Sunday, September 29, 2013

Naming the World

It’s Zadie-time again. Last time I saw my precious granddaughter, she was 17 months old and now she’s 22. When you’re her age, a lot changes in five months! A few new physical milestones, like jumping and increased dexterity with her Legos. But mostly it’s language, language, language. She is in the midst of naming the world. First the important people with their two-syllable alliterations— Mama, Dada, Pop-Pop (grandpa), Mi-ma (grandma), Ti-ta (Aunt Talia), Lo-lo (step-brother Alijah), then her physical needs—Ba-ba (bottle), Bo-bo (pacifier), wa-wa (water). And then, of course, animals (doggie, el’phant), plants (flower, apple), things (car, truck) and so on to the entire noun-spectrum of her tangible world and imaginary world in books and on screens.

It’s a mini-study on the brain and our unique human capacity to not just simply experience the world, but to gather everything we know about each thing we encounter into a tiny explosion of vowels and consonants that is stored in memory. We gain more intimacy with and more power over our surroundings through the act of naming the things we meet. Our whole life long. Zadie’s Dad is studying for his test in organic chemistry and it’s the same deal at another level. He has to learn a whole new language about the structure of cellular make-up. It’s more abstract and complex than “apple,” but it’s the same process at work.

The nouns of language indeed are necessary for control and understanding. My Zen teacher struggled to translate concepts from Japanese that had no equivalent in English. Some of the ground-breaking work in early psychology with Freud and Jung was gathering various complex webs of behavior under nouns that served as tools for understanding—“Oedipus complex, anima and animus, the collective unconscious, etc.” Every musician must eventually come to grips with appoggiaturas, suspensions, polyrhythms, Dorian modes and such to give shape and direction to musical explorations.Indeed, the first step in entering any field of study is to learn the jargon of nouns. As we know, such jargon can be limiting or oversimplified (ADHD) or can mask human greed and power (Manifest Destiny, collateral damage)— the way we use language and the way we understand language reveals much about what we understand, what we value, what we think. But that’s way down the line.

I haven’t read up on this, but I suspect that the next step for Zadie might be the adjectives— hot toast, big truck, mad Mama when the big truck runs over her hot toast. And then things really start to get exciting with the verbs. There’s “cookie” and there’s “me” and one day there’s “me want cookie.” There’s “sad,” there’s “Pop-pop,” there’s “bye-bye,” than there’s “sad Pop-pop goes bye-bye.”

But not yet! Yesterday was a trip to the Children’s Museum in Portland, a fun time in Zadie’s room playing with one toy after another (she can count up to ten as she drops the rings on the upright little pole) and of course, constant singing with the ukelele. She has words and motions down to the Itsy Bitsy Spider, Skinnamarkink, The Wheels on the Bus, ABC, Twinkle Little Star and more of the kid song classics. Her dancing remains inspired and she always can hear the approaching cadence and clap accordingly at the end. (Just like my Mom!) She’s active and fearless and sometimes naughty, in preparation for the “terrible two’s” coming up (ah! There’s a scary noun and adjective!).

Two more days with her with forecasts of 99% chance of rain. But no matter. She’s starting to ask “waz dat?” and this will be our game wherever we are. (I look forward to the existential period of child development—“Why?”) So happy to have her and my daughter (always number two these days) and her husband here on the West Coast, a shorter and cheaper plane flight away. Maybe we’ll even visit sometime on a day when Zadie can learn a new noun rare in Portland— “sun!”

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