I was thinking about the importance of words, and how we want to be perfectly understood, all the while understanding imperfectly. And it is not just semantics or definitions of words; there is so much more, especially if one has resided in different regions of the United States. Because, the reality is, we are not all the same, and do not speak the same way.
There are a couple states in which I lived where people used words and phrases a person raised in the San Joaquin Valley in California would have no clue what was being said unless she deliberately set her mind to learning the local speech. I was particularly fond of Idaho and Maine, where pronunciation also factored into the language in a big way, posing challenge upon challenge in mining the colloquialisms, and refining them into discernible, comprehensible communication.
A classic sentence in Idaho: Dell decided to skip the rendezvous in Peek-a-boo, and instead, head out to the puckerbrush for the weekend to hunt varmits; he will be following every crick he finds, and hopes to beg at least one ki-oat while he is there.
Simply translated:Dale decided to skip the gathering in Picabo, and instead, head out to the country for the weekend to hunt varmints or vermin; he will be following every creek he finds, and hopes to bag at least one coyote while he is there.
Easy, once I learned how to turn A’s into E’s, drop a few consonants here and there, and remembered there was a lot of influence from the Native American, French, Basque and Mountain Man cultures in Idaho language. Idaho also was where I found people drank pop instead of coke; and if someone was rude, they were treating you ignernt, which of course is really the word ignorant. And I never did figure out why it was construed as rude behavior. But it seemed ignernt to ask.
In Maine I was shocked to hear a sweet grandmother say her grandbaby was the most cunnin‘ thing she ever saw. Huh? I had become somewhat accustomed to the ending to almost every word either being dropped, or any word ending in the letter R having an eeuh pronunciation. But a newborn being cunning? Really? And where I came from wicked did not mean very, and drove right up was something one did in a car, not a description of how busy you were. This classic actually was spoken to me and my western ears by the same lady who had the cunning grandbaby: Deeuh, please pawk the caw ovuh thayuh. I want to go in the stouh, and buy Molly a new sweatuh. She’s so small, I swayuh, she’s no bigguh thayun a fawt in a mitten”. Thinking to myself, laughing hysterically inside, “Did she just say fart in a mitten???” Why, yes she did.
So, having learned a few things about words over the years, and how their meanings can be altered depending on where one lives, I also am very careful when speaking to children who, just as I was and still am, can be quite literal in what they hear. It always has been a challenge for me to understand anything other than exactly what was being said, so I get it when children have those “What did you say?” moments; puzzled little folks not realizing just how much nuance, subtlety, and figures of speech probably will clutter their verbal and auditory experiences throughout life.
And it was just such a moment when my grandson was playing with his cool new dinosaur, attempting to remove its skin from the plastic skeleton inside, that I listened with joy to our conversation, because as we spoke, he and I were naturally giving and receiving only necessary words, the nuts and bolts of communication, and we understood each other clearly, purely.
“Grandma, would you help me, please?”
“I would be happy to help you. What would you like?”
“Would you help me skin my dinosaur?”
“Of course, I would help you skin your dinosaur. Let’s do it.”
At which point, Grandma, the skilled skinner of any and all dinosaurs, peeled that critter right down to its bones in nothing flat. I showed my grandson it was easiest, after opening
his chest, to take his head off first, then his arms, legs, and finally his tail. Together we literally turned that T. rex inside out, and a little five year old boy was that much closer to being able to remove the skin by himself, because we talked as we did it, and practiced together.
Knowing how frustrated and confused I often was as a child, wanting to understand what adults were saying to me, but frequently lost in words I did not know, and complex instructions I could not follow; I wish all adults entrusted with children would comprehend vocabularies will build as they are exposed to conversations and books that start small, and grow as they do, and those tricky figures of speech in our language will develop in time given adequate explanations and definitions.
So, as one who remembers how it was, I think how beneficial it would be, while they are young, to give children the gift of patience while they build those skills necessary to communicate effectively. At their own speed, let them learn the glory of words; defined, constructed, and woven together that eventually could paint a verbal masterpiece. Or will enable them, at the very least, to assist the next generation skin a brand new dinosaur. And as I think about it, teaching a child of the next generation just may be the highest we can achieve in our ability to communicate. What better success than to help our little people discover the tools to create and share that which identifies them as uniquely individual, be it written or spoken; to help them find their voice.