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October 10, 2007


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Dennis Brennan

Kids are wonderful, and you never know how they are going to surprise you next.

At about 14 months, whenever Mickey Mouse was on television, our boy would point excitedly and identify him as "Otto! Otto!" We didn't know why he had renamed Mickey.

A few weeks later, I was watching his Mickey Mouse cartoon with him. At the end of the show, Mickey and his friends sing and dance to a song with the lyrics: "Hot dog, hot dog, hot diggety-dog". Ryan sang along: "Otto, Otto, Ot-dee-dee-daw".


Bernard Guerrero

I recall being told that they thought my brother was autistic early on. He barely made a sound at three, no matter how much my folks spoke to him. They didn't figure out he'd picked up English before Spanish until we pulled into a garage one day and he exclaimed "Look at that!" when he saw a car jacked up to the ceiling. Damn you, Sesame Street! :^)

Yeah, yeah, it's probably a huge exaggeration, but it makes for a good story.


Our two kids, also raised in a trilingual household, had totally different approaches to language. Our daughter (first child) actually would perk up at six months when you switched languages -- and never once, not a single time, mixed up languages in a sentence. It was always either English or Hungarian, but never both. (My wife and I also speak German together, but for some reason the kids didn't pick it up -- my daughter understands it, but its read-only.)

But our *son*, now, he did things different. He mixed things up entirely, used whatever words suited him *and* did something truly bizarre. In Hungarian, groups of words have regular(ish) relationships, so this is "ez", that is "az", here is "itt", there is "ott". There always a high vowel in the here-ish word and a low one in the there-ish word.

Well, our son did that in English. By which I mean, he picked out phonemes that he decided should have semantic content, and he used them to compose new words. New closed-class words, I mean. The only one I remember is "thany", which meant "that many". Voiced "th" meant "that", and "m" was the question phoneme from Hungarian, so "any" was the quantity morpheme. Simple composition yields "thany" for "that quantity".

A frickin genius. Unfortunately you had to be an English-Hungarian bilingual language geek to have the slightest chance of understanding him.

He would also rearrange the order of sounds in a word to suit his own esthetic rules. We heard him working one word out once, "posta", (mail) -- he said it perfectly, then he said something like "posta, tospa, stopa" and then whichever one he liked -- that's the word he used for the next few months. It was weird.

I am, of course, convinced that the linguistic habits of both my kids illustrate superior intelligence. Stands to reason.


You probably don't know this, Michael, but Doug and Claudia courted over questions of vowel harmony. (This somehow has not worked for me.)

Kids are geniuses. I got my kid sister when she was three or four to understand the definition of a prime number -- she was good at counting -- and then asked her whether various larger numbers were prime. She got them all, giving me a 'dude, wtf?' look when I gave her even numbers, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't a Clever Hans effect.


I do (or did), in fact, not know this, being the newcomer to this little band.

Our daughter's name is Vivienne. Do you know how long it took us to come up with a name that wouldn't be mispronounced (to our ears) in either USEnglish or Hungarian? And now we live in Puerto Rico, where nobody but nobody manages to spell it right. (Except there's a pharmacist at the local Walgreen's who spells it that way. So that's two out of four million.)

How long did your sister retain it? That's pretty cool.

Doug M.

We had the same issue. Had to come up with names that were not obviously English in Germany, and vice versa.

Now, while Alan, David and Jacob are perfectly good German names, they are pronounced differently than in English -- Ah-lahn, Dah-veed and Yahkob.

The boys use them interchangeably but consistently; if Alan is talking to David in English he says "Dayvid", but if the conversation is in German he says "Dah-veed".

I don't know why this should strike me as odd, but it does.

Doug M.

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