For the second time i’m witnessing from up close that a child learns how to talk. And despite all my efforts and focused attention I haven’t been able to catch the phenomenon on a decisive phase that I would like to call ‘origin’. Daniel’s language too seems to have been brought from a secretive, prenatal existence. Only the slowness of its development forces me to assume that he is learning it from us, gradually and in a way that’s not dictated by us.
He started later than his sister, Neeltje. That’s apparently normal for boys: hard wood grows slowly. How he started, I don’t know. I suspect in the same way as all babies and I think that is: by listening to the rhythm and sound of our sentences. Even before he could say one word, he would talk in a tone that he knew from us, but without filling in the rhythm with words.
He now says three or four words: poes (cat), papa, da, sometimes mama. But he knows a lot more of them. What he says is only a fraction of his passive vocabulary. I know that, because I experiment with it. This morning I said: ‘Daantje, give the doll a kiss.’ He crawled through his stall, took the doll and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Other assignments too he appears to understand well.
I’m not sure he uses his limited vocabulary in a truly targeted fashion. He says ‘papa’ too when the word doesn’t refer to me. Neeltje did the same thing for a long time. At this moment ‘poes’ is his favorite word, and has been for two weeks. He has practiced it for months. First it was pf… followed by lots of blowing, then ‘poe’ and only recently ‘poes’. He uses the word very targeted, that is when he sees a cat, also on television. I really should say that in those moments, he doesn’t use another word or squeak, but immediately says ‘poes’. But he calls a lot of other animals that too. When a dog was here two weeks ago, he kept saying ‘poes’ and would not be corrected. He seemed to make it into a game to keep saying ‘poes’ and did so with a malicious and triumphant laugh. ‘This is a dog, dog.’ ‘Poes.’ ‘No, dog.’ ‘Poes, poes, haha.’
I think something is going on here that I noticed too late with Neeltje. I thought of it when I went to get him from his bed yesterday afternoon and this morning. He was already standing upright, looked around his room and pointed imperatively -his little index finger not straight ahead, but in an angle of 145 degrees to his hand- to all sorts of objects, and with it said ‘poes’ every time. I can’t assume that he saw all that stuff and those plants as cats. Apparently he wants to greet me into his world and to do so, he wielded the only word he has the hang of. He greeted me in his language and that language is ‘poes’. The word doesn’t only refer to the cat, but more than that it means that he wants to start communicating. With ‘poes’ he informs us: ‘I can talk’. Corrections such as ‘no, dog’ he resolutely rejects because they literally threaten to dumbfound him.
With Neeltje I used to initially think, as the faithful reader of treatises in which the beginning is always represented as very simple, that such words for concrete things could only relate to those things themselves. Now I notice that ‘poes’ includes all sorts of meanings, amongst which also something like a reflection on language. The latter happens mostly when a word is repeated over and over: there occurs something like a greenhouse process in which that one word becomes a whole language and metalanguage. ‘Poes’ coming from Daniel’s mouth means:
that cat there,
that animal there,
look over there,
I want to talk
I have already learned to talk
I want to keep talking,
I talk like I want to.
‘Da’ is sometimes ‘daag’ (bye), sometimes also ‘dank je’ (thank you). Often he says ‘da da’ when he wants to have something. Thanking then becomes an order.