Daily Archives: 5 November 2009

One Child’s Language: at 20 months

Reading is now the rage with Rachel. In one short week, she has nearly memorized Theodore LeSieg’s The Eye Book, one of the “Bright and Early Books for Beginning Beginners,” with a Cat-in-the-Hat trademark. Not that she can actually say all the words, but she knows what to expect from each page and can fill in at least the last word for every line. Of course, a person has to be familiar with her language and the situation in which she is using it to appreciate it because her articulation of consonants still has a long way to go. However, the vowels and the intonation are there. For example “airplanes in the sky” comes out as dayday die. Her other favorite books include Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, with its zillion little pictures to name, and Hand, Hand, Finger, Thumb, which features rhythmical text and monkeys drumming on drums. So she drums on an empty oatmeal box, not quite keeping beat with the text. She especially likes the line “Dum ditty, dum ditty, whack, whack, whack.”

She devised another game for herself involving books this week. From a big chair in our living room, she found out she could reach a stack of pocket books on a high shelf. Her routine is to pull one book off the stack, name the colors on its cover, open it up and “read” the numbers 1-5, lose it and put it down beside her, and then reach for the next one. Sometimes, she will try to put the books back on the shelf, too.

Her vocabulary and the speech sounds she uses change daily. We never know what words she considers manageable enough to try out. Once she tries something, she looks for ways to practice it over and over. She often talks quietly to herself saying things like: Daddy wey, Mama dey (Daddy’s away, Mama’s staying); Daydo ow, Daddy rey, Mama bdu (Rachel’s [toothbrush is] yellow, Daddy’s is red, Mama’s is blue). Her favorite topics of conversation are the color and size of objects and comments on who (mostly her) is doing what.

She loves to be asked silly questions like “Does Rachel have a tail?” and sometimes starts the silly game herself. For example, she will point to her rabbit’s tail asking us to name it, then point to herself and ask uh?, so we get the hint and ask the question. Language seems to be on her mind all the time; she even talks in her sleep. Her dad caught a glimpse of her attempt to communicate recently. As we left our apartment one evening, we met the family next door. They have a two-year old daughter. Rachel was standing face-to-face with the little girl and knew she was in a situation that called for some kind of linguistic interaction. She thought quickly, pointed to her shirt, and said bdu (blue)!

Of course, we are glad that books and language are important to Rachel now, but we are also glad to see her working on physical strength and dexterity. Her climbing has become more routine and confident. She will climb onto a box or chair and proclaim doe-day, which seems to mean something like “look at me.” She has been observing older children who can jump and hop for some time; now she is beginning to see what she must do to make a jump happen, though she can’t quite execute one yet. She likes to stretch and hang from the rings at the park.

We see signs of the stubbornness that accompanies the “twos.” Rachel uses no fairly frequently and often repeats Mama, no! Daddy, no! for no apparent reason. She repeats that latter often enough and reflexively enough that she sometimes gets tongue-tied. When she catches herself saying Mama no! to Daddy, she might try again with Dama no! or Madi mo! We think that we often find positive ways of encouraging her to do or not to do things, but of course, we don’t always succeed, and she gets input from other sources, too. She deliberately tests her limits: Yesterday, I let her throw paper wads and balls and clothes but drew the line at books. She tried it a couple of times but didn’t protest when I put the books out of reach. This morning she tried again, but when I put the books up again, she seemed to say, “Just checking.”

UPDATE: This child is now a 24-year-old teacher in the Boston Public Schools.

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One Child’s Language: at 19 months

Rachel has turned into a real neatnik these days. She not only informs us immediately when she has a “dudu” diaper, she also stops whatever else she is doing to close an open door, to push in a protruding drawer, to put down the toilet lid, or to clear the sidewalk of little twigs and gravel. She also shows a lot more initiative in trying to bring other aspects of her environment under control. She likes to choose one outfit over another when it’s time to dress. She starts fetching shoes and saying waw’ when she’s ready to go out. She heads for Uncle Barry’s car and says rye when she spots the car in our slot as she comes out the elevator. She’d rather push her stroller than ride in it when she’s feeling energetic.

