i'm just a literary tease, my reputation's on its knees.

Getting Carried Away with Linguistics

December 14, 2005

“Gather ‘round, Chil’ens, cuz I got something to tell you!” I say to the hoard of youngsters playing before me. At first, the children ignore me, but I soon cough loudly and fall on the ground in order to fake a fit to catch their attention.

“Woah!” says little Billy with a tone of awe. The other children gather round and stare down at me.

“Mom! Auntie Moira’s faking a seizure again!” cries out Angelica in a scolding singsong.

At this I stop and sit up straight so the adults notice nothing amiss when they walk into the room. I smile at Angelica’s mom, scowl at Angelica as soon as she leaves the room, and begin my fabulous lecture about the realities of human language.

“Hey kids! You know all that stuff about Dr. Doolittle being able to talk to animals?”

A chorus of yeah’s and yes’s greet my questions.

“It’s all a lie.”

”A lie? You mean like when you told us about Santa Claus and the myth of material satisfica… satisfiction?” says Angelica, a brilliant study for my lessons of life.

“Satisfaction. And that’s exactly right. I know you guys think it would be super cool if a mouse could just jump up and start asking you for cheese by whispering in your ear…”

”Yeah! I want a talking mouse!” cries little Natie with sudden interest. “Do you think Santa will bring me a talking mouse?”

“Santa’s dead!” I snap, but at seeing the crest-fallen expression on Natie’s face, I quickly recover. “I mean, he’s, uh, sleeping and stuff. So back to that mouse… I know you think that would rock hard, but I’m afraid it just won’t happen. Lucy! You know how you were telling me about your dreams? And how a giant dinosaur was chasing you and I told you it meant you were scared of your dentist?”

”Yeah! I hate that guy!”

”Well, what I did was I took the image in your dream, the dinosaur, as a symbol, which is what happens when one thing stands for something else.”

“You mean like when mom makes me stand in the corner when it was Billy who ate the cookies?” asks Sarah.

“Hey! You pinkie swore that you wouldn’t tell!” cries Billy.

“Guys! Guys! Be quiet or I’ll do the Chinese water torture again.” The children are instantly silent. They know.

After a few seconds of squinty eyes aimed her way, Angelica pipes up, “Wait, Moira, do you mean that animals can’t dream? Cuz when Benji is sleeping sometimes his legs move like he’s running and Mom always says that Benji is dreaming about chasing rabbits.”

“Angelica, do you remember what I said about your mom?”

“My mom is a language maven and likes to make other people feel dumb to boost her own sense of super… supericity?”

“Superiority. And, to answer your question: I don’t know if animals dream or not. But I do know that animals don’t appear to have symbolic thoughts.”

“What do symbolic thoughts mean?”

”Thank you for asking, Billy. What I mean is this… okay, everyone close your eyes. Now, when I say ‘puppy’, what happens?”

The kids are silent for a minute, but soon, Sarah starts to laugh.


“Well, when you said ‘puppy’, I started thinking about how Benji jumps up to try to catch a fly.” She giggles, and Angelica joins in.

“So, you saw a mind movie of Benji in your head?”

“Yes! A mind movie! Haha Benji is so funny!”

“That mind movie, or picture inside your head, is an example of symbolic thought. Symbolic thought is very important to language. It makes a word that you hear mean something instead of just being a bunch of sounds jumbled together. Close your eyes again. What happens when I say Flumperdoo?”

The kids laugh.

“That’s not a word, Moira,” says Natie. “You’re dumb.”

“Well, you, Natie, are a nose picker.” Natie removes the finger from his nose and looks at me. “And, besides, I know that wasn’t a word. That was the whole point. When a word does not have a mind movie or symbolic meaning attached to it, it isn’t an official word. Now, if we made up a meaning for Flumberdoo… Lucy… what’s a flumperdoo?”

“Um, I don’t know, Moira, my head hurts.”

”I know, I know!” cries Billy.


“A flumperdoo is dog drool! Hahaha!” Billy falls on the ground, convulsing with overdone laughter, and snorts. The other children just look at him until Angelica finally kicks him. “Hey! Why did you do that?”

“Fine. Dog drool it is. Now, Flumperdoo has symbolic meaning, at least for the six of us, and now, if anybody ever says it, we will know what it means. Which means that for us, Flumperdoo is now a real word. Now, do you remember how cousin Zed was learning how to talk?”

