Saturday, May 20, 2017

Naming the World


The grandkids are visiting from Portland (hooray!) and so my morning was a bit different from the usual routine. Got out the basket of assorted toys and hung out with 2-year old Malik helping him to name the world. Our conversation was something like this:

"Where's the car? Where's the boat? Where's the ball? Where's the duck? 

­You get the idea. First the noun that distinguishes one thing from another. “Floor” is different from “ceiling” (impressed he knew both), “basket” is different from “shoe,” “leaf” is different from “flower.” There is much to name in this world! And we’re never done. (How many of you can point to the gyil? The Pittospurum? The adze?)

Then come the adjectives, what distinguishes two varieties of the same thing. Green ball different just slightly from red ball, hard ball from soft ball, big ball from small ball, football from basketball. And the differences make a difference—green pepper from red pepper from chile pepper. Our lesson continued:

What color is this car? Where’s the blue boat? Which is the big ball? How many ducks are there? Can you put the green car in the red cup? The blue ball in the orange shoe?"

Next the adverbs—“I ate the chile pepper slowly and then screamed loudly.” And so back to Malik:

Let's sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider quickly. Quietly. Sadly.

And on it goes, the Herculean task of naming the world that dogs and flies don’t have to worry about.

Since we have words, it seems that evolution wants us to learn them and use them, in finer and more nuanced degrees of description and understanding. The journey that begins with “Mama!” and “Hot!” needs to go far, far beyond “I got words. I got really great words! The best words! Other people’s words are a disaster!” If you know what I mean.

So back to my lesson with Malik.

“Malik, this is a peach. This is a fuzzy peach. This is a ripe peach. This is a juicy peach. But the best peach we will get this summer is an impeach.”

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