Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood



Little brother is talking. It’s a very happy coincidence that most of what he wants to talk about begins with B, and that B is one of the easiest sounds for a young mouth to make, so he has a lot to talk about. What it means for the rest of the family is that we have to listen very carefully indeed to figure out whether he is discussing a ball, balloon, book, boat, bath, bread, bear, bird, bok-bok (the chickens who live down the road), bed, bike, bus, brother, or indeed big brother’s bike. Or shoes, which for reasons of his own he calls “bores.”

Talk about your minimal pairs.

It’s like a game of charades all day long. Luckily he gestures like an Italian, or like somebody trying to make themselves understood to a foreigner. Which I suppose is what he is. (And come to think of it, he is also something like 1/256 Italian somewhere along the line, so maybe it’s a throwback).

He can also tell you, among other things, about lights, the moon, more, mamama, dada, and brother; cat, car, and “cold” (cold milk), as well as splash, pool, and that closely related word, poo. (That gives me flashbacks to the phrase I least liked hearing when visiting the local pool, while living in Ithaca one hot summer: “The public pool is now closed in accordance with New York State health department regulations.” Whereupon the punters would flee the pool, while a teenage life-guard bravely waded in to retrieve the offending object with a paper cup).

He has also coined several excellent words that the rest of us have adopted because they sound so cool. They’re more like sound effects, violently emphatic uvular fricatives with lots of extra saliva. The word “sauce,” as in tomato sauce (as in, I won’t eat that until it has sauce on it) is pronounced as a genteel throat-clearing noise, sort of like the sound a walkie-talkie makes between transmissions. It’s distinguished from “truck,” which also a throat-clearing noise but more liquid and with an upward inflection, like an old smoker hawking a loogy. Whereas “Huckle,” the cat's name, is a repeated liquid throat-clearing noise, such as one might make before throwing up a hairball.

The maternal ear is a very finely-tuned instrument.

Just as well. It is the second child’s burden (and gift) to have to fight for an audience and to actively request conversation, if necessary by pulling somebody’s hair.

Recent research into language acquisition suggests that the higher an infant’s socio-economic status, the more adult utterances are addressed directly to that child. This seems dodgy on a number of levels, and yet also intuitively true -- even if those improving utterances are all something along the lines of “Minerva, sweetie, please put down the nice kitty” or “But darling, Daddy prefers that you don’t throw rocks” or “Horatio, would you like to go to the Italian restaurant or the Thai one?”

The better-off kiddos hear several million more words by the time they start school; some studies say 3 million by age 3. Chattering classes = cultural capital.

The corollary, as far as I can see, is a kind of domestic class-system. With parental attention a finite resource, successive children might slip further and further down the communicative ladder, the youngest falling into a pit of dire verbal poverty and grasping at the occasional “Stop that!” or “Oh god, the baby” that comes their way.

Ah, but there has to be an upside: as Oscar might have said, we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the big siblings.

This would explain both why little brother is so expert at blowing raspberries on anyone who will sit still (a practice he was initiated into at about three days old), and also why he is making a hugely premature bid for two-year-old status by perfecting the words “NO!” and “MINE!” and, more intriguingly, by engineering dozens of situations in which he can triumphantly yell “NO!” or “MINE!”

In the dojo of brotherhood, he’ll have his black belt by the end of the year.

(Incidentally, he pronounces NO in the Icelandic way, “neigh,” which will come in very useful next week. I hope to introduce the word for yes, too -- já, pronounced “YOW!” -- and we might even have cause to say help, which is spelt hjálp and pronounced “HEYOWLP!” Come to think of it, that’s how we pronounce it, too.)

Comparisons are odious, but when I look back through my e-mail outbox (the modern girl’s equivalent of a baby journal), I see that his brother was talking in small but complex sentences at about the same age, to anyone who would listen, including himself. I came across this account of a 16 month old Busytot:

He has a mirror that I velcroed to the side of his crib when he was first standing up, to give him an incentive to do so (his own lovely face). It's as terminally filthy as a budgie mirror, because he’s always snogging it or giving his mirror twin a drink of milk.

