How children learn to talk

As a guy with Asperger’s, and the parent of two kids at different stages of learning to speak, the English language fascinates me. This might sound strange considering that part of living with autism means struggling to communicate, but by forcing me to obsess about words and meaning, those very difficulties made me not only an expert on morphology and syntax, but also a bit of a grammar Nazi. This means I find it incredibly satisfying to watch my girls struggling to work out the rules of the language – and often very annoying too.

‘But surely,’ I hear you non-parents cry, ‘children learn to speak by imitation. They don’t learn grammar until they’re at school.’

You’re wrong. Emphatically so. It’s hardwired into us to spot patterns, and two facets of the English language provide incontrovertible proof that toddlers are not simply passive recipients of their mother tongue, mindlessly parroting back what they’ve heard, but active participants in deciphering language: irregular verbs and irregular plural nouns.

Since most people don’t read grammar primers for fun, a bit of explanation is required. Let’s start with the verbs. There are strong, irregular verbs that have three forms to denote tenses (present, past and past imperfect), like ‘sink, sank, have sunk’, or ‘swim, swam, have swum’, and some with two, like ‘buy’ and ‘bought’, and ‘think’ and ‘thought’. By far the most common, however, are the weak, regular verbs that simply add ‘ed’ to the end to change tense, so ‘walk’ becomes ‘walked’ and ‘talk’ becomes ‘talked’.

Ever heard a child say that they ‘winned’ or they ‘runned’ or they ‘taked’ or they ‘eated’? They absolutely did not pick that up by listening to other people. What they’ve done is notice a rule – that you put a ‘d’ sound on the end of a regular verb to change its tense – and they’ve generalised that rule and applied it to every verb, including the irregular ones. Even if they’re not consciously doing it, they’re grappling with the rules of grammar to make meaning.

The same is true of irregular plural nouns. You pluralise regular nouns by adding an ‘s’ at the end, so ‘bed’ becomes ‘beds’ and ‘tree’ becomes ‘trees’. How, then, are we to account for toddlers talking about ‘sheeps’ and ‘childs’ and ‘mouses’, instead of ‘sheep’ and ‘children’ and ‘mice’? They’ve learned a rule and applied it where it doesn’t work. As seemingly incapable as they are, they’re advanced pattern-recognition machines. That’s right, every kid is a freaking genius.

Another thing children have to do when they learn to talk is limit the range of meanings a particular word can have. If you point at a picture of a silver convertible and say ‘car’, you’d be pretty confident they understand something so simple, but you’d again be wrong. The truth is that pinning down the meaning of a word is far more complicated than that. Are you saying this individual vehicle is a car? Are you saying that all things with wheels are cars? Are you saying all silver things are cars? All convertibles?

As an example, two of the first words my youngest learned were ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, and while she was accurately able to distinguish a dog from a cat, her fluency was actually rather deceptive. We quickly discovered that she understood ‘cat’ to be a catchall term for ‘anything alive that is not a dog’, so rabbits, mice, monkeys, or even people were cats in her mind. Similarly, my oldest often makes mistakes with gender-specific pronouns, thinking ‘he’ and ‘his’ are universal instead of referring to a particular sex, so it can be quite confusing when she’s talking about her friend Phoebe and starts using ‘he’ and ‘him’. Kids have to work out what individual words refer to, or which of several separate meanings is the one you want, and that’s before they can even feed themselves properly.

Speaking of personal pronouns, have you ever thought about the complexity of a sentence as apparently simple as, ‘She gave it to me’? In order to say it, children have to learn to distinguish between first, second and third-person, singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and identify the subject and object of a sentence.

‘Now you’re talking nonsense,’ I hear you cry. ‘That can wait till secondary school.’

Actually, no. While it’s true that English lost most of its inflections and gender constructions, for some reason we kept them when it comes to pronouns. This is another topic that needs a bit of unpacking, so buckle in, it’s going to get interesting.

‘I’ is the first person singular. ‘We’ is the first-person plural. It’s easiest to think of the first-person as involving yourself. I am part of what’s happening, whether it’s just me on my own, or me and some others. You use this when speaking about yourself.