One evening, she pushed the stroller almost all the way home (about 10 blocks) from the Italian ice cream shop we walked to. She tested every metal cover embedded in the sidewalk to see if it made any noise. If it didn’t, she would say no-o-o and move on. If it did, she would try stomping on it again several times. She also labelled every down-and-up driveway slope we passed over, with a down and an uh. (She also uses down and uh for upside down and rightside up, respectively.)

You may have guessed that language has begun to come thick and fast. We had thought that this might be the last complete listing of the words Rachel can produce, but she has already gotten ahead of us. She surprises us with at least one new word every day. She has even begun to talk in her sleep a bit. We’ll have to be content to list some of her favorites.

She can count to five, but tends to start with two unless you remind her. She likes the symmetry of tu, ti, tow, tai. She has the primary colors pretty well under control. Her favorite is doo (blue), followed by rey (red), oh (yellow), and dee (green). She has all of our names down pat: mama, dadi, and daydo. Her nasals, m and n, actually started when she named the nama (llama) that she petted at the zoo one day. Within a day or two, she started to rave about her mama, about checking the mayno (mail), about her nano (Anno’s Journey) book, and about things that aren’t true or don’t exist (no-o-o). So far, her use of no-o-o (it doesn’t exist) far outweighs her use of no-no-no (this is off-limits). That pleases us.

Some words are far enough beyond the frontiers of her pronunciation that she relies on sign language. Her word turn is signed by rotating her wrist and fingers. She uses that sign for revolve, twist, roll, turn over, turn around, turn a corner. When she’s feeling talkative, she signs turn and says wheel whenever any wheeled vehicle strikes her fancy. Open is signed with an open hand, close with a clenched fist. She will signal close before she closes doors, pushes in drawers, and restores seatbacks and tray tables to their upright position. She signs flash and squeak by repeatedly opening and closing her hand.

Rachel has also mastered several pairs of antonyms. One of her most charming pairs is wow (big) vs. wee (small). (Wee she picked up from her Three Bears book, wow probably from our comments about large spoonfuls on their way to her mouth.) She delights in comparing things wow and wee. Another pair, we’ and dwy, get pretty regular use at diaper-changing time. One pair consists of a spoken awake (wey’) and a signed asleep (the sh sign, but with forefinger across her forehead instead of her lips).

One time when she was playing in her crib, she composed a small compare-and-contrast sentence about two little stuffed gingerbread men. It is herewith quoted in full, with accompanying interpretation and commentary provided by a member of the rapt audience of one: rey wey’, oh sh [the last word was signed, not spoken]. The red gingerbread man was face up, the yellow one face down. (She puts her things to sleep by laying them face down.) Not quite “Give me liberty or give me death,” but a memorable utterance in its own time and place, nevertheless.

UPDATE: This child is now a 24-year-old teacher in the Boston Public Schools.

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Salonica’s Heterodox Modernizers

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 74-76:

The Ottoman authorities clearly regarded their [Ma’min] heterodoxy with some suspicion and as late as 1905 treated a case of a Ma’min girl who had fallen in love with her Muslim tutor, Hadji Feyzullah Effendi, as a question of conversion. Yet with their usual indifference to inner belief, they left them alone. A pasha who proposed to put them all to death was, according to local myth, removed by God before he could realize his plan. In 1859, at a time when the Ottoman authorities were starting to worry more about religious orthodoxy, a governor of the city carried out an enquiry which concluded they posed no threat to public order. All he did was to prevent rabbis from instructing them any longer. A later investigation confirmed their prosperity and honesty and after 1875 such official monitoring lapsed. Ma’min spearheaded the expansion of Muslim—including women’s—schooling in the city, and were prominent in its commercial and intellectual life. Merchant dynasties like the fez-makers, the Kapandjis, accumulated huge fortunes, built villas in the European style by the sea and entered the municipal administration. Others were in humbler trades—barbers, coppersmiths, town-criers and butchers.