Yesterday I peeked in on him when he'd just woken up, and he was having this looooong conversation with himself in the mirror, nodding madly and emoting like crazy: "Oh no, bonk 'ead! Poor Jams. Bonk a 'ead! It's OK. Sorry Jams. Sorry 'ead. Oh dear. Bonk a 'ead!"

So I went in and asked him who had bonked what head. He grinned at me, plodded to the other end of the crib, and then turned and ran full tilt at the mirror and firmly head-butted himself. He did it about ten times to be sure, laughing like a maniac. Which pretty much sums up what he's like to live with at the moment - super physical, super linguistic, super funny, and sometimes you just stand there shaking your head and going "uh...?"

It's very enlightening to have had an early and prolific talker followed by a perfectly regular boy of few-ish words. It enables me to look at baby bro and realize how much more must be going on in his head than he can convey verbally. It must be very frusterating, to quote his older brother, and I resolve daily to pay closer attention to what he’s trying to tell us.

This approach paid off this morning, when the little guy asked -- using a combination of such words as he has, along with elaborate facial expressions and operatic gestures -- "Hey, WTF happens to the balloon in Goodnight, Moon?" Good question! There it is on the first page, bobbing around near the ceiling, such a big deal that it’s one of the first things the book mentions: “In the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon...” And then sure enough, about three quarters of the way through the book, it’s gone! And then it’s back again, just in time for “Goodnight noises everywhere.”

I’ve read that book a thousand times and never noticed the continuity glitch. He’s such a details guy.

(Funnily enough, the anniversary edition of this classic book performed its own sleight of hand, removing a cigarette from a jacket photo of the illustrator... which prompted this acid piece of satire.)

Big brother, on the other hand, reads for narrative. He has always been passionately, desperately involved in the ups and downs of the story. He gets swept up, takes it very personally, and hates books where anybody is eaten by anybody else, even in fun. Which rules most fairytales out. As a toddler, he once tried to literally climb into a book we had just been reading, he loved it so much. And he wept when I read him a book version of Incy Wincy Spider. We’d get to the rain washing the spider out, and his lower lip would tremble, and he’d splutter “Poor, poor spider,” with real tears running down his fat little cheeks.

Little brother is more intrigued by the hydrological aspects of that story: how the spider gets in and out of the drainpipe, where the rain comes from, etc. It’s all business to him, and entirely satisfying business at that.

(Which is not to say that big brother is not interested in mechanics, just that he prefers the meta-mechanics of fiction itself: aged four, he asked me why all books didn’t have giant quotation marks on the front and back covers, since the whole story inside was being “told” by somebody, wasn’t it? Even if they’re not alive any more? And even if it doesn’t say “he said” or “she said”? Damn! I vaguely remember covering that in grad school, but I’d need to get Derrida and Jonathan Culler down off the shelf to be sure).

Or take Inside, Outside, Upside Down, the Berenstain book about a little bear who plays in a box that is then unexpectedly carted away by a deliveryman on a truck; serendipitously the box falls off the truck and bursts open so the little bear can run home and fill his mother in on what’s just happened.

For big brother this book was beyond the pale - an existential horror story, a sinister R-rated account of an attempted kidnapping (bear-napping, really) and a small bear’s lucky escape from the clutches of a dastardly ursophile. The few times we tried to read it, he would scream in fear as the box was wheeled away by the smiling big bear in the denim cap. Oops. Fortunately he did not develop a life-long phobia of deliverymen, nor of cardboard boxes and the many cool things you can do with them.

Wheeling out the Berenstein classic a second time round was instructive. Little brother finds the story only mildly disturbing -- and only, as far as I can tell, because the careless delivery-bear/would-be bear-napper neglects to tape the box shut before placing it upside down on the trolley and then onto the unsecured bed of the truck from which it will fall with a rewarding CRASH into the middle of the road.

The overall narrative holds no terrors for this fearless child. He’s mostly fascinated by the cunning way the authors arrange for the bear to turn out right side up, and will contort his own body this way and that to figure out how it all works out. I think his next move will be to persuade his big brother to re-enact the story, with big brother as deliveryman, and little brother playing the brave and heedless bear. I’m sure it will be cathartic all round.

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