‘You’ is the second-person. You is both singular and plural. You use this when you’re addressing someone to refer to them.

‘He’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ is the third-person singular. ‘They’ is the plural. You use this to describe what other people did that didn’t include you. It’s in the third-person singular that gender comes in – he, she, him, his, her – and is the reason it’s become a battlefield of the trans movement. The only gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun is ‘it’, which normally refers to inanimate objects or gender-indistinguishable animals, whereas many gender-neutral individuals like Sam Smith prefer to be referred to as ‘they’, which purists object to since that is a third-person plural term.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Subject and object is far easier.

The subject of a sentence is the one who does something; the object is the one who has something done to them. In English, we normally distinguish them by their place in the sentence in relation to the verb. Thus in the sentence ‘John kisses Mary’, John is the subject (the one who kisses) and Mary is the object (the one who is kissed). If you want to reverse the meaning, you simply switch the nouns around to ‘Mary kisses John’. This is why English is referred to as an SVO language, because we construct meaning using ‘subject-verb-object’ (about half the planet’s languages are SOV, or subject-object-verb, so would write ‘Mary John kisses’, but it’s not important to know this).

Many of the older languages that influenced English, like German, French, Greek and Latin, are inflected languages, which means the words change their form to reflect their relationship to other words. In Latin, for example, whether a word is the subject or the object is denoted by its ending rather than its position in the sentence, thus ‘Sextus laborat mulum’ and ‘mulum laborat Sextus’ mean exactly the same thing: ‘Sextus works the mule’ (theoretically, the words could be in any order, but in practice, Latin was an SOV language).

The trouble with inflected endings is that people are lazy speakers, so over time they drop word endings, which totally messes up the meaning and forces the language to evolve. English speakers tend be very lazy speakers – we’ve reduced most of our endings to the ‘schwa’ vowel sound ‘uh’, hence the endings of footballer, theatre, literature and banana are now pronounced the same (at least where I live, anyway), so that’s how we ended up with an SVO language. Whether a noun is the subject or the object it stays the same, unless it’s a personal pronoun, in which case it gets tricky.

Now comes the fun part. In order to speak properly using pronouns, you have to know the person (first, second or third), the quantity (singular or plural) and identify the subject and object. That’s how you know the first-person singular subject ‘I’ becomes ‘me’ as the object, just as the first-person plural subject ‘we’ becomes ‘us’ as the object. It’s how you know ‘he’, the third-person singular masculine subject, gives something to ‘him’, the third-person singular masculine object, and ‘she’ gives something to ‘her’. It’s how you know ‘they’, the third -person plural subject, becomes ‘them’. And this is without even mentioning the possessive pronouns ‘my’, ‘our’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and ‘their’.

Pretty complex ideas that need to be unpacked right from the start of learning to talk, not at secondary school. Whether they know it or not, kids are having to sift through a linguistic labyrinth just to say something as simple as ‘I gave it to her’. It’s the reason you hear so many toddlers say, ‘Me do it!’ and the reason it hits your ear wrong: they’ve correctly identified that ‘me’ is first-person singular, but they haven’t yet managed to grasp that ‘I’ is the proper term to use when they’re the subject. See? Kids are sorting out incredibly complex rules, most of them without even being aware they’re doing it.

What I really enjoy about children learning to speak is when their misapplication of the rules, mishearing of idioms, or simple mispronunciations create something genuinely interesting.

Like my youngest the other day walked up to the cat and gave her a kick. I told her off, and then a few minutes later she did it again. When I asked her why, she pointed at the screen and said, ‘Kick cat.’ It didn’t dawn on me until later that we’d been watching a programme on chocolate and they were talking about KitKats!

It’s also been really difficult to convince her that her name is not ‘me’, it’s Rosie. The closest we’ve managed is to get her to say, ‘Rose-me,’ which I guess is close enough.

My eldest, Izzie, is an expert at mixing up expressions. She always says, ‘by your own’ because she’s combined two expressions that mean the same thing: ‘by yourself’ and ‘on your own’. Also, because there’s a bedtime and a night time, she often shouts out in the middle of the night, ‘Is it morning time yet?’