Gradually—as with the Marranos of Portugal, from whom many were descended—their connection with their ancestral religion faded. High-class Ma’min married into mainstream Muslim society, though most resided in central quarters, between the Muslim neighbourhoods of the Upper Town and the Jewish quarters below, streets where often the two religions lived side by side. “They will be converted purely and simply into Muslims,” predicted one scholar in 1897. But like many of Salonica’s Muslims at this time, the Ma’min also embraced European learning, and identified themselves with secular knowledge, political radicalism and freemasonry. By a strange twist of fate it was thus the Muslim followers of a Jewish messiah who helped turn late-nineteenth-century Salonica into the most liberal, progressive and revolutionary city in the empire.

The juxtaposition of old and new outlooks in a fin-de-siècle Ma’min household is vividly evoked in the memoirs of Ahmed Emin Yalman. His father, Osman Tewfik Bey, was a civil servant and a teacher of calligraphy. Living in the house with him and his parents were his uncle and aunt, his seven siblings, two orphaned cousins and at least five servants. “The strife between the old and the new was ever present in our house,” he recollects. His uncle was of the old school: a devout man, he prayed five times a day, abhorred alcohol, and disliked travel or innovation. For some reason, he refused to wear white shirts; “a coloured shirt with attached collar was, for him, the extreme limit of westernization in dress to which he felt that one could go without falling into conflict with religion … He objected to the theatre, music, drinking, card playing, and photography—all new inventions which he considered part of Satan’s world.” Yalman’s father, on the other hand—Osman Tewfik Bey—was “a progressive, perhaps even a revolutionary,” who wore “the highest possible white collars,” beautiful cravats and stylish shoes in the latest fashion, loved poetry, theatre and anything that was new, taking his children on long trips and photographing them with enthusiasm. He adorned his rooms with their pictures and prayed but rarely.

Esin Eden’s memoir of the following generation shows Europeanization taken even further. Hers was a well-to-do family of tobacco merchants which combined a strong consciousness of its Jewish ancestry with pride in its contemporary achievements as part of a special Muslim community, umbilically linked to Salonica itself. The women were all highly educated—one was even a teacher at the famous new Terakki lycée—sociable, energetic and articulate. They smoked lemon-scented cigarettes in the garden of their modern villa by the sea, played cards endlessly and kept their eyes on the latest European fashions. Their servants were Greek, their furnishings French and German, and their cuisine a mix of “traditionally high Ottoman cuisine as well as traditional Sephardic cooking,” though with no concern for the dietary laws of Judaism.

When the Young Turk revolt broke out in Salonica in 1908, Ma’min economics professors, newspaper men, businessmen and lawyers were among the leading activists and there were three Ma’min ministers in the first Young Turk government. Indeed conspiracy theorists saw the Ma’min everywhere and assumed any Muslim from Salonica must be one. Today some people even argue that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk must have been a Ma’min (there is no evidence for this), and see the destruction of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the secular republic of Turkey as their handiwork—the final revenge, as it were, of Sabbatai Zevi, and the unexpected fulfilment of his dreams. In fact, many of the Ma’min themselves had mixed feelings at what was happening in nationalist Turkey: some were Kemalists, others opposed him. In 1923, however, they were all counted as Muslims in the compulsory exchange of populations and packed off to Istanbul, where a small but distinguished community of businessmen, newspaper magnates, industrialists and diplomats has since flourished. As the writer John Freely tells us, their cemetery, in the Valley of the Nightingales above Üsküdar, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, is still known as the Selanikliler Mezarligi—the Cemetery of Those from Salonica.

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