Saturday, 27 June 2009

On be having

A correspondent writes with a nice child language story. While in a supermarket she heard an exasperated mother say to her child:

Will - you - be - have!

To which the child replied:

But I am being have.

With have pronounced /heiv/, of course.

I've got quite a few word-part substitutions in my collection of children's analytical errors. I reported several in my Listen to Your Child in the various 'The Things They Say' sections. 'Don't argue!' says the mother. 'I don't argme' says the child. Or this sequence, heard on a train approaching London.

Child: Are we there yet?
Father: No, we're still in the outskirts
Child (after a pause): Have we reached the inskirts yet?

Usually, children maintain grammatical identity in their substitutions. In the first of these examples, the perception that ue is you leads to the replacement by another pronoun. In the second, out is replaced by in. But I don't recall hearing one which switches grammatical status quite so radically, with a word-part becoming a copula verb. Presumably it's the abnormal stress which motivated it. Anyone come across other examples like this?

18 comments:

Fran Hill said...

Your story reminds me of when my daughter was learning the flute, taught by her father. (These lessons didn't always end amicably.) She was practising upstairs when her father heard her play a duff note. 'B FLAT!' he yelled up the stairs. There was hardly a pause, before she yelled down in reply, 'BE QUIET!' This story went into the two notebooks I have which are stuffed with all the 'funny things' the kids said. Often, they're linguistically interesting, and I can use them when I'm teaching Eng Lang.

Michael Sappir said...

I'm not sure this is really such a surprising phenomenon. After all, it's not like grammatical category is such an overt feature. And in many cases, nothing in the prosody will tell you there's a difference between "behave" and the "be + Adj" constructions. Consider "now, be quiet (while Mommy is on the phone)" and "now, behave (while Gramma is babysitting)". If the mother's mood/tone coincides between the two, which it will sometimes, the child has no reason not to think that /heiv/ is an adjective.

DC said...

Sure - but then I'd expect this kind of example to turn up quite often, and it doesn't.

alxndr said...

I distinctly remember my sister and I saying that when we were growing up -- although we normally modified it into "I am being haved" (pronounced "heivd").

martin said...

I heard in a bus a nervous child spotting a man in uniform ask a mother; What's that ?
"A soldier love" said the mother
Then child then mystified me by saying "Would he go near you Ma?"
After a minute I got it.The child was making positive the (Irish?)reassurance given to a child seeing anything strange "Sure he won't go near you"

Faldone said...

I once lived with a couple of two year old girls who would use "my" for "I'm" as in "My going to sleep, now." I always attributed it to a confusion of "your" and "you're" translated from second person to first singular.

Audrey B said...

Here's one of from my kids. When the oldest was finally able to secure the strap on the car seat, we'd instruct him to "strap in." He would then also use the phrase "strap out" (where we would use "unstrap"). For example "Mommy, can I strap out now?"

My daughter of course adopted the same phrasing for attaching and detaching the seat belt.

More recently, my son (now 6) has found the word "pumpernickel" to be very interesting. He can't help but hear "pump" as a verb and gets great joy out of proclaiming that he has to "pump" a "nickel." He didn't believe me that it was actually a word. I had to show it to him in one of my bread cookbooks to convince him.

Virtual Linguist said...

This reminds me a bit of that lovely nonsense poem Werwolf by Christian Morgenstern, where a werewolf asks a schoolmaster to 'decline him'. This is the relevant verse:
'Der Werwolf', sprach der gute Mann,
'Des Weswolfs, Genitiv sodann,
Dem Wemwolf, Dativ, wie man's nennt,
Den Wenwolf, -- damit hat's ein End.'


For those who don't know German, wer means 'who' so declines (whom, whose). The poem is impossible to translate, although I have seen a version with 'amwolf' and 'waswolf' and once, years ago, I found an English equivalent based on a hoopoe rather than a werewolf (which then became 'whompoe' and 'whosepoe').

OutEast said...

Not quite the same thing, but close... My children are (or will be!) Czech/English bilingual. When my son was 20 months old we made a 'cuppa tea' together. When it was ready, he pointed at it and explained it was 'cup' (pointing at the mug) and 'piti' (pointing at the tea). 'Piti' is Czech baby dialect for 'drink'.

DC said...

Very nice!

Anonymous said...

You say:
>I don't recall hearing one which
>switches grammatical status quite
>so radically, with a word-part
>becoming a copula verb.

But that's only true from the adult analyser's position. As far as the child is aware, no grammatical change has occured, as s/he presumably interpreted the original statement as be+Adj. Thus the child did indeed preserve identity.

DC said...

But the child already had behave as a separate lexical item, so something extra has happened here. And actually, come to think of it, we don't know that, from the child's point of view, have was being seen as an adjective. That's just as much an adult analysis. It's still an odd one, to my mind, however we analyse it.

Annie said...

My 4-year-old cousin has come to visit us in Armenia from Min Vodi, Russia. She was born there and speaks both Russian and Armenian - to her Armenian relatives in Armenia it is more Armenian sprinkled with Russian, to her siblings - the other way round. She declares she has no wish to go to school but - "to go to institute and become an institutka". The word 'institute' for 'university' is more common in Armenian and Russian than apparently in English. There is no such Russian word as "institutka". One of the functions of the suffix -ka in Russian is to indicate a female agent. Her reasoning is that if someone (female) (she has two sisters, it need be mentioned, no brothers) who goes to shkola (school) is called a shkolnitsa (-tsa is a suffix for female agent), then someone (female) who goes to institute (i.e. studies there) should be called an institutka (I think she does not know the word student (student), her sisters being schoolgirls yet).
The ludicity of her morphological effort, however, is that the Russian word "institutka" rhymes with "prostitutka" (prostitute), and everybody seems to catch her unconscious pun!

Anonymous said...

Russian does have 'institutka', however it was more frequently used around 1917 and it means 'a female student in an institute for noble ladies' (pls see http://www.slovopedia.com/15/200/1516624.html )
I'd say that it acquired a negative connotation in your mind because you (subconsciously) compare its grammatical structure (because it rhymes) to the noun 'prostitutka/whore' which obviously has a negative connotation. The child hasn't acquired any of our social notions yet (doesn't necessarily know whether prostitutka/whore is good or bad) and it doesn't cause any problems for the child to use this suffix in creating other words...

Annie said...

I mention nothing about the negative connotation of "institutka", neither imply the child may be aware of the word "prostitutka". The resonance created by the rhyme is noticed by adults around her, not the child, of course. And nobody thinks to warn her she should not say it again or that it is bad. Not at all. The prostitutka side of the story is irrelevant to the child's word-formation sense specifically. That is why I say it is an unconscious pun.

David Ekstrand said...

The similarity in spelling (though not pronunciation or meaning) immediately reminded me of an abstract I found about the degrammaticalisation of the Swedish verb "behöva" ("need") in some northern Swedish dialects, so that standard Swedish "det behöver han inte göra" (he doesn't need to do that) becomes "hä bö'n it höv djära" with "behöva" being split up into the verb "bö" and a particle "höv" with uncertain semantic content. See http://people.pwf.cam.ac.uk/ab667/negproject/abstracts/rosenkvist.pdf. It's not quite what you're looking for, since "bö" isn't used as the copula, but still not too far off.

Sheikh Daoud said...

My cousin, as a little boy, used to talk about lowering things and hiring things.

Sheikh Daoud said...

My cousin, as a little boy, used to both lower the car window and to hire it.