Her pronunciation also leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of dropping the ends of her words and replacing them with a schwa, she has a tendency to drop the start of her words, so banana becomes ‘uhnana’ and ‘pretending’ is pronounced ‘uhtending ‘. And I swear she must have lived in Louisiana in a past life, because at times she has the most Southern drawl of any English girl I’ve ever met. Instead of hotel, she says, ‘Ho-TAY-ul,’ and instead of daffodil, it’s ‘daff-o-DEE-ul.’ It’s like sharing a house with that racist redneck sheriff from the Bond movies.

But the best thing she’s ever done is her song, ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy.’ She’s been singing it for months, and it drives me nuts, but I’ve only just figured out where it comes from.

If you study idioms, you find that their meanings and the words therein gradually change over time. This is particularly true if they contain a word that falls out of fashion and survives only as part of that idiom, and that word is normally changed to one that is more familiar. ‘All that glisters is not gold’ became ‘All that glistens is not gold,’ for example, and people everywhere these days say they’re ‘chomping’ at the bit, when the expression is ‘champing‘.

Kids do this all the time. With their limited vocabulary, they hear something and try to fit it into the words they already know. ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy’? She’s really singing, ‘Alcohol, alcohol, make you crazy.’

Of course, just because I know the difference between the definite and indefinite article doesn’t mean that I’m immune from misunderstandings, far from it, in fact. I’ll leave you with this little anecdote that happened to me the other day. I was listening to the radio in the car when an advert came on extolling the virtues of a particular brand of tyre. It ended with the line, ‘If you want a tyre without standing grip and performance, buy…’ and whatever the brand was called.

I frowned out at the road. Why would you want a tyre that has no standing grip? If you parked it on a hill, what’s it going to do, slide down to the bottom? And what on earth do they mean by standing performance? Surely you want the best performance when you’re driving down the road, not when you’re standing still. What odd characteristics they chose to highlight in their advert, I thought.

It was only later that I realised the man had said, ‘with outstanding grip and performance’. Whoops.


Pedantry and Autism: a love story

Pedantry: noun. Excessive concern with minor details and rules; over-commitment to formalism, accuracy and precision; prioritising of simple knowledge (facts and rules and obscurantism) over more general knowledge and/or common sense. Used in a negative context.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a pedant. I have always been a pedant and likely always will be. It stems from the black-and-white thinking style of my autism, my propensity for rote learning and my obsession with the little things, especially my ability to see the minutiae of the trees yet somehow spectacularly miss the forest. I speak ‘correctly’, even though I acknowledge there is no ‘correct’ way to speak; I try to ensure that I am one-hundred percent accurate in everything I say and write, while accepting that perfection is an impossible dream; and I follow the rules, no matter how stupid or seemingly arbitrary.

Despite its negative reputation, I don’t think being a pedant is necessarily a bad thing.

True, if you correct people on their grammar or point out the factual and logical fallacies of their arguments, it’s often seen as arrogant, condescending and belittling. To quote Ben Shapiro, however: facts don’t care about your feelings. Thanks to my autism, and unfortunately for those around me, I’m far more committed to the facts than I am to anybody’s feelings.

It is not my intention to hurt people’s feelings, though. Correcting them when they make a mistake is how I communicate and share my love of language and history with those around me. Much of the time, when I interrupt the flow of the conversation to tell somebody the true meaning and origin of a phrase they’ve misused, it is done with good intentions and because I think it’ll enrich their understanding and appreciation of the world around them. Partly, it’s to show off and try to impress people.

Only sometimes do I do it to be a dick.

But while I can say it comes from a place of genuine concern for the intellectual development of my fellows, another and probably equally important factor is that I can’t not do it. Inaccuracies cause me pain. My cringe-factor is turned up to eleven every time I hear something that’s patently wrong and the only way of alleviating that crushing horror is to put them straight. I can’t let them walk around being wrong. Entitled? Yes, you could probably call me that. But would you rather suffer a momentary embarrassment and then go through the rest of your life being right, or keep on exposing your ignorance to everyone who knows the truth?

