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A toddler’s lesson in linguistics

She is insistent. I am bewildered.

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    Father and daughter in Glasgow, Scotland.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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Ba,” she says.

“What do you need, Grace?”

“Ba.”

“You want a breakfast bar? To eat? Is that it?”

“Ba.”

I’m wrong, but Grace doesn’t shake her head or say “no,” despite the fact that she can do both. She does continue to say “Ba,” however. Many, many times.

A few months ago, Grace, my youngest daughter, didn’t have much to say. I retired as director of a creative writing program. Now I’m a freelance writer staying home with Grace while my wife, Maura, teaches. Suddenly, Grace turned 2 and now she speaks all the time. Sort of. She makes noises, anyway. I wish Maura were here. She knows the meaning of all Grace’s grunts, mumbles, semaphores, and garbled syllables. I don’t. I could use a glossary, or Noam Chomsky on speed dial.

“Ba.”

“Do you want a bowl? Of food?”

“Ba.”

“Should we play ball? I’ll go get your soccer ball.”

“No. Ba!”

Well, at least we have two words now. She’s getting chatty. This might lead somewhere. The exclamation point is worrying, though. I sense conflict emerging.

Why can’t I understand my own daughter? I was a professor of English, editor in chief of a magazine, a highly trained expert in words and their usage, but, just between us, I can’t communicate with a 2-year-old.

I have learned a few things, though. If Grace wants to go higher on the swing, which is invariable, she raises her left arm. She knows the word “higher,” but why go to all the trouble to enunciate when you have a perfectly good left arm?

When Grace wants to color, she grips a phantom crayon with her right hand and draws a circle in the air. If she wants food, she says “Mm” and rubs her stomach. I decoded that one quickly, but her method of requesting a drink is more esoteric. She tries to utter a breathy “Aah,” which – as far as I can work out – is the sound I make after taking a sip of coffee. Fair enough, but what she mutters sounds more like “Ooooh,” and it’s at such a low volume and high speed that interpretation is virtually impossible.

Grace can say the name of everyone in our family, except her own. The “gr” blend isn’t easy, so I’m sympathetic, but she won’t even try. If you ask her who she is, she says “Me.” If you ask what her actual name is, she says “Me.” It’s an infinite regression, like “Ba.” Although I wish Grace would try to pronounce her name, I admire her tenacity and wit. Having found a clever semantic loophole (My name is “Me”) that’s easy to say, she sticks with it. You can’t get frustrated by her stubbornness, especially when she flashes the “I’m so cute you can’t get mad at me” look.

My favorite of Grace’s new “words” is the fish face. This means she wants to eat Goldfish crackers. She must have worked on it for months, like a stand-up comedian perfecting his Robert De Niro impersonation. Normally, to indicate a particular item of food, she’ll merely point, bring the food to me, or grab my arm and bring me to the food. It’s gratifying to know that her communication, though nonverbal, is logical and efficient.

Nonetheless, I’m stymied by “Ba” and scared of “Ba!” Grace doesn’t want a bowl, bar, or ball, all of which figure prominently in her life. To me they all sound like “Ba,” but apparently she’s inflecting it in a way that I can’t hear. Perhaps she’s speaking another language, one as tonal and nuanced as Cantonese or Igbo.

“Ba.”

“Ba.”

Grace points to the television and, at the same moment, my 13-year-old, Annie, comes home from school.

“Dad, she wants to watch ‘Shaun the Sheep.’ ”

Ah! It’s “Baa,” not “Ba.” Grace, more vibrato next time. Or indicate, in some manner, that you’re using onomatopoeia. Come on, meet me halfway.

When I finish blaming my toddler, I realize how much we’ve learned. I now know what “Ba” means, Annie knows how inept I am, and Grace knows to combine sounds and gestures in order to convey meaning. After all, as linguists are quick to point out, meaning is carried more by tone and other nonverbal signifiers than by content. I’ve known this for a long time, but now I finally understand.

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