Waiting for the words.
By Margaret Renkl
FEBRUARY 23, 1998: Since my earliest years, I have lived a life dedicated to language. With every fiber of my heart and every synapse in my brain, I believe in the power of words--a power to name the diffuse and multifarious world with accuracy, to call up nuance out of brute simplicity, to manage and contain the huge abstractions (love, faith, fear) so that they make a kind of sense. Like Socrates, I believe that language is the fundamental sign of our relationship to the world, the birthmark of our species. I believe, in short, in the power of language to separate human beings from animals, to lift us as ether-high as our mortality allows, as close to heaven in this mud-mucked world as we'll ever come.
So it is with some puzzlement that I currently regard my second son, who does not speak in words. Until now he has hit all the developmental milestones pretty much right on time--smiled at 1 month, rolled over at 2, sat up at 6 months, crawled at 8, took his first steps the week of his first birthday. But he's 19 months old now, an age at which most toddlers are stringing together two- and three-word sentences, and absolutely the only English word in our youngest child's vocabulary is "hot."
It's true that in terms of single-word vocabularies, "hot" is not a bad way to go--much more useful a singular vocabulary than, say, "flag," which was our first son's first word. Moreover, this child is deeply respectful of his one word, doesn't toss it around indiscriminately, with abandon, as some children do with common first words like "No" or "Mama." "Hot," he says solemnly, pointing to the lighted candles on the dinner table. "Hot," he whispers dramatically, rolling his eyes at us as steam rises from the mashed potatoes on his plate. Then he carefully leans forward and blows on the potatoes to cool them down, testing them with the tip of his finger before beginning to eat.
Despite his virtually nonexistent vocabulary, the kid clearly has no trouble understanding the ways of this world; he is not in need of words to help him sort through the myriad experiences of his every day. He laughs at other people's jokes, pats his weeping brother on the back, appropriately uses a spoon to offer his mother a taste of his own dinner or to request a taste of hers, and throws an unholy fit when the answer to any request is "No." He does all these things without the use of a single word other than "hot."
In fact, he has devised an elaborate sign-system of his own for use in communicating with the rest of his family, who stubbornly insist on using words to make their meaning clear. The chief strategy of his system is to point at an object or in a direction which will lead most quickly to his meaning. If he wants to go outside, he brings his father a warm jacket. "Want to go out and play?" my husband asks, redundantly. Our son nods.
"Outside?" my husband repeats, leaning hard on the vowels. Our son nods.
"Can you say 'outside'?" his father persists. Our son smiles and trots toward the back door, nodding and pointing emphatically. He pursues this line of communication doggedly, undeterred by our efforts to teach him the corollary words involved. If he wants a toy he can't reach, he trots up to the nearest big person and points into the next room, which means, "Follow me." If the toy is inside a closed cabinet, he tugs on the cabinet door and looks meaningfully at the big person. If the big person is particularly obtuse, the little person grabs a big hand and points it emphatically at the closed door. By pointing to individual items in the pantry, he tells us what he wishes to eat. Once it was nothing but canned black olives and mandarin oranges. He is a tenacious little fellow, and he almost always gets his way.
The other day, for example, he changed his mind after first ordering Cheerios for breakfast. My husband had poured him a bowlful and even acquiesced to the insistent pointing at the milk carton, adding a splash of cold milk to a bowl that he knew full well was destined floorward. But when he opened the refrigerator to return the carton of milk, our son caught sight of the gleaming eggs in the open tray on the door and began pointing wildly to the eggs instead.
"No, son, you're having cereal for breakfast," admonished my husband, already late for his shower and no doubt wondering what was taking me so long in there myself. The Amazing Wordless Boy pitched his spoon to the floor and again pointed to the eggs, this time peremptorily, with the added emphasis of a flick of his wrist.
"First eat your Cheerios, honey, and then maybe you can have an egg," sighed my husband as he headed for the guest bathroom. Moments later I came dripping out of our bathroom when I heard our older son screaming at the top of his lungs, "Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom, I think you need to get in here!"
What I found in the kitchen was a bowl of cereal that had hit the floor moments earlier and a slime-covered toddler standing before the other bathroom door. In his hand he was holding the remnants of an egg he had helped himself to, having carried it to the door he had seen his father disappear behind, and having knocked on that door with his egg-holding hand. The white of the egg had slithered down the length of his arm as he reached up to knock; the yolk he held squished between his fingers. "I think he's trying to tell Dad he wants an egg for breakfast," explained our one child who actually speaks English.
What all this nonverbal communication means is that I'm having to rethink my theories about the centrality of language to the human condition. Unlike his basically even-tempered, thoughtful, and extremely verbal brother, our second son is a child of unbridled passions, a boy capable of body-wracking fits of fury, breathless bouts of hilarity, and--even at this tender age--the sweetest displays of cheek-patting affection I have ever seen in a tiny child. Like Tennyson's Ulysses, he drinks life to the lees, and in this task he is seemingly undaunted by the inability to speak in words.
So I finally concede what all my artist friends have been telling me for years: You really don't need to find the right words to make an idea or a feeling real and lasting. My 19-month-old son has taught me what no mathematics or logic instructor, and no painter or photographer, could ever make me admit: Other symbol systems can work just fine for communication, and sometimes the best way to feel is simply to feel--to lie down in the floor and scream with laughter or fury--and not to think in words at all.
Still, I know that when this child finally does learn to talk, when he finally says for the first time, "I love you, Mom," I'm going to get in my car and drive to the state line and buy all the fireworks my bank account can pay for. Then I'm going to launch every one of those bottle rockets and Roman candles straight into the sky in perfect celebration, until the night is so full of light it will seem as though the gods themselves have spoken, as though distant, out-of-reach heaven is finally coming down to pay earth a call.
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