many farms that dot the Ohio landscape, pleasing the eye even as they offend the nose, and Kait, her natural curiosity bubbling over, would point to the various animals and inquire as to the species and call such beasts might possess – and I was happy to oblige.

CLAIRE, POINTING TO A SHEEP: “That’s a cow, honey. What does the cow say? It says ‘OINK!'”

KAIT, HER INNOCENT EYES FULL OF TRUST AND LOVE: “OINK! Cowie say OINK!”

And so on.

Obviously, I was a total shit.

However, when you are young and value knowledge above all else (having not yet learned the nature of the world and what really matters), being a shit is small potatoes next to observing the learning process in action. The experiment was doomed to fail once Kait received her first See ‘N’ Say (actually, it failed the first time Ma overheard me and threatened to acquaint me with a concept known as “house arrest”), but I was high on my own scientific daring. What if, against all odds, the information stuck, and Kait went through her whole life assuming that people who tried to correct her were lying? What if she raised her own kids to know “pigs” as giant black-and-white bovines that say “Baaaa?”  Would she, over time, actually hear the cows saying “baaa?” The implications for the language and behavorial sciences were truly staggering!

“What does all this have to do,” I hear you asking “with whatever nonsense you’ve stumbled across on the web, you terrible sister, you?”

Good question! It seems that I’m not the only one with an interest in how people hear things. Yes, the world over, the EXACT SAME SOUND is heard differently by speakers of different languages! That’s why, in Colombia, cows don’t say “Moo,” they say “Maaa…”, and why Korean pigs don’t oink so much as say “no, no, no!” In fact, onomatopoeic sounds of all kinds are a little skewed depending on where you call home, and that’s why you should check out Bzzzpeek. You’ll learn a lot about how the sounds we take for granted every day are very different if you’re in Bruges or Salamanca, and the fact that the site is so cute it’s almost fatal doesn’t hurt.

And as for Kait? Well, nowadays, of course, Kait can appreciate the, ahem, “wackiness” of her formative years. She’s long since forgiven me, and we can sit back, share a drink, and swap stories ’til the pigs…er, cows come home.

I just hope my other sister Kim doesn’t ask me why my nephew Ian keeps calling the dog “Kitty.”

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5 Responses

  1. At least your torment was creative!

  2. @Karen: That is the balm with which I soothe my ravaged conscience, my friend.

  3. It is very interesting, the mental aspect of language (arguably the largest aspect of language). I was a big phonology enthusiast during my linguistic studies, and I was fascinated to learn that there are sounds that exist in some languages and not in others. Even more interesting to me was the fact that some languages hear two sounds as being distinct, while other languages hear them as being the same sound.

    For instance, I believe in Hindi/Urdu they hear a difference between aspirated labial stop consonants (/bh/ and /ph/) and unaspirated labial stop consonants (/b/ and /p/). In English, if someone adds a little extra puff of air when they say a B or a P, we don’t hear that as different. In fact, I don’t think we often pronounce P’s in an unaspirated fashion (Which would sound more like a B, although it wouldn’t technically be a B. I think this sound happens in Spanish a lot, if I’m not mistaken.)

    Anyway, I love phonology. And I love that there are other language geeks out there who love this stuff too.

  4. I love language. Phonology is extremely interesting. Besides my native English, I also speak Spanish and Portuguese. And I find the different sounds and rhythms of the languages so interesting.

    I’m also working on making up my own constructed language (conlang) to use in some of my other various creative endeavors. I even blogged about it a while ago.

    Oh, and if you think messing with your sister was bad, you should see the looks my wife gives me when I do stuff like that to my kids.

  5. @Sra: Yeppers, that happens PLENTY en Español. “B” and “V” are phonic twins in some ways, but there IS a subtle fricative that occurs on V that helps one distinguish it from B, e.g. “Veracruz” becomes “(f)Vera-cruthz” (Castileño) or (f)Vera-crewz (Mexican Spanish), as compared to the harder lentitional stop present in many B words like “Bodega,” i.e. “(p)Bo-day-ga.” I’m not as familiar with the mechanics of Hindi/Urdu, but I am familiar with the aspects of a tonal language and the magical ability of speakers of the same to detect things MY ears certainly struggle to perceive.

    @Trov: Language has long fascinated me…I’ve also constructed a language (Circean) for the novels I’m writing. It’s based on a lot of things, but the character and syntactical structure are very different from most Western languages (or Earth languages, for that matter).

    Tu hablas Español, tambien? A fuego, vato!

    Wives are in the habit of correcting their husband’s behavior when that behavior is A) likely to land the kid in juvie if repeated and/or B) fun in any way. This is why dads are usually more feared as disciplinarians but more cherished as supervisors (“Aw, come on, Dad, Mom won’t know we set off just ONE firecracker!”).

    *NOTE: This rule doesn’t apply when it comes to anything that the dad in question finds boring or non-fun, in which case the kids will either receive random punishment or encouragement to engage in an activity the dad DOES find to be fun, and can therefore engage in while pretending to “educate” them.

    This is the reason I know how to kill and skin a squirrel.

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