”You mean before his mom went crazy and moved to Samoa on account of that no-good bad speller?” asks Angelica, who listens to adult conversations way too often.

“Um. Yeah. Exactly. But you remember how you could teach Zed new words?”

Billy laughs. “I taught Zed how to say booger. Auntie Jean was mad!”

“Remember how it seemed like one day Zed was a little baby and just a little bit later he was running around singing showtunes and pretending to be Stewie from The Family Guy?”

“Yeah? Moira? Seriously? What’s your point cuz I totally have a bangin’ headache?” Lucy’s a troubled teen.

“My point is that Zed could learn language and that he learned language really quickly. Do you remember?”

”We remember, Moira!” the kids chorus.

“Okay, so one day these scientists decided that they were going to teach a monkey how to talk like you would teach a kid like Zed…”

”Cooool! A talking monkey! I want that instead of the mouse…” Natie cries.

“Not now, Nate. Sit down and shut up.” Natie does as he’s told. He’s always been a follower.

“Anyway, they tried to teach the chimpanzee how to say things like ‘drink’ and ‘cup’ and ‘me’ and stuff… and it didn’t really work. One of the monkeys is reported to have picked up a couple of words, but none of the chimps really learned how to talk. So, these other scientists tried something different. They would have different colored circles to represent words. So if the monkey wanted a cookie, it would use the chips to spell out sentences.”

”And did that work Moira?” Angelica asks.

“Sort of… but it really just proved another scientist’s point: animals can’t talk…

“Bummer. Seriously, Moira, what is your point?” Lucy’s getting irritable now.

“I’m trying to tell you, Luce. Animals can’t talk because they don’t use symbolic thought, like what we were just talking about? Animals communicate, but this communication is a direct result of some kind of external stimulus… like… if a dog sees a duck, it will bark at it. But if it doesn’t see a duck, the dog isn’t going to suddenly start thinking about a duck and then start barking.”

”Unless there’s a ghost duck!” Natie pipes up.

“Uh, yes, unless there’s a ghost duck.” Natie’s bizarre comment throws me off for a second. “Um… right so, what’s different about humans and animals is that animals don’t usually learn how to communicate. I mean, ants don’t go to school to learn how to talk to each other.”

”Haha, ant school! I wish I was a ant,” say Billy.

“Ants just know how to communicate by leaving a trail behind them. Same as cats know how to purr to get what they want and dogs know to sniff other dogs.”

”Haha, Benji sniffs dog butts!” Sarah cries then clamps a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, Moira!”

Just then, my uncle Drew walks into the room. “Come on, guys, dinner’s almost ready.” He looks at me. “You aren’t trying to turn my kids into militant little freaks again, are you?”

“Um, no. We were just talking about the difference between human language and animal communication systems because the kids wanted to know if animals could talk.”

”Is that right? So, Angelica, what did you learn?”

“Well. We learned that people have symbolic thoughts because we can see mind movies inside our head. Oh, and that these scientists tried to teach monkeys how to talk, but it didn’t work.”

Drew nods and looks over at me as if to say You talk to kids about this stuff? “And, Sarah, what did you learn?”

“I learned that Benji makes a lot of Flumperdoo!” Sarah laughs and the other kids join in. I can’t help but to giggle a little myself.


The kids laugh louder, probably because a real grown-up said such a silly word. Drew raises his eyebrows my way.

“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “Hey, Lucy, why don’t you tell Uncle Drew what you learned about animal communication?”

“Yeah, I learned that Moira totally doesn’t care if my head explodes.” I glare at Lucy so she continues. “Fine, and I learned that animals don’t use symbolic ideas so that means they don’t really have language. So I guess that means that animals can’t talk. Oh yeah, and Santa’s dead.”

At this, Natie begins to wail. Sarah and Billy begin to wrestle, and after bumping into Angelica, who screeches, the pair roll over Natie who begins to cry louder. Lucy clutches her head in her hands and moans. I stand up and survey the chaos. Thinking to myself, “My work here is done,” I leave the room to resume my place among the “real” grown-ups.

Moira at 11:21 AM :: Comments (2) :: « :: »

*Squeak* *squeak* *chatter*. *Squeak.*

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at December 14, 2005 07:48 PM

HA! nice... ;c)

Posted by: moira at December 15, 2005 02:55 PM
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