It’s been said that the moment an Englishman speaks, another Englishman judges him, so it’s important to get it right. It’s not ‘I drunk it’ but ‘I drank it’, not ‘could of’ but ‘could have’, and there are no such words as supposably, irregardless, and expresso. I imply, you infer; a chicken lays an egg but people lie down; and if I affect something, I create an effect. Unique means ‘one of a kind’, so things cannot be quite unique or very unique, and if you say ‘reverse back’ or ‘past history’, you’re using one word too many. Little things, but they go a long way.

It’s hard to blame people, however, when everywhere they’re exposed to poor grammar. Songs called ‘Beneath Your Beautiful’; pop culture expressions like ‘You sunk my battleship’; movies entitled Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. No wonder so many people think that you are hanged, not hung, or that you can ‘literally’ die of embarrassment, yet still be able to tell the tale. And don’t get me started on there, their and they’re.

Misused idioms also hit my ear like nails down a chalkboard. It’s not ‘chomping’ at the bit, it’s ‘champing’, referring to an eager horse biting down on its metal mouthpiece; a damp ‘squib’ is a small explosive device, not a tentacled sea-creature; and ‘tenter hooks’ stretch hides over a wooden frame to make them anything but tender. Language evolves, sure, but there have to be standards, otherwise we’ll all end up speaking gibberish and nobody will be able to understand each other.

I can’t stand people promoting falsehoods either, like the guy who sat in front of me on a ferry into Portsmouth one time, who pointed to HMS Warrior and told his wife it was HMS Victory. That might seem minor, but come on – how can you mistake the legendary Victory of Trafalgar and Nelson fame, a wooden-hulled 1765 first rate triple decker ship-of-the-line that is an integral part of British history and national identity, with an iron-hulled 1860 armoured frigate? How could I not correct that error? It’s something every schoolboy should know.

But the most egregious recent example I’ve come across is in Jon Sopel’s bestseller If Only They Didn’t Speak English. As North America Editor for BBC World News, he should know a thing or two about a) facts and b) accuracy, yet when writing about race relations in the US, an incendiary topic that demands care and attention, he displays an unforgivable ignorance. He writes about ‘the literally millions of Africans rounded up and shipped off in the most appalling, fetid conditions to the East Coast of America’, and how ‘twelve and a half million people left the ports of Africa and came to America in leg irons’. All of this suggests that the slave trade was centred on the US and that it’s an exceptional case in world history, a view that supports certain political ideologies but is entirely inaccurate.

Don’t get me wrong, slavery was awful and I don’t wish to minimise the suffering of those affected, but sensationalism and emotion should never take the place of cold, hard facts. Luckily, these are readily available at the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, thanks largely to the work of professors David Eltis and David Richardson of Emory University. Of around 12.5 million slaves shipped across the Atlantic in the period 1519-1867, fewer than 350,000 – less than 5% of the total – went to what is now the United States. Around 40% went to the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, 11% to Jamaica and the rest around the Caribbean and South America.

It is therefore wholly inaccurate to claim that ‘literally millions’ of Africans were shipped to the East Coast of America’ or that ‘Twelve and a half million people…came to America in leg irons.’ More than that, it’s irresponsible as it feeds into the myth of American Exceptionalism and continues to inflame racial tensions. I would have expected a person of Sopel’s background to be more careful with his facts. I would also have expected this misinformation to be picked up on and corrected in the subsequent editions, but it has not, meaning thousands of readers around the world will read it and believe that ‘millions’ of Africans slaves were shipped to the US, and use this ‘fact’ to inform their erroneous view of the world. And that annoys the hell out of me.

(To provide further context, the peak figure of American slavery was 3.9 million, recorded in the 1860 census. Furthermore, in the same period that less than 350,000 African slaves were shipped to America (388,000 according to some sources), more than a million Europeans were held as slaves in Africa.)

Pedantry might be seen as bad, petty, unkind and inflexible, but sometimes, as in the Jon Sopel slavery case, it is by far the better approach than playing fast and loose with the facts. As an autistic individual, pedantry is in my nature, as it is in many others who share my condition. We thrive in academia, in the sciences, in linguistics, where accuracy and obsession over the minutiae are seen as strengths instead of poor social skills. And who knows? One day, the difference between the survival of the species and our unfortunate extinction might come down to somebody spotting a single misplaced integer.