Sunday, June 25, 2006

Small children, and the noises they emit

I am not a parent, and this observation will not come as news to those who are--hell, probably not to most who aren't.

But: damn, they sure make a lot of them, don't they?

Maybe it's a sign that I've been hitting the (family-friendly) fast-food joints too often lately, or maybe it's just that summer brings out the boisterousness in us all; but it strikes me that this phenomenon has been on the upswing lately. next seat over, next table over, next bench over: small child, going



mba. mba. mba. mba.



and sometimes just a primal, guttural screech that doesn't seem to have enough letters in the English language to represent it.

oh, I don't mind. well, not usually. i mean, no more so than your average hair-trigger New York adult (the noises we emit: FUCK YOU! NO, FUCK *YOU*, motherFUCKER!!), probably. I'm just curious. i keep thinking: why is it so hard for oh say your average acting class or group therapy session or whatnot to coax out those sounds from a lot of people? when do we unlearn?


mandos said...

This is something that I can definitely opine on, or better. :) If I understand correctly what you're asking.

The answer---in the most widely accepted basic theories of the development of human linguistic cognition---is practically the same as the answer to why adults, on learning a new language, usually speak the new language with an accent.

In the adult human mind, sounds are stored not merely as sounds, but as "phonemes"---abstract groupings of physical sounds. The actual sound is emitted based on a complex computation involving the overall context of the sound in the word and sentence. This is most easily illustrated in the use of final -s in English. "Dads" vs "that's". There's a single phoneme involved there, /s/, but two sounds, [s] and [z]. (I am introducing a confusion with orthography but it'll have to do for now.)

In babies, these sound-packages haven't really formed yet. After a certain age, they do. This is called the "critical age hypothesis." It so happens that small children can learn multiple languages effortlessly and accentlessly, but most adults can't. Because adult brains have been "frozen" with a set of basic and limited phonemes. Like, only 40 or so for the average English speaker. Less in some languages. These phonemes don't cover the gamut of possible contexts and sounds. So it's hard for an adult to come up with them.

belledame222 said...

Yeah, we learned some terms for that in Human Development. "paralanguage," was it?

but, too, I'm talking about kids who're old enough to talk. like, young-school age. just happily screeching for no apparent reason.

mandos said...

I'm not specifically an expert on language acquisition itself, but I've never heard the term "paralanguage." The generativist in me recoils from the possible implication of that term, but it may very well be the standard one.

The reason why I suspect, developmentally, that small children can do that, is because of the critical age hypothesis itself. The critical age for native language acquisition is generally considered to be well after the full acquisition of the first language. The last important critical age, btw, is conjectured (with probably some strong evidence) to coincide with puberty.

H.M. Lufkin said...

Happy screeching. Good lord. I screech back at The Boy. It baffles him. Mmm...perhaps I truly am emotionally undeveloped. Tho, I use 'fuck you' quite a bit, as well. And apparently too loosely. The Boy told the SO 'fuck you' about dinner the other night. Yes. I was blamed immediately.

Bamboo Lemur Boys Are Mean To Their Girls said...

Belledame-your patience is honorable. I cringe at the animal sounds and behaviors of children. I don't know what my problem is but lately I find little humans intolerable.

belledame222 said...

oh, sometimes I just scream back.

the great thing about New York is that you can totally invoke your inner three year old whilst marching down the corridor between subway lines at Tiems Square at rush hour, say, and no one blinks at you, because they're all half-or-totally crazed themselves, completely wrapped up in their own drama, frightened of your display of craziness and thus prudently giving you as wide a berth as is possible in a human sardine can, or some combination of the above.

did i say "great?" i meant "purgatorial." same diff, really.

Alon Levy said...

Well, at least it's better than hell.

Amber Rhea said...

In my linguistics classes, we always heard that the critical age was around 7 years.

Anonymous said...

I think that *a* critical age is at 7, since there are probably several critical ages, but I was told that 12ish was the very last one.

A White Bear said...

I have to admit, when I'm in this situation, I often loudly declare, "I just remembered I need to get my birth control prescription refilled." Although when it's my bf's kids, I don't mind at all.

From the angle of voice training, these sounds seem to live in the places where the ease of breathing you had as a child went. That is, in addition to a child's linguistic development, she also learns to disconnect the voice from the breath in ways that mean adults rarely can physically make those noises the way a child can. In my voice-breath class in college, we spent a lot of time trying to find these sounds, and when someone did, they often erupted in tears, suddenly remembering the trauma that caused them to control and measure the breath's connection with the voice using a defensive posture or tension.

I'm not articulate enough to say this, and it's the sort of vaguely cheesy thing analytic types such as myself usually reject out of hand, but I saw it happen a lot, and when I read Patsy Rodenberg's The Right to Speak, I realized why. Learning to make those noises is a combination of relearning no-longer-familiar phonemes, but also decreasing conscious control of the voice's connection with breath.

[/silly hippy-sounding whatnot, be gentle]

belledame222 said...

Not silly, not hippy; it's quite true. I think I have that book as well, "Right to Speak."

Unknown said...

If you get me going, I can assault adult ears with a barrage of sounds that few adults--or babies--could make. I guess my babble gland never atrophied.